I was homeless in San Francisco.
In 1998, I dropped out of graduate school, cleaned out my savings account and bought a Greyhound ticket heading west. After nearly three days of traveling, I arrived in the city. I stayed for a few nights in a downtown youth hostel before moving to the Tenderloin, where I shared a room with an assortment of exotic insects. Though I got a low-paying job in a small bookstore, I had severely underestimated the cost of living in San Francisco and each week spent far more than I earned. Despite the fact that I tried to pick up extra hours at work and cut my expenses and donated blood at the plasma center, my savings were gone within three months. After many sleepless nights of worrying, I woke up one morning, packed my suitcases and got in the 6 a.m. line for a bed at a nearby homeless shelter.
Most of the others waiting in line seemed to be veterans of the streets who knew the routine. They joked around, shared smokes and talked about the meals they ate at the day center. But there were also a few others, like myself, who stood awkwardly with two or three suitcases and avoided eye contact with anyone as we inched forward toward the shelter entrance. The wait seemed long — probably more than an hour. It felt strange to be in a hurry to get to someplace I didn’t want to go. Our identification was checked at the door, where first-timers were pulled aside to the intake room. “Where are you from?” the intakers asked. “Have you ever had tuberculosis? Do you have a job?”
I was assigned a bed and given clean sheets. The sleeping area was about the size of a school gym and lined with rows of bunk beds. The showers were off to one side. In one corner was a small table with a Bible and a few books. Above the table, the shelter rules were written on a large sign: check-in at 7 p.m., showers required before lights out, everyone must leave the shelter by 7 a.m., no personal items could be left at the shelter, no drinking, no drug use and no fighting. If you broke any rule, then police would remove you from the shelter.
Despite the clear signage, police were occasionally called to the shelter because of fights or drinking among the residents. Though I became friendly with a few of the people at the shelter, I never let down my guard nor felt that I was in a safe environment. As with most homeless shelters, stays were limited to 30 days, though it was possible to request an extension. After reaching the 30-day limit, one could not stay in the shelter again for six months. Most of the residents seemed to have been homeless for a long time, and many had slept at the shelter before.
Becoming homeless doesn’t happen in one day. It feels like being in a stalled car on the railroad tracks. You know the train is coming long before it arrives, but all you can do is watch it approach. In my case, the simple imbalance of income and expenditure could only be sustained for so long. I saw the train coming, but the collision was still a shock. The best I could do was triage.
I stayed at the shelter for about a month. It wasn’t too bad on the days that I worked. There were a few other guys who worked, too, and we often walked to the bus stop together in the morning. For convenience, I kept with me only a few changes of clothes and some personal items — things I could fit into a large gym bag. At lunchtime, I dined from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. After work, I took the bus back to the shelter, where I checked in and showered and read for a few minutes on my bunk before falling asleep.
But the days I didn’t work were horrible — long days of intense boredom that I spent walking around downtown or going to the library or sitting in Union Square. I often passed lines of homeless people on the sidewalk. Some had empty cups in front of them and held signs that read “Homeless—Please Help,” or “God Bless You.” Some were more direct and asked for spare change. One person held a sign that read, “Why lie? I need a beer!” Though I never considered any of these paths, I did think about reading my poetry and putting out a hat for donations.
After a month or so of living at the shelter, I had managed to save some money. At this point, I was faced with a choice: either look for a place with a roommate or get a bus ticket back home. Neither was very appealing. I had nothing and nobody waiting back home, and I had seen enough of San Francisco for a while. So I bought a bus ticket to Oregon. I figured I could make it someplace with a lower cost of living.
My time in the homeless shelter was also unsettling because I had worked for several years as a service provider for homeless people. Working at a homeless shelter prepared me for the daily routine, but not for the sense of numbness I experienced. I had performed the shelter intake process hundreds of times — albeit from the other side of the desk — and I had helped people face the confusion and shame associated with being homeless. But suffering through the same feelings was an entirely alien experience.
Throughout my first week at the shelter, I was emotionally absent and disassociated from my environment. My mind was heavy and detached, like the pins-and-needles feeling that comes when your leg falls asleep. Eventually, a sense of normalcy returned. But my self-definition, certainly, was altered. After sitting on the opposite side of that process and answering the questions I had asked so many other homeless people, I became aware of myself as the “other” and felt like a subject observing myself being viewed as an object. I developed a greater understanding of the fragile social bonds that shape our lives.
Most people want to ameliorate the issue of the prevalence of homelessness in their communities. Yet there is no consensus on how to best address this issue. Some regard government programs as the optimal solution to homelessness, while others support social programs that can be adapted to the needs of specific communities. Given my own experiences and beliefs, I am inclined toward the latter. I also recognize, however, that long-term homelessness is often associated with underlying problems such as addiction, physical disabilities or mental illness. Though the temporary shelter system allowed me to recover from an economic crisis, it is not structured to provide the necessary long-term assistance that many cases require. Still, I believe a solution can be found — somewhere between a government paycheck and tent cities underneath freeway overpasses.
Being homeless shattered any sense of normalcy or safety or belonging I had ever developed. I became acutely aware that much of my identity was tied to my home and to the comfort of objects I had acquired, to my books and music and to the comfort of a place in which to sleep and eat in secure privacy. Homelessness deprived me of many simple freedom and threatened my basic understanding of myself in relation to the world. But it also forced me to draw on inner resources. I was able to adapt and recognize self-limiting behaviors. I feel no shame about having been homeless — at least no more than I would feel if my car got a flat tire on a freeway. It’s just something that happened.
David Anthony is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]