2016 Third Place Writing Winner

Erin McCarthy

Third Place
Pennsylvania State University
$3,000 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

OAKLAND — Heading into Tuesday’s California primary, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf discussed both presumptive presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, at a press conference Wednesday at Oakland City Hall.

The half-hour session provided Schaaf with an opportunity to publicly reflect on the past month, during which she went head-to-head with Trump and chatted with Clinton over breakfast. Both interactions placed Oakland in the national spotlight.

On May 18, Schaaf fired back at Trump after he told the New York Times that Oakland was one of the most dangerous places he had ever visited and suggested its crime rates made the East Bay city more unsafe than Iraq. In response, Schaaf tweeted: “Let me be clear, regarding @nytimes story, the most dangerous place in America is Donald Trump’s mouth.”

Schaaf laughed as she recalled that whirlwind of a day and said she did not expect those 140 characters to have the impact they did.

The day the Times article was published, Schaaf was attending a seminar at Harvard University. During a coffee break, she got a call from Matt Nichols, her policy director for infrastructure and transportation. Nichols wanted to know if Schaaf had read Trump’s comments in the article. He quickly sent her a link and asked how she wanted to respond.

“I said, ‘I have to think about this for a minute. I’ll get right back to you,’ ” Schaaf said. “And he is like,‘The last mayor [Jean Quan] would have just said something.’ I said, ‘That is why she wasn’t reelected.’ ”

Schaaf said she suggested the response: “Not as dangerous as a Donald Trump presidency.”

But when another staffer suggested the “Donald Trump’s mouth” comment, Schaaf was immediately on board.

“That was the one sentence reply and I didn’t think much of it,” she said. “I’m sitting in the Boston airport ready to catch my flight home and the staffer I was traveling with said, ‘Mayor, your tweet is on CNN.’ … That was pretty funny.”

Clearly not a Trump fan, Schaaf has avidly supported Clinton, tweeting praise and last week welcoming the Democrat to Oakland with open arms. The two women sat together at the Home of Chicken and Waffles on Friday as Clinton held a breakfast roundtable in advance of the primary.

On Wednesday, Schaaf again said she supported Clinton but acknowledged she understands why some don’t view her favorably.

“When I look at Hillary Clinton, I’m reminded of all the qualities that are expected of a candidate versus an executive. They’re very different qualities,” Schaaf said. “I see in Hillary Clinton all the qualities that I believe will make her a great executive but I think are causing her struggles on the campaign trail.”

“The affability, the warmness, the ‘I want to sit down and have a beer with this person,’ ” Schaaf added. “That’s what people seem to be looking for in their candidate, but those qualities don’t always make a good executive.”

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OAKLAND — Matt McGloin sees the rumors on Twitter. He hears the speculation that his Oakland Raiders will leave the Bay Area for Las Vegas, but he tunes out that noise, ignoring the murky business side of football. Most of his teammates do too, he said, and it’s certainly not something talked about in the locker room.

The quarterback loves Oakland, its people and its weather. He loves the sights of fans, clad head to toe in black and silver, filling the Coliseum every autumn Sunday.

“For the most part, the community supports us,” McGloin said. “It’s a great place to play.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf thinks so, too.

While Raiders owner Mark Davis has promised to contribute $500 million to a potential Las Vegas stadium, Schaaf has pushed back.

Schaaf’s director of communications Erica Terry Derryck and other members of the mayor’s staff talked openly Wednesday about their disdain for Davis’ desires to move the franchise elsewhere.

Derryck said “the tides are changing,” turning away from the era of cities subsiding sports teams, despite the fact that an estimated $4.76 billion of taxpayer money were spent on new NFL stadiums between 1997 and 2012, according to a Conventions, Sports and Leisure analysis.

The staffers’ conversation reflected the hard line that Schaaf has taken on the controversy, refusing to hand over control of the Coliseum to the Raiders or the A’s, the MLB team with which they share the site, or spend tax dollars to aid the franchise owners in building new venues.

When it comes to negotiating, Schaaf doesn’t yield. She has no problem speaking her mind and is bothered by those who fail to acknowledge this tenacity.

“Why everyone feels that it is fun to recall that I was the head cheerleader at my high school also feels very gender-specific,” she said. California governor and former Oakland Mayor “Jerry Brown was a cheerleader at Cal-Berkeley but nobody seems to bring that up when they talk about him.”

She called herself something else: “No bullshit.”

She has proven as much in bargaining with the Raiders and A’s, as well as in her viral Twitter takedown of presidential nominee Donald Trump and her day-to-day workings around the city.

“Having a lifelong love affair with my city is one of the things that keeps me very grounded as the mayor,” Schaaf said. “Like many Oaklanders I take tremendous pride in what I see as my identity as an Oaklander, and part of that is being a little tougher than the average person.”

She has much to be proud of about her tenure thus far. Crime rates are down, business is improving, and Oakland is becoming reenergized.

Hard-nosed, Schaaf tackles issues head-on with intestinal fortitude beyond her 50 years. About two weeks into her term as mayor, on Martin Luther King Day, she woke up at 5 a.m. to demonstrators shouting into loudspeakers outside her Upper Dimond home. The activists, who turned out to be peaceful, were unhappy that Schaaf spent her first day as mayor with the police department and urged her to take police brutality seriously.

“It was quite a shock when the ultimate stress of my job actually came to my house in the middle of the night,” Schaaf said. “And your first instinct is as a mother, ‘Oh my god, someone is going to attack my children.’ And I would be lying if I would say that wasn’t a very fearful moment.”

On the outside, Schaaf acknowledges that she does not exactly personify the Oakland population. She is, after all, a white, law-school graduate, representing a city about 35 percent white and 38 percent college-educated, according to the most recent census data.

