Between home and Homewood

Between 1872 and 1984, thousands of disadvantaged children grew up at San Francisco’s Homewood Terrace, formerly known as the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Every one of them has a story. Here are three.

Melvin Shero was a “lifer.”

His father died of leukemia when he was 7 years old. His mother, an epileptic, was unable to care for Shero and his older brother, Harry. With a rapidity matched only by its total lack of compassion, the state ordered the Shero brothers into juvenile hall.

Two months later, administrators at Homewood Terrace came for them. That’s where Mel Shero would spend the rest of his childhood.

“There were good times and bad times. I remember getting my mouth washed out with soap — many times. I got spankings — ” he pauses for effect, “which I deserved.”

Shero was an intelligent boy who still managed to get himself expelled from school, and his memories of Homewood are similarly bittersweet: Dedicated staffers brought joy and meaning into his life, and he’s formed lifelong bonds with some of his fellow residents. And yet even that could not fill the hole punched in Shero’s life when his family imploded.

“A few years ago my brother asked me if I ever think about mom and dad. And I yelled at him, ‘I spent my entire childhood waiting to wake up from a nightmare,'” recalled Shero, now 54.

“I didn’t realize I had that in me until he hit me with that question and it just came out. No one dealt with us psychologically about death. We were kept as busy and happy as we could be, but [grief counseling] didn’t exist.”

Shero was a shy boy who picked up the nicknames “Quiet Mel” and “Chipmunk Cheeks,” but his temper could be volcanic. When he overheard a fellow resident making racist comments about a black Homewood staffer he liked, he snapped and beat the other boy relentlessly, almost getting himself reported to the police.

But Shero’s day-in and day-out memories are happier. He lived on the large facility on Ocean Avenue, where “it was like you had a giant family around you. We didn’t all get along, but that’s what siblings are like.”

Like every former Homewood resident interviewed for this story, Shero emphasized that he was never abused or mistreated at Homewood; inevitably a positive comparison is made to “Oliver Twist.” No, no one was systematically malnourished or put to manual labor in late 20th century San Francisco — “Oliver Twist” may be society’s most familiar reference when it comes to children in group homes, but, in the end, Dickensian standards aren’t the most difficult for real social service providers to eclipse.

Shero, and, undoubtedly, very nearly all of Homewood’s many residents, was treated competently and professionally. And yet, even as a young man, he knew achieving a so-called “normal life” would be difficult and long-term process.

“We were treated well, but that’s not the point. We just weren’t expected to make much of ourselves,” he said.

“It’s not proper, but I call it ‘orphan syndrome.’ We look at each other and say ‘You know what? We made it.’ I had a foster father who told me I’d never have two nickels to rub together. We were failures and rejects, but here we are, and we’re doing fine.”

Whether or not they expected Shero to make something of himself, it was teachers at Homewood who saw his potential and made sure he got into accelerated classes and graduated from Washington High. And it was Homewood that “gave us what tools it could, [things] we could absorb and use.”

But only until you turned 18. After that, for the most part, you were on your own. And when Shero turned 18, in 1970, the government had a use for 18-year-old men.

Shero, however, managed to avoid the draft. He enlisted.

He became an Army Ranger. Shero doesn’t like to talk about what he saw or what he did in Vietnam. Let it suffice to say, he saw and did plenty.

“When I went into the military, I didn’t expect to come back alive,” he said, his voice devoid of emotion.

“I never expected to come back.”

But of course he did. And he came back with a smorgasbord of troubling life experiences roiling around inside his head.

Shero left the Bay Area and worked on boats in Oregon for more than a decade. He began going by his middle name, Abraham, and, to this day, he can tell how long someone has known him depending upon whether the voice on the other end of the phone asks for Abe or Mel.

He eventually trickled back into the Bay, getting into software engineering at just the right time. He is currently a successful programmer living in Milpitas. He works hard and pays his taxes. By any stretch of the imagination, he has “made it.”

But it hasn’t been a fairy tale for Shero. He’s been married several times and he and his wife, between them, have six children and 21 grandchildren — “four that are adopted out, which did not please us.”

