Design by Andrew J. Nilsen
You can first tell Johnny Jackson is around by the shopping carts. A path of them leads into Westside Courts, the public housing project in the Western Addition in disrepair and set for eventual demolition. One is overturned beside the fenced-in basketball court. Another, with two brooms sticking from its top, rests on the driveway leading to a central parking lot ringed by the three-story complex. The place has the air of a dreary 1950s motel.
In 2009, the former property manager told Jackson to get his carts off the property. Jackson refused, and that's where his troubles began.
Jackson, 62, calls himself "the Mayor of Westside," yet a better title would be all-purpose handyman for the derelict building and its worn-down inhabitants, a few of whom have lived there for nearly five decades. A chorus of "Johnn-y!" erupts from people coming outside and needing work done. "Johnny can do anything," one boy sums up. Jackson finds gas leaks. He washes cars and cleans mold off walls. He drives grannies to get groceries. In the middle of the night, he once shimmied his small, sinewy frame down the garbage chute, Santa-style, to get into the locked garbage room to turn the power back on. No task is too dirty — he'll clean the sewage that backs up in the community room — or too dangerous. When a grandma caught on fire from her stove and ran out of her unit screaming a couple of months back, "he put me out," she says. Jackson will accept a tip if you're offering, but he doesn't pressure.
Jackson first showed up at Westside Courts after his sister moved there in the 1960s, though he's never been on a lease. He'll crash at various residents' units about three times a week or sleep on the streets with his wife, Angela.
One other thing: He has a crack problem. "I won't lie, I do," he says. He's been arrested once with a pipe, at least once for possession, and once for sales (he claims he's no dealer, and a former property manager who has a pretty good handle on who was doing what also says he's no drug runner).
One day in August 2009, Jackson was served with a court summons: The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) was trying to get an injunction to keep him off not just Westside Courts, but all 53 public housing properties in the city. "It says I'm a menace to the neighborhood," he says, sounding offended. "I help. I don't hurt nobody."
The Housing Authority's actual phrasing was "public nuisance." The summons cited his crack arrests, one trespassing arrest, and another time he allegedly broke a window. (Jackson says that may have happened in an argument with another squatter who stole a bag of his clothes and pepper-sprayed him.)
Another type of ban, gang injunctions, has become notorious in San Francisco. The city attorney started filing them in 2007, garnering intense media and public scrutiny for barring alleged gang members from associating with each other or loitering in specific zones.
Yet during the same time, the SFHA — an independent agency funded mostly with federal money — started a wide-ranging ban of its own with hardly anyone noticing. Starting in 2007, the agency began quietly serving dozens of public nuisance injunctions on nontenants who hung out on its properties. These "nuisances" were barred from coming within 150 feet of any Housing Authority property, under the threat of a one-year jail sentence for violating a court order. Housing rights activists say this is among the strictest bans they've seen in the entire country.
Granted, Jackson is on the upstanding end of the people pinned with injunctions — others are accused of robberies, drug sales, gun possessions, and even shootings. Even so, this May, after a fight from the public defender's office and civil rights advocates, a San Francisco judge declared the injunctions against seven people — Jackson included — unconstitutionally broad. The bans still sit on the books for nearly 80 other people, and police say they don't know whether the bans are still being enforced on the others.
The first Jackson heard about the judge's decision was when a police officer drove up to him nearly a month afterward: "He said I beat my case," he recalls. "But he said they're going to refile on me."
In the battle for who has rights to be on its property, the Housing Authority hasn't surrendered yet.
Jackson's injunction was likely set in motion by a decision then-Westside property manager Cerealraye Barker now regrets. In 2009, she came in with a mission to fix up the blighted complex. With the SFHA maintenance crews focused on larger properties, Jackson became her go-to guy for timely repairs. "Johnny's like MacGyver," she says. He'd kill roaches, and measure and replace missing gutters. She had him clean up the place for the federal inspectors after the complex had twice failed its review. (Jackson cleaned; the building passed.)
Still, Barker didn't like Jackson's carts. Along with telling residents they could no longer store bikes on the roof or throw diapers out the window, she demanded that he roll those "doggone carts" off the property. "I done cursed Johnny out," she says, laughing about it. "He drove me bats with that." After he refused to move them (he says he won't take government assistance, and recycling is a reliable meal ticket), she told the Housing Authority she wanted to ban him.
Barker later changed her mind after talking with Jackson: "He felt he paid his way to bring those carts." She told the Housing Authority's attorney she didn't want to move forward with the injunction — she did continue with two others for people "who were causing a lot of drama" — but apparently the Housing Authority proceeded anyway, getting a declaration from the property manager who succeeded her.
For all Barker's regrets, Jackson suspects the injunction is partly retaliation from a certain cop who has been asking him for years to snitch on who has drugs or weapons at Westside. Jackson refuses. "It's like betraying my own kids," he says. "He said if I can't help him, I shouldn't be around." Police officers who patrol public housing identify troublemakers to the SFHA, SFPD Cmdr. Mikail Ali says, and it often follows up with evictions for tenants or injunctions for nontenants. (SF Weekly was unable to contact the officer Jackson claims said this.)