Austin Vincent has become the center of controversy and soul-searching about homelessness and street crime in San Francisco. But who is he as a person, and how did he come to be where he is today?
On August 11, 25-year-old Austin James Vincent attacked and threw to the ground a 26-year-old professional woman outside the door of her South of Market condominium building. He was apparently under a methamphetamine-induced delusion that he was trying to save the woman from robots.
Vincent was quickly arrested, and now faces charges of false imprisonment, attempted robbery, and two counts of battery. The frightening incident was captured on building security cameras, and immediately became a sensational news story.
The story continued to catch fire as Vincent was released on his own recognizance, eliciting outrage from the victim, local officials, and local media. It's also gained traction among the sort of national partisan media that routinely scapegoats San Francisco as being symbolic of everything that's wrong with America. When allegations emerged that Vincent had been involved in a previous violent incident, he was eventually remanded back into custody.
The case of Austin Vincent has crystallized the ongoing narratives in San Francisco over homelessness and street behavior, and what we should be doing about these issues. But there hasn't been much examination of who Vincent is as a person, and what led him to that fateful evening.
Spurred on by a tip from one of our readers, we decided to find out what we could, and see if we could draw any insights that could be meaningful. Here's what we know so far.
Vincent has two Facebook pages. One is from his life in Southern California, where he spent around a year, and lists 35 friends. Another page, with over 1,200 friends, has his hometown as Cohoes, New York, and having attended Schoharie High School.
Cohoes, in Albany County, is also known as "Spindle City," because of its long history in the textile industry. It has a population of a little over 16,000 and is overwhelmingly white. The median age is 40, the median income is just over $46,000 a year, and the poverty rate is around 15%. The violent crime rate is roughly 2.41 per 1000 residents, compared with 7.25 for San Francisco.
The fact that Vincent lists Schoharie High as his alma mater indicates that he likely grew up further west, in either Schoharie County or western Albany County. We know he was part of the Class of 2012, because of news coverage of Tropical Storm Irene, which caused severe flooding in Schoharie. The town took years to recover from the damage. Like many of his classmates, Vincent participated in relief work after the storm.
Vincent's Facebook pages offer little indication of closer friends or family. We were able to identify a cousin and an uncle, but were unable to talk with them. Friends on his New York page that we were able to talk to told us that they had not heard from him for years. Some only remembered him as a casual acquaintance from school.
Law enforcement sources in Albany County tell us that Vincent had a history of incident reports for several years up to 2017. [We’ve filed a formal records request with the Cohoes Police Department, but it was not fulfilled by press time.]
We next see Vincent in Southern California. In March 2018, he took a job as a dishwasher at a country club in San Juan Capistrano. He left the job a little over a month later.
One friend that we were able to speak to was Matt, who knew Vincent while he was going through rehab in Southern California. Matt told us he hasn't seen Vincent "in around eight months." He describes him as "an awkward dude, kinda out there, but with a huge heart. He would literally give you the shirt off his back."
Matt tells us that Vincent told him that he moved out to California to start over after a personal tragedy. "He intimated that someone close to him, like a girlfriend, had died," said Matt.
Based on what few facts we’ve been able to glean so far, we have a picture of someone who became estranged from his family, fell into the grip of methamphetamine, and suffered further tragedy. But he also attempted, a least a couple of times, to stand back up on his own feet. So what led him to San Francisco, and that fateful day on August 11?
Did he fall into the culture of young drifters, the "Street Kids" who have been a persistent, almost historic part of California's homeless population? Did he get into trouble in Orange County, and did authorities respond by bundling him onto a bus to San Francisco, to let us deal with the problems he represents?
Those questions, in the end, may be beside the point. Ultimately it is the problems that people like Austin Vincent have come to represent – broken families, an epidemic of meth and opioid use, and the increasing abandonment of troubled youth by the system – that may pose more significant questions.
San Francisco continues to try and answer those questions. The City recently announced the kickoff of a multi-agency pilot program to more quickly vector mentally ill homeless into supportive housing. Meanwhile, San Francisco Supervisors have placed a competing program on the November Ballot.
Austin Vincent returns to court on September 17.