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No Glitz in Prince's Last Stop of U.S. Tour

Charles follows up a black-tie dinner with San Francisco's leaders with a visit to a residence for those escaping from homelessness.

November 09, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — John Panzer, once homeless, sat in his room in the Empress Hotel in this city's seedy Tenderloin district with Britain's prince of Wales and duchess of Cornwall, who have several homes. Talk turned from the plight of the homeless to fear of flying.

"Are you going back today?" Panzer said he asked the couple.

"Camilla said, 'Yes, and it's a long flight and I really don't like to fly,' " said Panzer, 42, a former fundraiser for nonprofits who fell into the grip of crystal methamphetamine and lost his home and job.

"I said, 'Charles, put the lady on a boat.' He tapped me on the arm and said, 'Well, we had a boat, but they took it away from us.' "

Panzer grinned, still savoring his surreal moment as he stood under the Empress' awning, so nattily dressed in a dark suit and tie that the media had initially mistaken him for part of Charles' entourage. "Here I am, formerly homeless, a recovering drug addict, chatting with the prince and the duchess," Panzer said.

Charles and Camilla finished their eight-day American sojourn with a visit Tuesday to the Empress, a 90-unit facility where subsidized rooms as well as on-site medical help and counseling have been made available to those leaving homeless shelters.

After an hourlong morning visit with residents, the couple left San Francisco with their 16-member entourage and some members of the British media on a chartered 757 jet.

It's unlikely that the royal couple, who had spent the last two nights staying at the Fairmont Hotel, encountered any of San Francisco's truly homeless, many of whom can be aggressive panhandlers. (In 2003, voters passed an initiative outlawing panhandling in certain areas.)

San Francisco has about 6,200 homeless people, said Trent Rhorer, director of the city's Human Services Department.

Prince Charles, who heads up Prince's Charities, a collection of 16 nonprofit organizations, has been involved in issues of homelessness and has encouraged businesses to take a role in helping the homeless find jobs.

The prince "wanted to see a cutting-edge place" designed to help the homeless, said Marc Trotz, director of Housing and Urban Health for the city and county of San Francisco. The Empress and places like it are considered innovative in their ability to move homeless in and provide services on site.

The royals' visit here drew a couple hundred curious onlookers -- including Frank Chu, a San Francisco character who frequently shows up at public gatherings holding up a sign. On Tuesday, one side of his sign was devoted to incomprehensible warnings about the cosmos and the other to a store ad for a sale on gym shoes.

A former resident of the Empress Hotel, from its days as a flophouse, wandered by, taking in the scene of photographers and bystanders waiting for a glimpse of Prince Charles.

"It's amazing that he's staying here," said Victoria Schaller, 39.

No, the prince is just visiting, she was told.

The night before, the royal couple attended a black-tie dinner for about 40 political and business leaders at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. "We talked about affordable housing," said Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was joined Monday night by his estranged wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom. The two are getting a divorce, he said.

For a few days here, the long-running soap opera of Charles and Camilla shared some attention with the local soap opera of the Newsoms, who were the city's First Glam Couple -- even appearing in a fashion magazine spread -- before they split.

So locals were surprised to see Guilfoyle Newsom, a lawyer and TV commentator who now lives in New York, back at her husband's side for all the glittery events with the prince and duchess.

"We're amicable," said the mayor Tuesday morning, explaining her presence. "She's my best friend."

The mayor was alone when he accompanied the royals on their Empress Hotel tour, after which he bade them farewell.

"I couldn't be more pleased," he said of the visit. "The two issues of this trip were environmental sustainability and homelessness. Those are my two driving passions."

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