She failed to save her daughter from fentanyl’s grip. A year later, her daughter and S.F. remain stuck

Laurie Steves (right) hugs her daughter Jessica Didia, 35, who is homeless and struggles with drug addiction, outside of her tent on Seventh Street in San Francisco.

Laurie Steves (right) hugs her daughter Jessica Didia, 35, who is homeless and struggles with drug addiction, outside of her tent on Seventh Street in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Dealers clustered at Seventh and Mission streets, openly selling drugs. At their feet, people smoked fentanyl off tinfoil while others nodded off. Tents dotted the sidewalks. Piles of food scraps, trash and feces filled the gutter. Pedestrians, including a woman pushing a baby in a stroller, nearly swerved into traffic on Seventh Street to get past.

Laurie Steves, 57, stood amid the commerce and the chaos, waiting.

Her daughter, 35-year-old Jessica Didia, whose addiction to opioids has shattered her life, lives at the corner in a large gray Coleman tent placed under the awning of the shuttered Good Hotel. The hotel’s website still brags that its location “brings the best of the city to your doorstep,” but if that was ever the case, it sure isn’t now.

Laurie, a nursing home cook outside Seattle, had flown to San Francisco the day before — Jan. 2 — after learning Jessica had been hospitalized for a disorder that caused recurring seizures, just as a fierce storm was barreling down on the city. She wanted to get her daughter inside.

But she knew her mission was a long shot. She needed to go step by step. First, she’d settle for taking her daughter for a walk.

Laurie Steves watches as her daughter Jessica Didia looks through drug paraphernalia in Victoria Manalo Draves Park in the South of Market.

Laurie Steves watches as her daughter Jessica Didia looks through drug paraphernalia in Victoria Manalo Draves Park in the South of Market.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

“Come on, Jess!” she kept hollering through the zipped-up tent. Jessica would yell back that she was getting ready. But then she’d shout that she couldn’t find her shoes or her pipe. We kept waiting.

Laurie and Jessica appeared in this column a year ago as the city’s fentanyl epidemic exploded. The story of a mom’s desperate, failed attempt to rescue her daughter from homelessness and addiction to a drug now ravaging the country resonated with San Franciscans. Readers shared their frustration that the city seemed so ill-equipped to help people like Jessica even as their lives unravel in full view.

Laurie had moved to San Francisco in spring 2021, determined to save her daughter after losing her 25-year-old son, Zachary, to an overdose. But the three-month attempt fell short. Laurie couldn’t make it in wildly expensive San Francisco, and Jessica made it clear she wanted no help. They spent much of their time together arguing, and Laurie left, dejected. A brief visit in November 2021 proved no more fruitful.

Fourteen months later, we connected again, and I found myself entertaining fresh hope that something would change. But nothing has improved — for Laurie, for Jessica and for San Francisco itself.

Jessica’s day-to-day life on the edge — exposed not only in this column but in frequent videos posted to Twitter by business owner Adam Mesnick, who has sought to help her — exemplifies so many of the city’s problems and tensions: the overdose crisis, the pull of fentanyl, the legal battle over tent encampments, the plight of a pandemic-battered downtown and city leadership seemingly unable to make headway on any of it.

While Laurie and Jessica’s lives remain stuck, San Francisco over the past 14 months has been volatile. Just after the first column ran, Mayor London Breed announced that “the bullshit that has destroyed our city” was about to end and declared an emergency in the Tenderloin. But she failed to quickly and meaningfully improve police staffing in the neighborhood, and the emergency order ended. The streets remain chaotic, especially at night, so much so that neighborhood merchants have demanded that San Francisco pay back their 2022 taxes.

Breed opened the Tenderloin Center in United Nations Plaza, billing it as a place for people like Jessica to access the help they need. She didn’t advertise that it included a makeshift overdose-prevention site where people could smoke fentanyl under supervision on the patio. In early December, Breed closed the center, and she hasn’t replaced it with the real, clinical supervised-consumption site she promised.

