Living and dying on the streets of San Francisco: How the scion of a prominent family fell through the cracks
When officers with the San Francisco Police Department questioned a destitute homeless man, he had difficulty speaking and would soon die from complications related to starvation. A call was placed to his last known living relative. He was unrecognizable to friends.
Gone was the bright young kid with an infectious smile who attended Marin Academy and spent his weekends racing with the Lake Tahoe Ski Club in Squaw Valley. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in International Relations.
Sold was the house in the heart of posh Pacific Heights where he lived for more than 30 years. When his mother died, he was forced to move while the estate was settled and ended up in a motel on Lombard Street. Within a year he was living on the street. He still had a trust fund.
For Harrison Gunther, the safety net that was his life simply collapsed. Shortly after he passed away he would have inherited untold millions of dollars.
'He definitely followed the beat of his own drum'
Gunther’s downward spiral came in a shockingly short period of time. There were none of the usual suspects. Drugs or alcohol were never an issue. He was very disciplined and obsessed with healthy eating, according to multiple interviews.
“He was such a sweet, lovely guy,” said one longtime friend who remembers many holidays, including Christmas, where Gunther would attend, an adopted member of the family. He would arrive with books as gifts, each with a personal note carefully inscribed.
In fact, he seemingly led a charmed life right up until he found himself living on the street in 2019. He never held a meaningful job, rejecting the corporate world to become a world-class triathlete, winning the first United States amateur sprint triathlon in 1983. He played soccer in Maui. He never married but was a devoted son, according to his obituary.
Mark Hanley first met Gunther as roommates at Menlo College. They both shared a love for sports and the outdoors. Gunther would arrive as a one-person entourage in a red Volkswagen Squareback and a three-legged Labrador Retriever named Jack. Hanley was the better surfer. Gunther was the better skier.
“He definitely followed the beat of his own drum,” Hanley said. “I loved his competitiveness. He always told me it was more important to be respected than liked.”
His sister, Lloyd, remembers a brother she “loved to pieces.” An inability to make simple decisions or giving up on a task too easily were considered personality quirks. Cell phones were a challenge, especially the charging part. He had a photographic memory, according to friends. Always the first person chosen when a game of Trivial Pursuit broke out. The hard part was getting him to sit still long enough to finish the game.
But there were clear warning signs. One time as children, Gunther cut a box of Lloyd’s new clothes into pieces. It was written off as sibling rivalry even though she was six years his junior. He posted a “Keep Out” sign on his bedroom door. He was a phenomenal athlete.
“They definitely broke the mold,” said Anne Thys, who first met Gunther when he was 13 years old. He got Thys her first job out of college. In fact, he got several people their first jobs through connections. He introduced Hanley to his future wife.
“He was the kind of person who could get along with anybody. He just saw the good in everyone,” Thys said. “He really was a free spirit. He just had a funny way. He was so witty.”
Some of his favorite sayings were, “Hey, you’re a rainbow” as a way to be goofy or, more wryly, how great it was to “reminisce with strangers.”
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One time he took one of his closest friends, Jim Noyes, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, and pushed him through the sand dunes to the edge of the ocean in the middle of the night just to soak in the sea breeze. “He had a terribly generous spirit in terms of his time,” Noyes said.
An illness lurking beneath the surface
So, what happened?
A freak accident while parking a car at the age of 40 left him with a shattered leg. He could not run anymore. He went into rages. A restraining order was filed.
“I think he self-medicated through sports,” Lloyd said. “He just had to exercise.”
In another blow, both his parents died, severing a critical support system. His father was an investment banker with the former Montgomery Securities - one of San Francisco’s premier independent financial institutions before being purchased by NationsBank for $1.2 billion in 1997. He adored and doted on his only son, according to family friends.
When Gunther’s mother got sick, he would not let hospice near her. The doctor in charge of her care quit. Adult protective services were called. All for someone he loved dearly. He became more secretive. And then the movers arrived.
Despite the fact he had the financial resources to live virtually anywhere, Gunther chose a motel on Lombard Street, just down the hill from where he had spent most of his life in one of San Francisco’s finest neighborhoods bordering the Presidio. But living in a motel eventually became problematic. Residency rules prohibit anyone from staying in one place for more than 30 days.
Gunther would also normally sleep all day and the drastic change to his schedule living next to a traffic-snarled boulevard was unsettling. “He had to constantly move,” Noyes said. “It was very disorienting.”
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It all came to a head when he tried to jump out of an ambulance in the middle of a busy intersection and was deemed a danger to himself. He was taken to San Francisco General Hospital under a 5150 hold, a state welfare law that allows people to be involuntarily confined for 72 hours. It was later voluntarily extended to 30 days.
