I was homeless. I don’t usually talk about it much. But due to the fact that there are over 6,600 homeless people in San Francisco right now, where I live, it’s coming up as a popular subject of debate. Who ends up homeless? (Anyone.) How do they become homeless? (So many reasons.) Are they all addicts? Crazy? Lazy? (No, No, No!) What can we do about this?
There are many reasons people end up in these circumstances. I see all too often in the comments sections (which I should never ever read) that the same people who have no understanding or direct personal experience with homelessness can advocate some cruel and at times surprisingly frightening ideas. Like gulags. I’m telling my story now because I believe that when personal stories are told, issues become humanized. So by sharing my story maybe someone will be more likely to advocate for better affordable housing policy or increased funding for healthcare or social services, rather than, say, mass involuntary institutionalization and military work camps.
Twice I’ve spent extended periods of time without a home. The first time, and longest stretch, was as a teenager. By the time I landed on the street in a strange place without any options, I had not lived in my family’s house consistently for a few years already. I had been shuffling around from house to house since I was 12 years old due to an abusive home that was not safe nor conducive to functioning in school. I had been living with friends at their families’ houses, usually families headed by a single mother working the night shift as a nurse, bartender, or restaurant manager. My mother died when I was 6 years old, and my friends’ mothers took pity on me.
All I wanted was a safe place to live so that I could finish school and go to college. I asked distant relatives in other states if I could come live with them, but they had their own families and did not want to “interfere” in our family problems. So instead I bounced around anywhere I could fit in for a few months here and there. I would go back to my family’s house for a month or two and be back out again when things got rough. I dropped out of high school finally at 15, not finishing the 9th grade.
At 16, I left the town where I grew up and was introduced to the radical idea of squatting—living in abandoned buildings. I lived in a squat that was a big old house near Lake Eola in Orlando, Florida, on and off for about a year. Anywhere from five to fifteen people came in and out, mostly people around my age or a few years older, mostly punk kids who came from similar situations as myself or worse. Frequently, I was the only girl. We could only go in late at night because we had to climb a 12-foot fence to enter, and we had to leave very early in the morning so as not to be seen by neighbors.
I panhandled daily for food and necessities. I was the person asking for money on the sidewalk. I didn’t believe in using a sign. I asked everyone. Some people were incredibly generous, but mostly it was an empty, “No, sorry,” with a distinct sound of change clanging around in their pocket. One person I knew claimed to be able to tell not only the total but also which coins the person had just from the sound. Debating it was a way to pass the time: “Three quarters, six pennies, and a nickel.” “Bullshit, you are so full of shit.”
When I got enough for a cup of coffee I could hang out in Yab Yum, a café where I would table-hop, talking to people and taking advantage of 50 cent refills. It was a way to stay warm or cool, depending on the season, and entertained and out of trouble. I would wash up in the bathroom, where the walls were covered with graffiti by kids like me from all over the country.
I had a friend named Nick who I thought was the spitting image of a then still-alive Kurt Cobain. A skinny, scruffy blond-haired bad-attitude punk in black skinny jeans and Crass t-shirt. He was sort of perpetually “about to” hitchhike to New York. We spooned at night for warmth and protection in the squat. He taught me little things: to keep my shoes on when I slept, where the best dumpsters were for the cleanest food, and where there was a nice shade tree to lay under and nap unseen. Nick was a heroin addict, and when I asked him to shoot me up, he refused, saying, “This shit has already ruined my life, I won’t let it ruin yours.” Weirdly, I took that to heart, and I never shot any drug. I did them, I just didn’t shoot them.
For us, there were no services available at that time and place. In Florida in the early 90s, it was unheard of to provide access to services for homeless people. There were no drop-in centers for clean bathing, no sleeping facilities. Food was available if you were willing to sit in on a Christian sermon—you could go to the Salvation Army for a bologna sandwich and bag of chips. There was a Chinese restaurant that would feed us sometimes. Needle exchange didn’t exist. Mental health services didn’t exist. No one came around to ask why we were out there.
The city implanted irregularly-placed two-inch metal spikes into the wide window sills that lined the square where we sat and napped out of the rain when the storms rolled in every afternoon. They instituted a curfew, and anyone on the street downtown after a certain time that either did not have an ID or was under 18 was detained in police trailers until their parents retrieved them or at some point they were released on their own recognizance.
There was plenty of police violence and harassment. There was a cop named Eastwood who was particularly dickish. One time Nick challenged him to take off his badge and gun and fight him in the alley behind the bar “one on one, like a man,” and he did. He was twice Nick’s size and easily beat his ass, but Nick got a few good ones in and was generally satisfied with the encounter.
Christians would come to the plaza where we hung out, bringing white garbage bags full of extremely square clothes and holding hands singing church songs. I’m not sure if this was an attempt to recruit us or if the city was paying them to scare us away. We would sit down surrounding them and play games of Duck-Duck-Satan, running madly in circles, in order to frustrate their efforts.