In the last couple of years, he’s served at times as a primary caregiver for one of his grandchildren. With Shero’s life story, it’s something he felt compelled to do.

“We take care of our own. Our whole thought is, we don’t let anyone else take care of ours if we can do it. Better to be with family than with strangers.”

But Shero never loses sight of the fact that he is one of the lucky ones. In recent years, he’s made an effort to track down his old Homewood classmates. And the fruits of his labor were not always so sweet. One of his old pals was shot dead in a bar. A number of others succumbed to the needle or booze. Others fought more veiled, personal demons. And are still fighting them.

“We all know what we went through. We all went through the same trials and tribulations. We look at each other and we’ve survived.”

Bobbe Leviten doesn’t have to think very hard when asked to sum up her years at Homewood Terrace: “We were loved. We were definitely loved.

“We were given, actually, more things materially than we had at home. It was a very family-oriented type of atmosphere and I grew up in a single-parent home anyway. If you wanted anything, like learning to sew, the house parent taught you to sew. I had guitar lessons and voice lessons because that’s what I wanted. It wasn’t a bad situation. And I learned a lot of things — like how to come in before curfew and be out the back door 10 minutes later with no one the wiser.”

She laughs at the memories before quickly adding, “But that’s a teenage thing.”

Life at Homewood was a teenage thing for Leviten, 52, who arrived at the institution as a 14-year-old in 1968 when her caustic relationship with her mother had transgressed well beyond the ordinary limits of youthful rebellion. By that time, she’d run away “one time too many,” carried on a relationship with a 21-year-old man, and dabbled in drinking and drugs at a level that was high for a teenager even in ’68. While Leviten and her mother now have a solid relationship (she even took mom out for dim sum in Oakland on Thanksgiving), at the time they needed a “several-year vacation from each other.”

And they got it.

After Leviten’s month-long stint in Oakland’s Juvenile Hall, her mother threw in the towel and the teenager was declared a ward of the court. Her Judaism expedited her entry into Homewood Terrace and her status as a ward of the court ameliorated the $400-a-month in fees.

Blessed with an ample budget and adequate facilities, the Homewood Terrace of Leviten’s day did not resemble the penitentiary situation she transferred from. She resided in several group homes with six or so fellow residents and a house-mother. The setting was intimate and her individual needs were met.

“I ended up in an environment that was nurturing and caring. For all the bitching I did at the time, I knew we could rely, underneath it all, on the safety web we had,” she said.

And still, “not all the kids there made it. It was not a prison-like situation and, as a result, those who were going to thrive, did.”

Leviten still keeps in contact with several of her Homewood Terrace contemporaries and, if by “made it” you mean “leading productive lives, paying the bills and possessing an average or better degree of mental health,” some did, in fact, make it. But most did not.

Despite Leviten’s positive experience at Homewood Terrace, young people end up in group homes after years in sad, often abusive or neglectful broken families. They are transferred from that situation into an institutional setting that, even in the best of circumstances, can never replicate the love and guidance of a family — and reverberations of one’s tumultuous youth do not magically cease at age 18.

Leviten rattles off the life paths of several of her more successful fellow Homewood alums: “I know he’s been married three times. And she’s a mess — totally dysfunctional. The one who’s the most functional of our bunch has a good outlook on life but ended up as a Pentecostal Christian.”

And that’s not to say Leviten hasn’t rattled around life like a pinball since leaving Homewood at 18 (for one, she recently converted to Islam after spending most of her life as an agnostic Jew and being brought up as a Unitarian).

After moving back in with her mother ever so briefly as a teenager, Leviten bobbed and weaved through a number of typist positions here, in Los Angeles and for a short time in Australia.

“You lose your job, you do the beans and rice thing. But with office skills in an employee’s market, you can always work and always temp,” she explained.

For the past 12 years, she’s been steadily employed as a medical transcriptionist. She can work out of her Oakland apartment at the musician-like hours she prefers. And she doesn’t have to interact with anyone she doesn’t want to deal with; an office meeting involves a muffled voice on the other end of the phone.

