10 things everyone should know about what it's really like to live on the streets

Since the recession, San Francisco's wealth gap has become a yawning chasm. The city's homeless tell their stories

Published June 30, 2016 9:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Ed. note: The San Francisco Chronicle has spearheaded an effort to cover the city’s most intractable humanitarian crisis, homelessness. More than 70 local and national media organizations are participating by examining the issue from all possible angles. As part of this effort, AlterNet has interviewed homeless people in San Francisco to get their take on how and why they have lost their shelter and what life is like for them in the nation’s capital of inequality.

On Monday afternoon, as Patty L., a 33-year-old native San Franciscan currently living in a tent, began describing the casual hate tossed her way every day, a 30-ish, chubby white man in an Izod polo and khaki shorts walked by.

“Um,” he said scornfully. “Can I get through?”

Patty was leaning against a building, visiting two friends who live in a tent on a corner across the street from a trendy rock climbing gym. At least five feet of pavement separated Patty and the tent, which sits in the Mission District, a Latino/working-class/artists’ enclave transforming into the fastest-gentrifying neighborhood in the country.

A minute before, a woman with a double stroller passed Patty and her friends without pause. But the man stood there, waiting for Patty to plant herself against the building.

Feeling the sting of prejudice, Patty waved her arm for him to pass.

“There’s room!” one of her friends said, peering out of the tent. “Just go!” said the other.

After a time, the man grudgingly walked by sideways, as if to avoid contamination, then pulled out his iPhone. With a dramatic sigh, he dialed three numbers, presumably 311, San Francisco’s “snitch line” for reporting homeless “issues.”

“See?” Patty said. “We’re not human.”

It’s never easy living on the streets, of course. But in San Francisco, which has remade itself since the end of the Great Recession into the nation’s tech haven, a bedroom community for Silicon Valley workers, the headquarters of some of the biggest tech companies—Uber, Airbnb, Twitter—and the home, or one of the homes, of billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, it is a waking nightmare. As the divide between the haves and the have-nots has become a chasm, being poor has become a leprosy.

Working-class and middle-class renters hold on for dear life to apartments that well-heeled techies are willing to pay thousands of dollars a month to live in—a homely studio in the Mission can command  $2,500 a month, no utilities (or basic appliances, sometimes) included. Meanwhile, people who have lived on modest wages or government checks for years, decades even, are being evicted or displaced. To rent a studio in one of the most affordable neighborhoods in the city, the Tenderloin, may cost more than $6,000 up front. In the Mission, working-class residents are competing with newcomers willing to offer more than the landlord is asking, and to pay a year’s rent up front. So it is little wonder that so many Mission residents end up in tents and tarps under bridges, ramps and, more and more, even on busy streets, much to the obvious dismay of others.

No one is quite sure how many people are living on the streets or in their vehicles in San Francisco. The estimates range from 6,660, based on a single count in mid-January 2015 as required biennially by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) to receive federal funds, to approximately 10,000, based on figures from the city’s Department of Public Health. Whatever the number, anyone who has lived in San Francisco for even a few years will say homelessness, which has bedeviled City Hall since the 1980s, is worse than ever.

This is true in cities across the country experiencing a post-Recession boom—New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, to name a few—but San Francisco, a tiny city in comparison to those, just 49 square miles, has seen the most dramatic increases. In five years, from 2010 to 2015, (the latest figures available) the city’s population jumped by 45,000, to 850,000, its highest number ever. At the same time, housing units increased by only 7,500 units. And while the city’s mayor, Ed Lee, is pushing for 20,000 new units in the city by 2020, the vast majority of those are market rate, and if current population trends continue, even those will not be enough for the demand.

This is emphatically true for those at the bottom of the 99 percent—people who used to be able to afford a stable room in a single-resident occupancy who simply cannot afford anything these days.

The official response to the increase in the visible homeless population in San Francisco has been, and continues to be, to dismantle homeless encampments. A referendum on the city’s November ballot, sponsored by a Supervisor who says he wants to “end homelessness,” would ban all homeless encampments and empower police officers to confiscate them within 24 hours.

Before the city became the host for the Super Bowl’s lavish parties, Mayor Lee infamously said the homeless camped in a staging area for the festivities “would have to go.” When the displaced moved to a freeway underpass, creating the city’s biggest-ever tent city, the mayor had that encampment dismantled as well. (The city’s botched handling of the homeless encampments became the enduring theme of Super Bowl 50, covered by media all over the world.)

Since then, a temporary homeless shelter at a pier in the remote, industrial corridor of the city has opened and closed, though six more like it, giving people freedom to come and go and even keep their companion animals, are planned, though not assured, within the next two years.

Meanwhile, for a city that touts itself as a booming magnet for young creatives, San Francisco is a stressed-out, tense metropolis. Monied newcomers are annoyed that for all they are paying to live here, traffic is snarled, the public transit is jammed, and everything from a cup of coffee to gas costs more than most places.

A major complaint is about the homeless people who are living under their noses. (At least that’s what the comments in stories about the city suggest.) For many people who have never talked to a homeless person, “the homeless” are living a lifestyle choice, content to live in squalor and depend on the kindness of non-profits and strangers.

Reality is far from it. To be homeless in San Francisco is a waking nightmare, hardly a “choice” that some politicians, abetted by some in the media, have insisted. In interviews over two weeks with three dozen homeless people in the Mission district, specifically asking what they want the rest of society to know about being homeless, the number one sentiment expressed cried out for human empathy, if not decency: “We’re human beings.” That topped the list by far, but there were other basic themes. Below are the top 10, in no particular order.

1. Homeless people are human.

Time and again, people who are homeless in San Francisco say they think people look at them and act as if being homeless makes them less than human.

