From homeless to video vigilante: Documenting San Francisco's homeless epidemic

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A once homeless San Francisco man is now documenting what he sees on the city streets, in an effort to raise awareness for a growing epidemic and Build a Better Bay Area. The homeless population has grown a whopping 17% to over 8,000 in the past two years.

Holding his 4-year old daughter in his arms, Lee Hester meets us at the Powell Street Bart Station along Market Street. It's an area he frequented a lot growing up in the foster care system.

"My mom was schizophrenic, my father was abusive, I was homeless," explains Lee.



Since 2012, Lee has been live streaming what he sees on San Francisco streets, particularly the homeless he comes across in some of the roughest neighborhoods.

"I was really frustrated that there was no exposure of what was really going on in San Francisco."

The video that first caught our attention, one taken along Market Street near an upscale hotel. The video shows a man, in broad daylight, attempting to cut off a bike lock with a small motorized saw.

RELATED: Homeless a growing problem for SFPD at SFO

Lee shows us the video and explains what was going through his mind at the time of the live stream.

"I just went over and approached him and I'm not sure exactly...but I said what are you doing...he got up and turned around it that was pretty scary because now I realize I have this guy who's got a 6-inch chainsaw pointed at me."

This video is just one of many, capturing everyday life for the thousands without a home.

"I once saw a man, sucking his thumb as someone else was injecting him in the neck with a needle."

Despite the colorful things he witnesses, Lee says his video streams are not for shock value, but for a purpose.

" I'm advocating for a more holistic approach at the same time as sharing my life story and experiences."

RELATED: History of how many people are homeless in the Bay Area

When we asked Mayor London Breed several months ago about the dirtiness caused by the homeless. Her response: to intervene.

"We have to have a conversation and not just overlook when someone throws something on the ground. We have to change behavior and hold people accountable."

Intervening is something Lee does on a daily basis, despite the risks.

"It's dangerous. It's risky. But it's something that I've lived through and I feel like I have Street Smart because I've been through that and I know when I'm safe and when I'm not."

It's something he doesn't recommend, and extends this invitation to Mayor Breed:

"I would be more than happy to escort her through the Tenderloin. People are dying on the streets and it's completely unacceptable ."

Now 32-years-old, Lee is now a stay at home dad and is expecting his second child in the spring.

"I've wanted to be a father since I was 8. I wanted to provide the kind of life for my child that I never had." Says Lee.

Despite his 20,000+ subscribers on YouTube and over 9.5 million video views, he says the platform has prevented him from monetizing on certain content because it shows drug use or other inappropriate behaviors. In the meantime, he collects donations on his Patreon page, which will go toward making a full-length documentary about homelessness.
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