With the exception of a 12-year marriage that ended in divorce, she’s mostly lived alone, which is how she prefers it.

“This may well be what’s happened to me as a result of my upbringing in Homewood Terrace: I’m a semi-loner,” she explained.

“I really do well living alone. If I don’t want to see people, I don’t. When I want to see people, I do.”

Leviten’s memories of Homewood Terrace are as sunny as the days she spent frolicking in Golden Gate Park, which was “right on my doorstep.” There were the marathon gin-rummy sessions after she and her clique finished an entire week’s homework by Tuesday. There were the furtive parties as the house-mother slumbered in the next room. There were days spent knocking back root beers and burgers and playing word puzzles instead of going to classes at Washington High.

These are all good memories — but, like the aging Polaroids of Leviten and friends singing and playing guitar at Jewish old folks’ homes, the reminiscences are squirreled away in a safe place and not often unearthed to see the light of day.

“Unless it comes up in discussion, my time at Homewood Terrace is not something I dwell on. I have so many other things going on right now, I don’t spend a lot of time on the ‘what ifs.’ It’s non-productive. I’m more in the present and the future.”

That’s the thing. Everybody wants to help. Everybody wants to give you stuff.

But Bruce Ballin has stuff. He just doesn’t have a home to put it in.

“One friend of mine had a relative who worked for a clothing company, and he gave him some really nice stuff. He kept it on the bottom of his closet, and the cats got on it all the time, so he gave me all this stuff,” said Ballin, a relatively short, compactly built man with a full head of springy, dark hair and a vice-principal-style mustache.

“I hung it in my friend’s basement for a while because I realized that cleaning and tailoring it would be expensive, but I finally did it because I was allergic to all the cat business. I took them down the hill from my friend and it was a $168 bill to have them cleaned and altered. One-hundred-and-sixty-eight bucks for used clothes! But it was one suit and two sport coats. And this shirt, the one I have on.”

It was, indeed, a very nice shirt.

Ballin, 58, wore various combinations of the shirt, suit and sportcoats to job interviews for nearly three years. But, until recently landing a job as a file clerk, HR types had a response to his employment queries as predictable as Ballin’s apparel: Either “you’re overqualified” or, in a subtly veiled manner, “you’re too old.”

Ballin is a San Francisco boy, born and bred. His parents, both Holocaust survivors, were unable to care for him and his older brother, Walter, because of residual trauma from the wartime years (which was pretty much written off as laziness and psychosis in the 1950s). Ballin’s mother had a nervous breakdown when he was very young and he ended up spending most of his childhood at Homewood Terrace, starting in 1952. Several times, when Homewood reorganized how it grouped its kids, by ages or sexes or otherwise, he and Walter were split up.

He remembers the expansive eucalyptus grove some of the older kids sneaked into, receiving “laughable punishments.” But by the time he was old enough to venture up the courage to walk that far, Homewood has sold the woods off to developers.

During Ballin’s early years at Homewood, it was still a solidly and overtly Jewish institution. Yet, starting in the mid-1950s, in a quest for government funding, Homewood did away with all but the most informal trappings of Judaism (Passover seders, and other ceremonial meals, for example), and later residents estimate that many if not most of their peers were not Jewish.

For a young child recently plucked out of his family home and searching for stability, the transition was jarring and Ballin remembers his youth as “mostly sad.”

“I think there was a failure, ethically, because after the shift in programming, because they were so concerned about pleasing the courts and not being too Jewish to get money from the public sector, there was no ethical system, Jewish or otherwise, to hold the place together,” he said.

“It was a watering down of the whole religious program. It became kind of a rote religious system.”

Homewood’s abrupt shedding of its religious element came at right about the same time it reorganized its residents by age, which also was jarring for the youthful Ballin. Until then the children had recreated a family atmosphere on their own, with older kids looking out for their younger peers. Suddenly, the onus of caring for the children fell entirely upon house-mothers and house-fathers — and not all house-parents were created equal.