It is noteworthy that I was a young, white, English-speaking citizen of this country. I was able-bodied and of relatively sound mental function. I was and am privileged in those ways, and I was also extremely lucky. Because of this, I very infrequently slept on the actual street. This is not the case for many people out there. Usually, if I slept on the street, it was either because I was too tired to get back to my squat or because some places I had to leave very early in the morning so I would nap in shifts on the sidewalk with a friend during the day. Mostly I had another person that I was partnered with, whether it was a romantic partner or friend. Sometimes I had a little group. Sometimes I was alone. For years, I had a rather large sweet dog who protected me because people were afraid of his size.
Despite how difficult it was at times, I still had normal teenage girl stuff happening. I still had boyfriends, break-ups, and best friends and fights. I had braces on my teeth until I ripped them off with pliers. I had wicked period cramps. I read books and wrote bad poetry and short stories. Despite being a pretty tough kid, many times I just needed someone to talk to, just like anyone else does. And if I’d been offered help, a way to get out, I would have gladly taken it.
After two years of squatting and moving around, I lived in a friend’s van in the summer while waiting tables and saving money, and I was able to find housing in Tampa. I had also worked my way into an abusive relationship—unsurprisingly very much like the one I grew up with. And after several years, when I was finally able to be free from this person, I found myself back out on the street.
This time I was 21 years old. At this point I had been in college and managed a 4.0 even though I spent part of the time in a secret location domestic abuse shelter, getting rides to and from final exams from a Sheriff. I had a two-year-old son. My abusive ex-partner had abducted him, and I did not know where they were. Without my son, I could not hold together; I was utterly traumatized. I had no tools to deal with what was happening. I could not be sober for one second—awareness was too painful. I could not keep my roof over my head. There were no services. Again, no mental health, no rent assistance, no advocates.
This time when I found myself unhoused, I was alone. There wasn’t anyone around to partner with or take sleep shifts with. When I was alone it was scarier, but it was also easier to find people who would let me shower and rest at their apartments. I never wanted to stay for long and wear out my welcome. I had always been able to survive and did not like asking for things. I had a squat that I went to when I needed to, but I was too terrified by myself to sleep. A girl I had squatted with a few years before had been killed in a house on the same block, and I could not stop thinking about it. She was 15. I would lie awake all night waiting for the sun.
I worked as a dishwasher/prep cook because the job came with a shift meal plus one beer or glass of wine, which meant I could eat at least one meal every day and have a safe place to relax even if only for a little bit. I could sleep upstairs above the kitchen in the dry storage room on 50lb sacks of flour in the early morning hours before work. I had to drop out of college, but I kept working. After about six months, I was able to save money and eventually take over a small basement apartment when some friends moved out. It was the first time I’d ever lived by myself in a place that no one could kick me out of in the middle of the night.
I moved up to line cook and ended up cooking in some of the best high-end restaurants in the area over the next several years. At 26, I moved to San Francisco, went back to school, earned a master’s degree, and I am now in a doctoral program and work as a healthcare practitioner.
I am never far from the memories of my experiences as an unhoused person. Many of the people that I knew at that time are dead. Most of them died back then, some a few years later—mostly overdoses and suicides. I kept in touch with Nick for a long time after my days in Orlando. He did finally make it to New York and lived there for a time before returning to Florida. He visited me in Tampa a few times. He got clean, got married, worked as a bartender, and I hadn’t talked to him in a while when I heard he had relapsed and died of an overdose.
In sharp contrast to my experience in Florida, in San Francisco, several of the people that I know who were at one time homeless were able to access services—needle exchange, detox beds, mental health services, health care, transitional housing, and help with getting into school. Before the current boom, which has pushed many non-profits out of the city, these services were more accessible than they are now. Many of my friends who were once homeless in SF are now teachers, social workers, healthcare practitioners, loving spouses and parents, activists, artists, advocates, pet adopters, city workers, even tech workers. Of course, this is anecdotal. I’m only speaking of the people that I have known, but overall I am completely comfortable saying that it is obviously better to offer help to people than to not.
In San Francisco, there are over 6,600 people living on the street and less than 1,600 shelter beds. In the lead-up to the Superbowl, Mayor Ed Lee told the homeless people of SF that they “have to go somewhere else.” That is his policy: shuffling people around or sending them away from the community. This is not a sustainable solution. We need housing policies that discourage eviction and encourage a substantial percentage of below market-rate housing on-site at every new housing development. We need to prioritize comprehensive support services for unhoused people, starting with harm reduction programs like the Homeless Youth Alliance and following through with safe, clean housing that is available for couples and people with pets, as well as accessible on-site medical and mental health services.
The person you see sleeping under the freeway overpass today may be so out of it mentally or on drugs that you think nothing can help them, or they may be the cashier that rang you up at the grocery store this morning. She might have just moved out of a shared apartment with an abusive spouse. He might be on a decreasing methadone dose, working hard in therapy, fighting to stay clean. Maybe they are a 17-year-old trans kid who came to the city after being kicked out of the family home, hoping to find a more accepting place in San Francisco. And in 10 years, they might be your librarian, your kid’s teacher, or your doctor—if they don’t die of exposure, an easily treated illness, or overdose before they get the chance.