“We breathe the same air,” said a young man named Brooke Burkiett, having lunch at a street corner picnic run by nuns from St. Anthony of Padua Church in the Mission.

“We’re not so scary,” said Joe (no last name), who lives nearby in a tent between an overpass and an underpass.

“What is wrong with people in this city? I’ve never seen such treatment," said Deborah La Cerola, a 55-year-old former academic who has suffered from bipolar disorder.

“I’ve been spit on, kicked, had my tent kicked,” said Bimal Chand, a 47-year-old transgender woman originally from Fiji who recently relocated to San Francisco.

2. Some homeless people have real jobs.

Half a dozen of those interviewed are full-time workers who simply could not afford another apartment or room after they were forced from their residence.

Patricia Gonzalez, 45, works two part-time, minimum-wage jobs, one in home care, the other at Sky Chef, which assembles food at the San Francisco Airport. When she left her abusive boyfriend a year ago in May, she found she could not afford to pay the new rents in the neighborhood she has lived in all her life, especially since landlords wanted three months’ rent upfront, a credit check and renter’s insurance in order to qualify. She lives in her car with her 92-pound Italian mastiff mix, Michael, and says she can not even go to a shelter because of the dog.

“When I can save, we go to Motel 6 because they allow dogs,” she said. But getting ahead, for the foreseeable future, is a tall mountain to climb.

Others spend their days trolling trash cans for recyclables. “By the time I’m done, I’m so done,” said Bimal Chand.

3. Not all homeless people are drug addicts or alcoholics.

A city study conducted by the Department of Public Health in the last fiscal year found that about 60 percent of the homeless surveyed had abused drugs or alcohol at some point. Seven people interviewed said they began drinking or doing drugs (methamphetamine being the most common mentioned) only after they became homeless. Ten people said they take drugs or drink, others said they only smoke pot. At least half said that substance use or abuse is not an issue for them.

4. Homeless people are more scared of you than you are of them.

Joe, a 40-year-old African American who repairs bikes for money, said people act as if he is going to rob them, though he has been the victim of robberies. Indeed, nearly everyone interviewed said they have felt unsafe on the streets and been targets of harassment and assault.

5. Homeless people are often hungry and cold.

Gregory, 46, sleeps by the side of an elementary school and said that while churches offer free food, it is often hard for him to get around to take advantage of it because he is worried about his shopping cart being stolen, as has happened several times. While he often depends on the kindness of strangers—he has become a known quantity on the quiet, tree-lined street where he sleeps—he often cries himself to sleep from the hunger pains.

Virtually every homeless person interviewed said that despite their blanket cocoons and layers of clothing, they feel the weather acutely, especially in the middle of the night when it is coldest. The cold is the primary reason homeless people who don’t otherwise drink said they drink alcohol, to numb themselves from the weather.

6. Being a homeless woman is terrifying.

Women often team up with men they are not interested in for protection from predators, housed or not, who prey on them. A 65-year-old homeless woman rides the bus at night to stay safe.

Others, like Bimal Chand, move from place to place to evade men who prey on women. “I woke up to find someone on top of me in my tent last Saturday,” she said. She screamed and yelled “rape!” and had to physically fight the man off.

7. Homeless people need dogs for protection and love.

While housed people find homeless people with dogs even more of a nuisance than those without a dog, homeless people say their dogs protect them from harm, as well as from depression and even suicide. Patricia Gonzalez took a bunch of pills and put a bag over her head about six months ago, “sick to death,” she said, of the world. But she woke up with the bag off—her dog had pushed it off her—and said she realized that he needed her.

8. Not all homeless people look homeless.

Many homeless people try very hard not to look homeless, seeking out showers and availing themselves of clothing giveaways, while the women wear makeup and style their hair.

“We’re just like everybody else except we live in a tent instead of a house,” said Patty L.

9. Most homeless people do not want to be homeless.

Only one person interviewed said he chose to be homeless. Brooke Burkiett became homeless after driving down to San Francisco from Humboldt County to sell pot, only to have his car towed. With no money, he decided he would try to live without it for a while. As a young, good-looking white man, he said he knows he has options, as well as family willing to help him should he ask. “They think I must be touched,” he said, with a laugh.

Everyone else said they wanted out of being outside and were either actively trying or had it on the top of their lists. The problem, for many, is that survival is exhausting.

10. Being homeless is a full-time job.

It takes three to four hours a day to collect enough cans to make $30 or $40 in recycling, several people said. It takes two to four hours of time, waiting on line, traveling to and fro, to take a shower at one of the free shower providers. Getting lunch is another half a day’s preoccupation. Finding a spot to sleep, for those without, can take several hours as well.

Trying to navigate the city’s bureaucracy is onerous, several people said, especially when they have no means of transport or have other problems—their possessions stolen or confiscated by the police or city Department of Public Works crews. It takes days of waiting and paperwork to reclaim their identities when their wallets or bags are stolen, and almost everyone interviewed said that has happened multiple times.

One woman's story

Patricia Gonzalez has been homeless since May of last year, when she left an abusive relationship. She grew up a few blocks from where she now lives in her car. She is from the Mission and went to Mission High. In the clip below, she talks about working two jobs, just trying to keep the car legal and feed her dog, Michael. She discusses her depression and her suidicide attempt, and how impossible it is to find a room in San Francisco while working minimum-wage jobs.

Watch the interview:

Two more recorded video interviews with homeless residents of San Francisco:

By Evelyn Nieves

Evelyn Nieves is an independent journalist who focuses on covering under-covered communities and social issues, especially poverty in the United States.

MORE FROM Evelyn Nieves

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