“Some of the house-mothers had a lot of problems,” recalled Ballin with a wry chuckle.

When he was about 7 years old, his older cousin “took us out on Sunday, and she brought us back too late. I think I also had food spots on my clothes. [My house mother] told me I was late and dirty and I should just leave and go to my mother’s. I asked if I got to pack first and she said no. She said I could wear my mother’s clothes. So I walked down Ocean Avenue to get the K car to my mother’s place. But somehow, I reasoned when I got there that something wasn’t quite right. So I walked back up the hill and one of the older girls told me to stay out of her way and just get ready for bed like I normally would.”

As teenagers, Ballin and his brother convinced their father to let them share a room in his Outer Richmond apartment, and Bruce eventually graduated from Lincoln High. His many years at Homewood had left him feeling “diffident about everything.” It was 1966 in San Francisco, and Ballin was ready to live a little.

At age 19 he didn’t have a roof over his head or a care in the world. He slept on couches, the floor or wherever. Temp jobs were plentiful and living was cheap. Life was grand.

Sticking around, however, would have meant being drafted, so he headed north to Canada. In fact, he was auditing a class at Montreal's McGill University when the professor tearfully announced that Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. As the only American in the room, Ballin was asked to deliver a eulogy to the class.

He eventually found his way to Israel in the late 1960s, but went back to America after only three months. It remains one of his life’s greatest regrets that he impetuously left so soon. He ended up in Los Angeles, considering a career in the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College. That didn’t pan out, however, nor did his aborted foray into the world of driving. He inadvertently steered a car across three lanes of freeway traffic, which convinced him he wasn’t cut out to sit behind the wheel. He hasn’t driven since.

It was a shade more than three years ago that Ballin convinced an unemployment board he had been unfairly dismissed from his filing job and was due compensation. It was around that time that he left his North Beach apartment of many years after officials from the health department told him the mold problem was so serious he shouldn’t even bother packing up much of his furniture (“I had to throw out a copy of Franz Rosenzweig’s ‘The Star of Redemption.’ I felt I never spent enough time with it, but when I was packing the books I noticed it had mold, and I didn’t want to deal with it,” he said).

Since that time, he’s pretty much been relegated to “guy on the couch” status. It’s not the first time, but like so many things, it was much more fun in the ’60s.

Ballin takes the bus everywhere. It’s inconvenient, but being homeless is inconvenient.

He’s never quite sure where all of his stuff is. Is it in the storage locker? A friend’s basement? A friend’s attic? Gone? Which jacket should I wear today? Where is that jacket? Where are my tax records?

Never mind the fact you often wouldn’t live in that house or that city if you had a choice. But you don’t.

Many of Ballin’s possessions — and, for that matter, Ballin — are distributed throughout the homes of members of a Jewish Voice for Peace. He’s been a member of the left-wing group since the very beginning; He was drafted into serving as the narrator of a friend’s amateur documentary of a JVP demonstration in front of San Francisco’s federal building in the early 1990s, and he’s just stuck around.

He’s housesat for various JVP members, and lived with one in West Berkeley, rent-free, for months (a running joke concerned the imminent doubling of Ballin’s rent). And, if there was an upside to be found in persistent unemployment, it did leave time open to attend demonstrations.

If nothing else, Ballin’s re-emergence on the rolls of the employed has saved him from a life of chronic ennui. On particularly glum days, he’ll just go to bed as early as he can.

But he isn’t sleeping so well. His 58-year-old frame is starting to creak after spending night after night on a thin foam pad.

“I’m not paying 30 dollars for another two inches of foam,” he said.

Ballin doesn’t blame his upbringing at Homewood for where he is today, though he does note that he might have made different decisions if he’d had “steady parenting.” After a decade in an institution he just didn’t put much faith in anything, including himself. But the memories aren’t all dark.

“I really enjoyed all the Chanukah and Passover dinners when board members and godparents would come and have these big, festive dinners in each house,” he recalled, with the hint of a smile.

“All of these people were there and you felt like you really mattered and were not isolated.”

RELATED STORY

The life — and death — of Homewood Terrace

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.