Rick Fisher gets a home, after struggling with housing and health

Rick Fisher loves his three dogs. Even when he was struggling to keep a roof over his head, the dogs were always on his mind.

“Deuce and Saucy are like husband and wife,” he said, on a recent afternoon.

Fisher, 55, has had the two pit bulls for more than 13 years. He got his third dog, Trey, more recently, and helped bottle-feed him when he was a puppy.

He worries about the stray dogs he sees around Oakland.

“I can’t believe people just let them loose them like that,” Fisher said.

On some level, he said, he can relate to the wandering dogs. After his rent was raised, Fisher — who is permanently disabled by diabetes and a host of other health problems — lost his apartment, forcing him to live in a camper outside his dad’s house while he searched for housing he could afford.

Fisher said he was fortunate to grow up with a real roof over his head.

“We never lived in an apartment,” he said. “It was always a home.” He was born and raised in Oakland. His dad worked for Pacific Bell, and his mom worked for a candy manufacturer before she became a Baptist minister.

He used to work as a machine operator and forklift driver. But diabetes intervened. When he was 27, he started passing out. Once, it happened behind the wheel. It took him a long time to figure out what was going on, but he had been going into diabetic comas. Doctors told him he couldn’t work with machinery again.

Unable to work, Fisher qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance, which means he receives about $850 a month from the government. For years, he lived in a studio apartment in Oakland that cost $700 a month. Then his landlord sold the building and the rent rose to $850.

“I thought, how am I going to pay PG&E, and get something to eat? After I paid rent, I was going to be broke,” Fisher said.

He moved out, sold his car, and bought a 1977 camper. He wasn’t sure what else to do.

Around that time, a serious spinal infection put him in the hospital. His back had been hurting for awhile, but doctors initially told him nothing was wrong and sent him home. After about a month, it got to the point where he was in so much pain that he sweat through his sheets.

He had to have emergency surgery in November 2015. After he was released from the hospital, he struggled to get well.

His camper had no central heating or a real place to cook. He had to go into his dad’s house to shower. A hole formed in the camper and mildew started growing. He was constantly contracting viruses and colds, and his doctors told him it was probably due to his living conditions.

And his dogs weren’t happy, either.

“The dogs were always looking at me like, ‘Man, there’s no room,’” Fisher said.

Fisher had first applied for Section 8 housing in 2008. He hadn’t heard back for six years, and he assumed he hadn’t been approved. Then, one day in 2015, his sister called to tell him he’d received a letter that he qualified for a voucher program in Marin County.

But as much as he tried, he couldn’t find affordable housing there. In the meantime, he continued to live in the camper even as his health suffered. He was able to get the voucher transferred to Oakland for medical reasons, but he still couldn’t find an affordable place to live — until a year ago.

A landlord had space for him and his dogs, with a rent he could manage. But there was a problem: He didn’t have money for his security deposit. It was nearing Christmas, and his Section 8 voucher was set to expire at the end of the year.

Fisher told his landlord that he’d applied for help from the Season of Sharing Fund, and the landlord decided to take a chance. He let him move into the place. A few days later, Fisher got a call from Season of Sharing with some good news. The fund would help pay for his move.

“They could have just shook me off like a flea,” he said. “Instead, they helped me. It was a miracle.”

His Season of Sharing caseworker, Leslie Menefield, said she was drawn to his case because she didn’t want him to get stuck in what she called “the revolving door” of sickness and poor housing conditions.

“He was actually not too long out of the hospital, and he had been going through medical problems for a long period of time,” Menefield said. With his health concerns, he needed a place to get care, she added.

Fisher has been in his apartment for almost a year now, although things aren’t all rosy. The complex where he lives is in a part of Oakland that’s plagued by violent crime. In the past year, he’s seen two men killed from his bedroom window. A makeshift memorial was still in place outside the building on a recent visit.

But he has a real apartment and he’s starting to make it more of a home. He keeps it neat, a habit since childhood. He recently saved up to a buy a couch, and is hoping to scrape together some money for an exercise machine. In his free time, he goes fishing.

In his spare bedroom, he has an air mattress.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but when friends or family come they can stay over. If someone ever needed a place to stay, I would always offer, because I know what it feels like to need a place.”

Sophie Haigney is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sophie.haigney@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SophieHaigney

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