Caprice Curry

Caprice Darnell Curry was stabbed to death on Turk Street in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, California on January 17, 2009. He was only 31 years old.

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, CA) - January 22, 2009

Tragedy in the Tenderloin

It seemed everyone in the Tenderloin knew where Caprice Darnell Curry was headed. Last week that's where she ended up - assaulted, stabbed, dead on the street.

What the neighbors can't shake is the gloomy feeling that her death could have been prevented. They knew that Curry, a 31-year-old man who presented himself as a flamboyant, flirtatious woman, had serious psychological problems. They knew she was in danger. Yet when she was taking her meds, Curry could also be charming, caring and likable.

Most of all, they knew that she had the potential to be saved. We talk a lot about people falling through the cracks of the city's support system. It isn't often that we get to actually watch it happen. It is ridiculous that this continues. It's easy to say the problem is the number of severely mentally ill or drug-addicted people in the city. The bigger picture is that the city has failed to find a way to deal with two fundamental problems.

First, there is no mechanism to compel those with psychological problems or drug addiction to seek help. And second, concentrating those with the very worst problems in the Tenderloin - a center for drug sales and violence, and where there is the city's highest concentration of parolees - is disastrous.

In this case, Curry was arrested several times, given medications and encouraged to go to counseling. Yet at the end of the day, she was turned back onto the Tenderloin streets and left to succumb to her tendencies to get herself into drugs and danger.

Eshana Singh is a mental health services program director. She counseled Curry at the Lyric Hotel, a residence for people with both mental health and substance abuse problems. "If I could have waved a magic wand, it would make her take her medications, to be the incredible person she could be," Singh said. But there is no magic wand. Does that mean friends have to stand by and watch a slow-motion train wreck?
"We talked about this many times," said David Villa-Lobos, a 28-year Tenderloin resident and executive director of the Community Leadership Alliance. "As many times as this young man went to court, nothing was done. The cops are trying to do their job, but something breaks down in the courts. The poor guy needed some help. He needed some supervision."

Instead, Curry got court dates, warnings and invitations to counseling. Unless the patient is deeply, dangerously disturbed, that's all that can be done. "The basic problem is that no one can be forced into treatment," said Dr. Bob Cabaj, director of San Francisco Behavioral Health Services. "If someone is deemed not to be gravely disabled, they would be encouraged to follow through (with counseling), but if they don't want to, they don't have to."

There is an alternative. Many of those who work in the system wish they could be empowered as "conservators" for those who are in psychological need. With that authority, health workers could require patients to take their medications and undergo treatment. "If I could do anything, I would ask to have a stronger ability to use conservatorship when it is appropriate," Cabaj said. "To have someone's case overseen by someone who cares."

Or we can have the alternative - the short, sad life of Caprice Curry. She was certainly no shrinking violet. "She strutted around like a model," Singh said. "She was more of a woman than I was. She was very flamboyant and very flirtatious. She flirted with everybody." But when she wasn't taking her drugs, she could also be mouthy, difficult and argumentative. There were scenes at the local markets, a fight at the Laundromat. She smoked crack.

A month ago she was taken to the hospital after getting beat up. Singh said Curry was given better medications and returned with a new interest in counseling. But what was it she returned to? "You see the neighborhood," said Dmitry Erikalov, Curry's friend for nine years. "People get killed there every month. People deal drugs everywhere in the open."

Seth Katzman, who is the director of Conard House, which runs the Lyric Hotel, said the neighborhood is a prescription for failure. "It is really difficult to put individuals with severe mental illness and substance abuse problem in a neighborhood where so many others have the same problems," he said. "You might go to a 90-day rehab program, and they may do a great job, but when you come back into the Tenderloin and everybody is using, I can't imagine staying sober."

Curry didn't. She didn't stay on her meds and she couldn't keep herself out of trouble. At the same time, she was a force of nature at the Lyric, fluttering in and out of Singh's office, flirting with the men and sashaying out the door. "This is not just another Tenderloin murder," Singh said. "She was a wild child. But she was also loving, caring and considerate. She cared." And in the end, so did the neighborhood. Erikalov said they raised $7,500 for her funeral. On a glass door at the Lyric is a small shrine, including several pictures. One of them shows Curry standing on the street, grinning into the camera, next to something she used to say all the time. "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone."

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