A judge told him at a hearing two weeks into the process that he was free to leave any time. Gunther refused saying he needed a security detail, convinced he was being followed by Mossad, an Israeli spy agency. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic but refused to take any medication.
'They all have lives. And they all are tragedies.'
When he was released from the psyche ward at the hospital he had nowhere to go. Hanley found him on a street corner standing in the rain. He tried to bring him clothes and food. Both were rejected. Gunther feared the clothes were laced with anthrax and the food was poisoned. One time he showed up with dried blood on his forehead, the remnants from an obvious beating the night before.
Gunther’s ATM card had also stopped working, a critical setback. Despite an hours-long effort by staff at a Wells Fargo branch that had known his family for 40 years, Gunther refused to comply, insisting that a lawyer be present before he made any changes such as entering a new PIN.
Dr. Gary Yabrove, a former professor at the School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, stated that schizophrenia is just like any other physical disease. It is a lifelong condition. The symptoms may wax and wane but they are always there, lurking beneath the surface.
The burden is especially challenging for families. An individual can seem reasonably stable and functional and then deteriorate quickly.
“That is the nature of the disorder,” he said. For families it becomes “incredibly exhausting, incredibly difficult.”
“Sadly, there is no recipe for this at all. These are complex situations to deal with,” he said. “Efforts to support them are also challenged by them not wanting that support.”
The problem becomes exacerbated simply by its scope and size.
“You look at these people you step over on Market Street and kind of diminish them,” Yabrove said. “But the people you dismiss or don’t even want to think about all have personal stories. These are all individuals. They all have lives. And they all are tragedies.”
'A heart of gold'
With Gunther there was another layer, something else at play. Maybe it was an attraction to having nothing. Nobody judged him on the street. Gunther slowly starved to death, losing more than one pound a day during the last month of his life. Some saw it as a form of suicide.
Perhaps it was the lifelong pressure of failing in his mind to live up to a family legacy. His grandfather was Rear Admiral Ernest L. Gunther, commander of the South Pacific Air Fleet during World War II. Gunther was expected to be the golden boy as the only male heir two generations later.
And yet he endeared himself to people throughout his life, whether it was the upper echelons of society as a handsome young man or the homeless he met in Aquatic Park along the City’s waterfront who showed him where to sleep at night to avoid authorities.
Chestnut Street business owners in San Francisco’s upscale Marina District would also keep tabs on him - many had known him for decades - and report sightings back to Lloyd. Mayra Arreguin, who works at Fiori, a local floral shop, remembers Gunther in the past being partial to orchids whenever he would buy flowers, often for someone in need. She said he had “a heart of gold” and empathy for people less fortunate than himself.
When he fell off the radar Lloyd, who was listed as a contact on a missing person report, received a call from the SFPD on a Sunday morning. Gunther had given officers his name inside a Safeway store where the Fulton Street bus ends in the wind and the fog at Ocean Beach. He weighed less than 100 pounds and wore five separate hospital wristbands. He had less than two weeks to live.
“It was the most horrifying thing. He was barely recognizable,” Lloyd said. “Even the nurses said they had never seen anyone so thin.”
The playwright William Shakespeare often defines tragedy by using characters with a fatal personal flaw that ends with their ultimate downfall. Gunther died from pneumonia in a private room at the University of California San Francisco. On a ridge above the hospital is a grove of eucalyptus trees, impressive physical specimens with shallow root systems making them especially fragile in a storm.
Near the end he often talked about dying, saying it was “just a process.” He stressed how important it was while alive just to be more accepting about life and people in general. While he spent much of his final years alone, he was surrounded by friends and family in his last hours.
“He did not want sympathy,” Thys said. “It was just so gut wrenching.”
Making a change
Since Gunther’s passing at age 61 several people who knew him have remained determined that his death was not in vain. Hanley helped form a scholarship fund in Gunther’s name with the Fallen Waterman’s Foundation, which provides college tuition for the children of people killed in water sports such as surfing, diving, or kite/sailboarding.
Lloyd works with the New Beginnings Counseling Center in Santa Barbara, CA, which delivers food to homeless living on the street and in their cars. “We need to break the stigma of mental illness. This tragedy has changed my view of homelessness,” she said in an email. “It is very easy to become homeless, particularly with our extreme unemployment situation. Mental health is fragile and seeking help should be both affordable and accepted socially.”
Note: Barry Kaye is an award-winning journalist who lives in Mount Shasta, California. While researching a story about the Dipsea Race, the second-oldest footrace in America that goes from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, CA, Gunther showed Kaye the route, including ways to save time.