Homeless People of San Francisco Speak Out

SF Public Press
 — Jan 28 2013 - 1:10pm

The discussion of homelessness in San Francisco assumes many viewpoints: tales of woe that evoke pity, illustrations of social inequities, homilies on the moral obligations to the less fortunate and tirades on homeless people’s perceived faults. Often that discussion is led by policymakers, service providers, business people and media. But the voices often lost in the dialogue are those belonging to homeless people themselves.

The San Francisco Public Press interviewed people living in the city without housing as they gathered at the Mission Resource Center and the S.F. Night Ministry open cathedral Sunday service at United Nations Plaza. They shared their experiences about lacking a permanent place to live.   

It gets very depressing because it’s difficult to find a job.” - Leonardo Virgen Rojas, 51 (20 years homeless) Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press

What did you do for work before becoming homeless?

Seven years ago, I used to work as a janitor. The place was a bar (on California and Hyde streets) and the owner didn’t have a license to serve. I’ve also been doing some gardening and construction.

What do you miss most about being housed?

Cooking, making my own bed. Having a bathroom. The rainy days are coming and we need shelter then.

What need(s) have you had most difficulty meeting while you’ve been homeless?

Washing clothes. It gets very depressing because it’s difficult to find a job.

Have you ever been arrested or ticketed? If so, what role did your homelessness play?

I got a ticket for having an open container. I also got one for riding Muni without paying the fare.  But I don’t think being homeless affected it. I got the ticket because I broke the law.

What would you do to end homelessness?

I’d help the Shelter Monitoring Committee because I want to help people.

“I think people don’t understand that when people are ill, you’re so far below on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s so hard you can’t move up from the first level of needs.” - Lauren Alden, 60-ish (several years homeless) Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press

What did you do for work before becoming homeless?

I was a workaholic activist with the anti-apartheid and the anti-nuclear movements. I have been working extensively in nonprofits. I didn’t anticipate getting sick with an autoimmune disease that’s in the same family as HIV. I have a catastrophic illness.

What need(s) have you had most difficulty meeting while you’ve been homeless?

I have no needs being met. Starvation is a key issue. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I think people don’t understand that when people are ill, you’re so far below on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s so hard you can’t move up from the first level of needs.

Have you ever been arrested or ticketed? If so, what role did your homelessness play?

I’ve been cited on the bus. Also, I was constantly told by police to move when it was raining with gale-force winds and I was huddled in a corner. The police said (then-Mayor Gavin) “Newsom doesn’t want the city to look like a Third World country.”

What would you do to end homelessness?

I was asked that question for a job at a homeless services agency, and I didn’t have an answer for that. It all points in the direction of the allotment of federal funding for affordable housing. During the first few months of living in SROs, the government doesn’t consider it as housing. You don’t live in SROs — you die in them.

What does home mean to you?

A stable environment where you may not have everything, but you feel safe and secure. And all the things you have are entitled by law, so you don’t have to worry about minimal things every second you exist.

I need my home back and my humanity back.” - Tamara Cole, 46 (three months homeless) Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press

What did you do for work before becoming homeless?

I was a personal care attendant and receiving disability (SSI), but I was able to work part time until I could no longer work.

What do you miss most about being housed?

I miss my home. I miss having a roof over my head. Having a safe building and I don’t have to carry my stuff around. I’m more stable being in a home. The cold makes my hip hurt more.

What need(s) have you had most difficulty meeting while you’ve been homeless?

Everything is different when you’re homeless. It could be something as simple as a toilet. I need my home back and my humanity back.

Have you ever been arrested or ticketed? If so, what role did your homelessness play?

They tried to charge me twice for crimes I didn’t commit, for assault after I was assaulted. I was the only one taken in.

What would you do to end homelessness?

I would definitely push for better laws protecting tenants from slumlords.  They should stop discriminating based on credit checks. It’s not legal and it shouldn’t be. They use credit checks to deny people a place on live.

The SROs really don’t work. They’re too expensive and infested with bedbugs and mice.” - Marquis Ausby, 23 (five months homeless) Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press

What did you do for work before becoming homeless?

I’ve never worked. I volunteered with the LGBT Center, SF Drug Users Union and SF AIDS Foundation, overseeing groups and giving lectures regarding needle use and resources in the community. (Also) speaking to people about the church, where to get a bag lunch.

What need(s) have you had most difficulty meeting while you’ve been homeless?

Finding a place that gives you meals, not just food. If you don’t have a place where you have a refrigerator, what’s the point? A place to lay your head when you don’t have a bed.

Have you ever been arrested or ticketed? If so, what role did your homelessness play?

I’ve gotten five tickets within the last six months, all of them on Muni. The tickets are $103.

What would you do to end homelessness?

I would get a big spot and build a location for 5,000 people and put toilets in it. It’s basically the only way to get people housed. The SROs really don’t work. They’re too expensive and infested with bedbugs and mice. It’s not a good situation.

What does home mean to you?

Some place where I don’t have to worry about my safety or my belongings. A sense of security.

“[Home is] a place where I could go in, put my feet up and relax and not worry about people taking your things away from you.” - Charles Wisher, 54 (4 months homeless) Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press

What do you miss most about being housed?

Having my own place and walking where I want and hanging out with my friends.

What need(s) have you had most difficulty meeting while you’ve been homeless?

Getting my birth certificate, I’m still working on that. And finding housing.

Have you ever been arrested or ticketed? If so, what role did your homelessness play?

I have one ticket. They call it “solicitation,” but I was walking down the street, going out for a normal night when the next thing I know, I get ticketed. I’m not paying it.

What would you do to end homelessness?

Ha, I would find a way to fund it! I’d buy a hotel and fill it with homeless people. Or get one donated to me.

What does home mean to you?

A place where I could go in, put my feet up and relax and not worry about people taking your things away from you.

This story appeared in the Winter 2012-2013 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press.