used to be
SAN FRANCISCO — Jordan Smith had dreamed of living in San Francisco for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Stockton, a flat industrial suburb surrounded by agricultural fields in the Central Valley where his mom was a third-grade teacher, his dad a civil servant. Smith had what he described as “an almost Norman Rockwell–like childhood.” When his mom would take him to visit San Francisco an hour-and-a-half drive away, he’d put on his Sunday best — button-down, slacks, shiny shoes, and a blazer to ward off the wind chill.
“My mom always said, ‘When you’re going to San Francisco, you gotta dress up because it’s what you do when you’re going to the city,’” recalled Smith, who is now 42. “There’s so much different people and different cultures and different lifestyles in the city. Just taking it all in was amazing.”
Each time they crossed the Bay Bridge and the undulating, glassy skyline emerged over the shimmering water, his heart raced, and each time the city receded in the rearview mirror at the end of the day, he was filled with longing.
In his 20s, he went to culinary school in the city and then worked at a restaurant downtown, but he could afford to live only across the Bay, in Oakland. After the restaurant closed, he moved back to Stockton, bounced around restaurant jobs, and then began commuting into San Francisco to work as an Uber driver. To stay in the city, he started living in his car. Then in 2015, he bought a used RV from a friend for $500 and parked it on a secluded block behind a FedEx facility in the Bayview neighborhood, a residential pocket lined with housing projects and an abandoned shipyard, tucked away in San Francisco’s southeastern corner. Finally, he had made the city his home.
But he couldn’t escape a sense of precarity, the anxiety that the city he adored was constantly trying to push him out. In late 2020, his financial circumstances were as dire as they’d ever been. He went to sleep hungry because he couldn’t afford food and cold because he couldn’t afford propane to heat his RV. By the end of the year, he had come to the conclusion that the only way for him to stay in the city was to steal.