The mayor has opened more permanent supportive housing and treatment slots, but the system remains byzantine and hard to access. Outraged voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin in June, partly over what they saw as his disinterest in addressing fentanyl markets, and new District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has had only minimal success jailing dealers.

The biggest change for Laurie and Jessica over the past year was a heartbreaking one: On April 12, Jessica’s boyfriend, Abdul “Dula” Cole, died of a drug overdose. The 2022 tally of city drug deaths isn’t out yet, but will probably approach 600, bringing the three-year total to nearly 2,000 — more than COVID-19, homicides and traffic crashes combined.

Dula grew up in San Francisco, graduated from McAteer High and was drafted by the Florida Marlins to play outfield. But that early promise turned to tragedy, and he died alone in his room in a single-room-occupancy hotel on Eddy Street, his body found by his case manager days later. He was 46.

I talked to Jessica about Dula’s death in the spring at the Deli Board, the South of Market sandwich shop she visits regularly to chat with her pal, Mesnick. He gives her soda, pickles, chips and cash. She lets him record videos of her talking about her life and posts them on his controversial account, @bettersoma . Critics call the videos insensitive and exploitative; Mesnick says he’s forcing people to see the city’s street misery up close so they will pressure the city to intervene.

Jessica is a charismatic, spunky, witty woman who competed in beauty pageants as a girl and was a cheerleader in school. That day at the deli, she wore pink cat-eye glasses and purple leggings, but the color had drained from her face. She said she was aimless without her boyfriend, who had provided her an on-and-off place to sleep, depending on whether the desk clerk would allow it, as well as physical protection on the streets and emotional support.

“It’s been terrible,” she told me. “I lost everything all at once. I just keep waiting for him to ride up on his scooter. I turn, thinking it’s him, and it’s not.”

She didn’t lean on her mom for support in her grief, only talking to Laurie a few times in 2022 when Adam persuaded her to use his phone to check in. Meanwhile, Laurie thought constantly of her daughter.

“Every day,” she said. “Just showering or brushing my teeth, I think, ‘How long has it been since she did this?’ When I fix food I know she would like, I think, ‘I wish I could bring her a plate of this.’”

In December, more than a year after she’d last seen her daughter, Laurie received a phone call from Adam. Jessica had landed at a local hospital after suffering from seizures. Laurie planned to fly down immediately, but developed cold symptoms and tested positive for the coronavirus.

By the time she tested negative, Jessica had been discharged from the hospital with a taxi voucher to a shelter she didn’t use, a referral to a methadone clinic she didn’t visit and anti-seizure medications she didn’t take. Instead, she went straight back to the tent at Seventh and Mission where she stays with a friend.

Laurie arrived in the city on Jan. 2 and, with Adam’s guidance, quickly found Jessica’s tent. It sits at what was once a pleasant corner dotted with small businesses, many of which have closed down. The Good Hotel became a shelter-in-place hotel during the pandemic, a program that surely helped save lives but one that didn’t include enough effort to prevent dealers from taking over the sidewalk outside. It’s now vacant.

Jessica Didia smokes a mixture of fentanyl and crack as her mother gets drinks at a coffee shop on Seventh Street.

Jessica Didia smokes a mixture of fentanyl and crack as her mother gets drinks at a coffee shop on Seventh Street.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Laurie and Jessica chatted in the tent for a while, and Laurie promised to visit again the next morning. The next day, after waiting a long time for Jessica to emerge from the tent, Laurie told her she’d come back in half an hour and try again. When we went back, she wasn’t there.

Laurie walked around SoMa looking for Jessica, even checking the aisles at Target where Jessica freely acknowledges she shoplifts items to sell for fentanyl money. Laurie said she sometimes hopes Jessica will get arrested stealing more than $950 worth of goods, enough to count as a felony, and be forced to detox in jail.

On our walk, we spotted banners affixed to light poles promoting the city with a slogan, “San Francisco: Ahead of the Curve.”

