On a single night in January 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development estimated in its 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report there were 564,708 homeless people in the country. Out of that staggering number, 115,738 were in California, and 6,775 in San Francisco.
San Francisco harbors the seventh largest homeless population among major cities in the United States, with New York and Los Angeles heading that list. So what does being homeless really mean?
Teresa Gowen, in her seminal book, “Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco,” presents three different prisms to being homeless. In one, Charlie Mack, a homeless African American in his 40s, describes his situation as “a case of innocent people down on their luck being pushed around by merchants and cops.”
Li’l Lee, a white dealer and hustler, discredits the term “homeless.” He advances the idea that it applies to those who are “unable to keep theyselves together” and blames his state on “willful hedonism” or the orientation toward immediate sinful gratification.
Then there’s Timothy, a recovering addict who provides the third perspective. “Ain’t no homelessness problem, in my opinion. The problem is addiction, period.” Gowen respectively calls these three perspectives “system-talk,” “sin-talk” and “sick-talk.”
A little before noon, as I was passing through Golden Gate Avenue on a Friday in the Tenderloin district, the line for the free midday meal at Saint Anthony Foundation snaked around the block. I could see a few elderly, a few women and a handful of brown faces. Most were caucasian and African-American men.
This eyeball estimate was borne out by AHAR: About 17 percent of all homeless people are Hispanic or Latino. “Most homeless individuals are either white (54 percent) [Hispanic and Latino percentages are possibly bundled into the number for whites] or African American (36 percent)” and a very small few (1.2 percent) are Asian.
There seems to me to be much similarity between being an undocumented immigrant and being homeless. It’s about being in crisis mode, being displaced and being alienated by society. And both situations are driven by poverty.
At the Hamilton Family Center shelter, resident Maritsa Tupul, a slight-framed young woman with a smooth round face and clear eyes, is a 27-year-old undocumented immigrant. Originally from Guatemala, she made the trek to the United States along with her sister when she was 13 and her sister was 16. Her parents lived in the U.S. at the time. Tupul went to middle school and high school in San Francisco and had dreams of enrolling in City College. But when her father decided to leave her mother one day, their household’s one paycheck disappeared along with him.
Soon after Tupul finished high school, she fell in love with a man and moved in with him. They had three children in quick succession. And then, one day, he moved out. Tupul was a mother with three children when she found herself without a roof. “Look, I lost my tooth last night,” six year old Douglas announced, grinning happily as he pointed to the gap in his gums. Douglas is Tupul’s oldest child. He seemed like a happy, well-adjusted youngster as he proceeded to tell me about his siblings — the “babies” in his family — with a great deal of pride. “Leslie is 4 years old,” he said, holding up four fingers, and “Adonis is two,” Douglas added bouncing from one foot to the other.
Tupul’s prospects for finding a job are remarkably dim, yet she has a ready smile on her face and optimism in her bearing that probably transfers to her children. The one job she had taken up, while she and her man had been together, had been at a hotel in San Francisco where she did housekeeping. She was paid $9 an hour, but Tupul found the situation unbearable. She was expected to work 72 hours a week, and various expenses like “taxes” and “medical” were frequently deducted from her salary, when she received neither benefit nor privilege from either.
Tupul believes that it was a series of mistaken choices that she made in her youth that led to her homeless situation today. And she is eager to get out of the hold it has on her life.
And that’s one more aspect to homelessness: neither victimhood, nor a predilection for sinful pleasures, nor sickness of any sort, but merely a series of unfortunate circumstances.
“Have you considered returning back to Guatemala?” I asked Tupul. She shook her head. “The situation here is complicated. I would probably have a home and food to eat, even if it was just rice and beans, in Guatemala. But I’m a mother now and I have to think about my children and I believe they would be happier here,” she replied in Spanish.
“We believe that the longer a family experiences homelessness the larger the trauma,” Rachel Kenemore, senior development associate at the Hamilton Family Center, said, “so the primary objective is to ‘rehouse’ our families.”
The word “primary” threw me a bit in Kenemore’s statement. Indeed, families need to be rehoused. There’s no question about that. However, shouldn’t there be a regular paycheck coming in, primarily?
I pursued the issue with Tupul’s caseworker, Tami Gaines. “My primary goal is to assist with housing and stability in Tupul’s family life, as well as building confidence,” Gaines said, echoing what Kenemore had stated. She went on to add that she encourages her clients to come in for regular case management sessions and to search for long-term housing options. “Maritsa is interested in doing a course in cosmetology,” Gaines said, “and I look for ways to help her meet her life goals.”
Tupul clarified she cannot work full time hours anymore, as a mother of young children, so she walks into restaurants that advertise for help hoping to find something for four hours per day. She’s been doing this for 10 months now, with no luck.
So how would Maritsa pay for the cosmetology course? How would she maintain a house without income, even with the housing subsidies that Gaines mentioned? How would she be able to continue to support her four-member family, especially as an undocumented immigrant and without a job? These questions had no immediate answers.
Maritsa Tupul’s is not the face of homelessness,” Kenemore remarked. Families who are looking to find solutions, somehow find a way. “They don’t wait for someone to do something for them,” Gaines added. “Over 86 percent of families who go through our programs exit into stable housing,” Kenemore explained as proof of the success of the Hamilton program.
Homelessness is about affordability and the ability to sustain affordability. It’s a state of financial crisis that could quickly become insurmountable if there was no way to get on one’s feet with a steady income. Finding housing is a step in the right direction, but perhaps not a long-term solution without the means to afford the housing.
I worry about young mothers with young children, whose lives are further complicated by their undocumented labels. On Maritsa Tupul’s face, though, there is a heartening resilience, which inspires confidence. Perhaps it’s about breaking down larger, complex problems into manageable ones. And about processing one experience at a time — good or bad. And today, it’s about Douglas’ lost tooth.
Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.Charlie MackhomelessnessJaya PadmanabhanSan FranciscoTeresa GowenU.S. Department of Housing and Development