In reality, though, Schaaf is an authentic Oaklander. She credits her knack for public service to the hours she spent volunteering in the city with her mother, Barbara, when she was a child.

However, critics have had qualms with the fact that Schaaf is a native of the wealthier Oakland Hills neighborhood.

“It’s always an issue,” Schaaf said. “Whenever I say I grew up in Oakland, people always ask ‘What part?’ ”

Antwan Wilson, the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, said Schaaf has overcome the outward differences that exist between her and many of her constituents. He attributed that to her inner Oakland toughness, combined with empathy and optimism.

He saw those qualities firsthand on Tuesday as he and Schaaf walked the halls of McClymonds High School. The visit was unannounced, and Wilson said Schaaf actually invited herself.

She observed ninth and 10th grade classes, and not just from the back of the classroom. She actually sat down with the students and talked to them about their concerns and her goals for them, Wilson said.

“What mayor takes time of their day to meet with her superintendent?” Wilson said. “That doesn’t happen in most districts.”

Since Oakland has an elected school board, Schaaf does not even have official authority over the schools. Wilson said he believes she visits the schools so often purely because she cares.

“I think to use a cheerleader as a lead to describe her, I don’t agree with that,” Wilson said. “She finds optimism because that is what she is supposed to do. She’s not naive. She understands we can’t lead from fear.”

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SAN FRANCISCO — Every Tuesday, Robert Garcias waits in line for a haircut. At 65, he doesn’t always need one, but those 10 minutes refresh him. This week, a smile spread across his face as he leaned back in the barber’s chair, a makeshift one plopped in the middle of the sidewalk on Fulton Street.

The majestic dome of San Francisco City Hall towered behind him. Down the street sat a woman with a heroin needle in her arm. A young girl approached another man standing in the haircut line and dangled a gold necklace in his face, asking if he would buy it “for crack.”

Garcias said he never thought he would end up on the street so late in life. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1980 and tried to make a life for himself. “A series of unfortunate circumstances” got in the way, he said.

It was two years ago that unemployment, post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery from alcoholism drove him from his Des Moines, Iowa home and onto a train to San Francisco, which he had heard was a homeless-friendly city with an abundance of social services.

“I did a short stint in ‘Nam,” Garcias said. “Then I didn’t seem to be able to hold a job. PTSD got in the way.”

Garcias is among a growing population of homeless people over the age of 50. Nationwide, that group makes up 31 percent of the homeless population, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In San Francisco, about 30 percent of its 2015 homeless population was estimated to be 51 and older, compared to just 17 percent a year earlier, according to the latest San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey.

Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, conducted a study following 350 homeless people between the ages of 50 and 80 in nearby Oakland, California.

As part of the study, Kushel said she wanted to find out: “Are these the same people who just got older on the street or are they new people becoming homeless?”

She found that 43 percent of these people had never been homeless before they were 50.

People born between 1955 and 1964 have had elevated risks of being homeless their whole lives, Kushel said. Those who became homeless later in life were often the working poor, who had held various low-paying, manual-labor jobs.

In the study, Kushel and her colleagues found that oftentimes a confluence of factors, including illness, injury, or a traumatic life event, caused these people to be unable to hold those labor-intensive jobs anymore. Then they ended up on the streets or in shelters.

Once homeless, the lifestyle speeds the aging process even more, Kushel found.

The homeless population between the ages of 50 and 64 “had health problems that looked more like people in their 70s,” Kushel said.

“Living on the street takes its toll,” Ann Tusnzyski said. “The biological age does not match.”

Tusnzyski works as the clinical program director for the Curry Senior Center, one of few San Francisco senior centers that work with the homeless.

Anecdotally, Tusnzyski said she has seen an uptick in homeless people over the age of 65. She said she believes the rising cost of living and lack of affordable housing stock are the cause.

On the street, she said, seniors are far more susceptible to infections and often exhibit a problem that she said “presents like dementia” but may just be severe depression.

The senior homeless population typically exhibits the same health problems many older Americans suffer from, Kushel said, but just earlier in life. Those include diabetes and cancer, as well as cognitive impairment and incontinence.

Hector Lefebre, 67, said he can’t even go to the bathroom in peace. Wrinkled hands shoved into the pockets of his long green coat, the Puerto Rico native sat under a cypress tree in Golden Gate Park, where he sleeps most nights.

Most people his age take for granted simple things such as the use of a shower or toilet, he said.

“For us, it’s a whole process,” Lefebre said. “Where can I leave my stuff for five minutes?”

“I walk into any place with my bags and I already feel unwelcome,” he added, motioning to the two bundled green and red sleeping bags at his feet, belongings he calls “social liabilities.”

Like many homeless in this demographic, Lefebre served in the Vietnam War. When asked if the Department of Veterans Affairs has helped him, he laughed.

“You’re being funny, right?” Lefebre said. “They’re not doing much. It’s just a quagmire of paperwork.”

Quagmire is one of Lefebre’s favorite words. He loves words and is constantly reading, looking for new ones to learn.

The San Juan, Puerto Rico native has been homeless since he was 54. After he came back from Vietnam, he was restless at home on the island. At that time, he said his mother described him as “a caged tiger.”

He eventually returned to San Francisco, where he had disembarked for Vietnam back in the 60s. For decades, he worked odd jobs, cleaning houses and helping people move up and down the California coast.

At a certain point, the jobs stopped coming or became too difficult for him to do. That’s how he ended up under the cypress tree at Golden Gate Park.

Lefebre is mostly on his own, he said. His parents have since died and he is too proud to ask for the help of his surviving brothers and sister.

There were times Lefebre struggled to make ends meet in his younger years. There were occasional periods of couch-surfing and sleeping under freeways.

But nothing like this.

“This is the long one,” Lefebre said. “The one that counts.”

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