“Yeah, right,” Laurie scoffed. “I’m not seeing the compassion in action. I’m not seeing the millions of dollars they have for homelessness services. I’m disgusted by what I see in San Francisco, I really am.”

We headed to the Deli Board and sat out front until Jessica appeared on the back of a scooter driven by her friend, Paris Vines. She was unsteady on her feet and said she felt terrible. She wore a clear, plastic first-aid box tied around her neck with foil and cigarettes inside.

We all headed to a park across the street. Paris tried to persuade Jessica to go with him to a drop-in center where she could get referred to services and shelter. After a decade of homelessness in the Tenderloin, he said he recently got a spot at the Embarcadero Navigation Center and loves it. He said it’s great watching people jog, go to work and live happy lives.

“The Tenderloin compared to other parts of the city is like a horror story,” he said. “It’s an underworld.”

Jessica didn’t seem interested. Laurie suggested they go back to her hotel to watch movies. Or get a cup of coffee. Jessica didn’t seem interested in that, either.

“We need to get you in a program,” Laurie told her. “Things could be good, Jess.”

“No!” Jessica shot back.

“You know you’re going to die out here?” her mom asked her.

“So?” Jessica responded. “I’m going to die one day anyway. Who isn’t? I’ve been dead over 100 f—ing times, and I’m still here.”

She was referring to overdosing and being brought back with Narcan.

“You could be warm at night. You could be dry,” Laurie said. “You could have a home and have a job and have a life.”

“Because you say these words, it can happen?” Jessica asked her. “You can’t make me want it to happen.”

Jessica walked away, telling her mom to leave her alone.

Laurie went to her hotel for a nap, but bolted awake at 3:30 a.m. as the storm grew closer. She walked to Jessica’s tent in the darkness and offered to arrange a hotel room for her and her tentmate to get out of the rain. But then she couldn’t find a place with vacancies that she could afford.

Jessica Didia walks outside of Victoria Manalo Draves Park, where a man is passed out.

Jessica Didia walks outside of Victoria Manalo Draves Park, where a man is passed out.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

The next day, Laurie went back to the tent and suggested Jessica join her at her hotel or go to a shelter, but Jessica didn’t want to go anywhere without her tentmate. Laurie said Jessica yelled and swore at her, accusing her of lying that she’d buy the pair their own room.

“I wasn’t going to sit there and listen to it,” Laurie said. “I just walked away.”

Laurie didn’t see her again before flying home the next day, having failed once again.

To be sure, there are no easy answers.

Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents SoMa, said he’s met Jessica at the Deli Board and that her case points to the need for the city to do more to end open-air drug scenes, mandate treatment for those who are too gravely disabled to care for themselves and incentivize treatment for others by giving people cash payments to get sober. He’s also optimistic about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Care Court plan to compel more people into treatment.

“There’s no single answer for everybody,” Dorsey said. “But there are a lot of reasons for hope and optimism, and we need to do the best we can on a lot of different strategies and keep trying new things.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which sued the city over its tent sweeps and succeeded in getting an injunction against them, said Jessica’s case is an extreme one, and that most people do accept shelter if an appropriate placement is offered. She also said the city’s system revolves around emergencies — like Jessica’s hospitalization — rather than providing long-term, consistent care.

“Ideally, she would have a trusting relationship with a service provider and an intensive case manager working closely with her to find a solution,” Friedenbach said.

To Adam, Jessica’s homelessness isn’t the main issue. It’s her fentanyl addiction. He wants to see a much bigger crackdown on dealers and more treatment for users.

“I don’t know how you can ask somebody in a tent if they want services when they’re smoking fentanyl,” he said. “Really, she’s being eaten alive by fentanyl. The city is very good at hurting people.”

Laurie said she’s not giving up. She said that if Jessica is hospitalized again, she’ll fly down immediately and catch her before she’s discharged, offering her a prearranged slot at a detox center. That’s the plan, anyway.

“I love her,” she said. “I love how smart and creative she is. And talented. I want all these things to come out again. I want to see her be her.”

And so she continues to wait.

Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: Twitter: @hknightsf