by Joe Vazquez

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — A shadowy figure in a hoodie, the woman wandered the streets for the past four years, homeless and mentally ill in San Francisco.

Almost nobody knew her name.

On April 19, 2018, witnesses described her as agitated, mumbling aloud in the middle of the afternoon as she walked just a few blocks down from the crooked section of Lombard Street. She was holding a pair of scissors.

Suddenly, police said, she stabbed two passing strangers. No words were exchanged. A woman, 62, and a man, 25, were hurt but did not require hospitalization.

The woman was jailed, charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

We now know her name: Marina Vayner, age 44. But few knew the rest of her story.

KPIX has learned that, just four years ago, Vayner lived a very different life in the rolling hills of Lafayette.

She was a real estate agent, had a husband and two daughters. She was also losing an ugly struggle with mental illness which has led to a dramatic decline.

Marina Vayner’s story highlights a growing problem in San Francisco: a burgeoning mentally-ill population roaming the streets, often not getting help until they make contact — usually with police instead of health care professionals.

“Oh my God, terrifying,” said Anjelika Koul, who first met Vayner soon after Vayner’s arrival in America two decades ago.

“It’s so heartbreaking to see how degraded she is. It’s not my friend I used to know.”

Both women are from the same hometown in Russia. Koul is godmother to Vayner’s younger daughter. Koul shed tears at the stark contrast between Vayner’s police booking photo and family pictures of her from years ago.

“She was a loving, caring mother,” Koul said. “Very protective of her children.”

According to court records and interviews with family members, Vayner’s comfortable life unwound gradually. Her husband said she was hospitalized several times, diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Eventually, she refused medication.

In an application for a restraining order, her husband told a Contra Costa County judge that Vayner was spinning increasingly out of control, screaming at family members. One day, he said, she attacked one of her daughters with a kitchen knife, not the sharp side, but it was enough to put a scare into everyone in the household. The judge granted the restraining order. Her husband told Marina it was the last straw: she had to leave.

“She had a strong foundation,” lamented Koul. “She has a husband, two children, a house, a career and yet — she just gave it up.”

Vayner’s case is somewhat unusual because most mentally-ill homeless people do not become violent. But what is becoming increasingly common is the fact that, once homeless, mentally-ill people often do not get any medication or substantial help until they are deep inside the criminal justice system.

Of the 7,500 homeless people in San Francisco, about 2,900 of them — 39 percent — are considered by the San Francisco Public Health Department to be mentally ill.

Inside the jail, about 40 percent of the population has some sort of mental illness; between 17 and 25 percent at any given time have acute mental illness, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

And while the prospect of being locked up in jail may act as a deterrent to a lot of people, studies show incarceration makes mentally-ill people worse off.

Gascon said he can’t talk about Vayner’s case directly but emphasized the fact that law enforcement is not trained or well-equipped to help the thousands who need mental help, especially those who refuse to take medication.

Over the last three decades, Gascon notes, there has been a push away from hospitalization. The county jail has become the largest mental health institution in San Francisco.

“It’s a failure and it’s a darn shame,” Gason said. “Most of the people who have come through the door and are dangerous today came through the door many times for very low-level offenses. If we had the opportunity to intervene appropriately, they may not be there today.”

Vayner’s friends on the street describe her as very smart but moody. In recent months, they said, she had become increasingly incoherent as drinking and drug use got worse. It reached the point where she was often seen walking around without pants.

“It’s just a sad story and she’s in a difficult place right now,” said David Ansted, a former engineer who is now homeless himself, living on a park bench at Washington Square.

“Hopefully, she gets the help she needs instead of going to prison.”

Marina did not want to talk about it on camera but KPIX 5’s Joe Vazquez sat down with her in an interview at the San Francisco County Jail.

She asked about the health of the victims of the scissors attack and seemed relieved to know they were going to be all right. Her attorney, deputy public defender Will Helvestine, would not allow her to elaborate on the details of the incident.

Vayner talked about her bleak existence on the streets of San Francisco — how she has been living hand-to-mouth, always hungry; hustling for money and food around North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. She mentioned how, most days, nobody seemed to notice her and how, most days, she craved a shower more than anything else.

Marina claimed her old life in Lafayette was not as joyous as it may seem but she brightened as she remembered her long days as a mother raising two little girls.

“I was the one who woke them up in the morning,” Vayner said. “I made them fresh breakfast, fresh soup, dinner, took them to classes and put them down to sleep every day and then [my husband] would wake me up from their bed and say, ‘Marina let’s go to our bed.’”

She said she would like to see her daughters again someday but she also knows she faces the possibility of state prison for her two felony charges.

Vayner’s attorney has asked the judge for an alternate path: to send her to a program called Behavioral Health Court. If approved, she could end up in a 24-hour care facility that would give her the proper medication and help set her on the path to rehabilitation.

There’s a catch. Vayner must admit she needs the drugs and then agree to take them. Homeless advocates say homeless mentally-ill people often refuse medications, not accepting or realizing the degree of their own mental illness.

Vayner is now on medication, her attorney said, in an effort to prove to the judge that she is serious about entering the program.

The notion that mentally-ill people would need to have the wherewithal to make a self-diagnosis appears absurd to many who work with the homeless and it’s frustrating to legislators who are trying to help them.

Earlier this year, state senator Scott Wiener introduced SB 1045, a bill now working its way through the senate. It would allow local municipalities to appoint a conservator to the most chronically homeless people, who are routinely being brought into contact with emergency rooms and law enforcement because of their severe state of mental illness and addiction.

“People are compassionate in the Bay Area,” Wiener said, “and it’s depressing to so many people when they walk by and see the same person deteriorating every day and wonder to themselves, ‘why the heck are we allowing this to happen? Why aren’t we helping this person?’ So we need better legal tools to help people who are dying on our streets and who are incapable of helping themselves.”

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