I often wonder what people think about the families who dwell in the shelter, from the outside looking in. I wonder what they think as they look into the parking lot seeing me, white and middle aged with Keef or Kurt or Patti emblazoned across my chest, smoking a joint with a young man who is young and black, by a beat up old Buick, painted matte black, and alarmingly slung low to the ground. I wonder what they think as the cops or the ambulance pull up outside again. I wonder what they think when they see us scurrying home to our room, or heading out of the ‘Loin into safer areas, my hand in my pocket on the mace spray. I am used to sneers from taxi drivers, I am homeless, I am not allowed to get in a cab, not even when a friend has taken pity on me and the boy, and realized we cannot cope with being chased down the street again by a cracked out guy who hates Asians because his own life is so shit that he has to blame someone else for his suffering, even if that is a young teenage boy who has never hurt a soul in his life.
Homeless people are meant to be the picture of humility, of frugality. Turn down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and you are an ungrateful snob. No one wants to hear how you have food allergies and an auto immune disease which would put you in a hospital you cannot go to if you so much as touch it. Beggars can’t be choosers, so the saying going. Even the shelter has this attitude. I starved for the first few months here, told to pick croutons off salads, served floured and breaded chicken, gluten free pasta that was not gluten free enough, cooked in the same pans as glutenous stuff. I simply could not eat it or else get very unwell. I tried to explain that it was not fussiness, even a trace of gluten breaks me out in a horrific rash not to mention the GI issues and the fact it causes damage to my genetically challenged body which could lead to cancer. I was dismissed. Laughed at. Called names. I’m homeless, I am not allowed to be sick, nor is it accepted I know how to manage my own disease. Take that peanut butter sandwich (also allergic to peanuts in a way that isn’t funny at all) – I cannot eat it without harm to myself.
Homeless people aren’t meant to have new shoes, or adequate clothing. If we accept laundry services from the shelter, all our clothes are mixed together. People are given other people’s underwear. Forgive me, but there is zero chance my unmentionables are going to be washed with Mr ____’s socks. I wash my own in the sink. I dry our clothes in our room. When I dared get myself a fresh pair of sneakers I was immediately called out on it. How dare I spend money. I can’t afford housing, I can afford a pair of sneakers (thanks to a friend who has been helping me, thank you again, Ruth. You are a star) when my shoes start to fall apart. I can get the Boy a new pair of pants when his start to get too short for him.
We are disturbed three times a day by ‘wellness checks’ where the staff knock on the door, make sure we are alive,to ask what we are doing and to come in, check the room, and then leave. Sometimes these visits take a long time. Sometimes the person doing the visit doesn’t take off shoes, and treads the disgusting outside SF street into my clean room. Sometimes they have an opinion on what I am doing – my guitar might be on the bed, I might be clearly writing or working, and they want to know what on. It is nosiness not ‘wellness’. I do not cope well with constant intrusions. Sometimes they don’t turn up till after 8pm, and I want to put on my pj’s and sit in bed with a book. I cannot do that until they leave – we must be fully dressed in outside clothes until after the last check. We cannot lock up until after the last check. It doesn’t matter how busy, or how much I feel unable to deal with people, I still have to cope with multiple and intense intrusion. The staff know, after eight months, that our room is clean, that I do not use hard drugs, that I do not smoke in the room, that we are always decent and safe. They still insist on coming in, and standing surveying my life on a thrice daily basis. Sometimes I am crying. Sometimes I am busy. Sometimes I a on the phone. It doesn’t matter. I have no privacy, nor does anyone in here. We gave up our dignity and privacy when we failed to be able to afford to house ourselves and our children.
Once a week we have to sit in ‘community meetings’. These take up over an hour, sometimes more. I have to sit and listen to lectures which do not concern me. I have to be berated with the rest of the people about cleanliness, hygiene, kids being left alone in rooms, about staying off site, about drugs I don’t do, about booze I don’t drink, about trash that I always take to the correct area…Ok…So I might cook in my room, but damnit, I’ld starve because no one listens to me when I tell them how serious my condition is. When I say ‘cook’ I heat up some rice and tofu and veg in my rice cooker, once all the checks are done, and eat it by an open window so no one smells my supper. It is brutal. I am hungry a lot of the time. It isn’t fair, but there you go. Life in the shelter.
I have to sit here an listen to domestic violence, to children being screamed at in ways no kid should be screamed at. I sit here and occasionally have to try and call down when my sleep is denied over and over again by people who are high and drunk, or mentally ill and violent. Basketballs being bounced off the dividing all, shaking my bed and making loud noises, all night long. One poor guy who was opening and shutting the draws shouting “BEEP BOOP! MOTHERFUCKERS!” Beep boop all night long. Parties and beatings. A woman crying for her partner to stop while he beats her quietly in the room. I have to walk down corridors only to see a resident being dragged by her hair and beaten up in the shelter, my post traumatic stress disorder sending me into fear mode, only to find out he will be let back in at some point, and I cannot say a thing about it. It is dangerous, it is scary, it is noisy, it is harsh.
Even those residents who can eat the food complain. It is not enough, the quality is low, and there is no variation in the menu. Chicken night after night. There are complaints of food poisoning, of hunger, of upset stomachs. But we are homeless, right? No right to complain we are told. We are told eat it and be grateful. Where is the humanity? Where is the respect? Where is the kindness? I dropped 14 pounds after I gave up my camping and moved into the shelter. The kid lost weight too. We cannot make our own food when the checks and patrols are in force, all food has to be hidden, and so if I cannot go get him take out, he has to wait. On one memorable occasion we were almost caught and he had to take his plate into the shower, turn the water on and pretend he was cleaning up. My heart was thumping like I had tried to smuggle a couple of keys of weed into Alabama, not give my teenage son a bowl of tofu scramble because he was almost crying in hunger by 1pm and the wellness check was late.
I have been disrespected, told to ‘go eat pork’ when I don’t eat piggy. I have been run down, and harrassed. I have been called ‘sexy’ by a male security guard, and ‘hot’, but cannot say anything because I need to stay here, so I take it and smile. I wonder about wearing a labrys symbol, but heck no one would think I might be a man hating bisexual that will never go near a dude again, and I guess that would be ‘hot’ too, huh. I walk around in jeans and men’s shirts. I hide myself away. I still don’t get left alone. I suppose age will deal with that before long.
“Off-brand white person”. “Can’t hang with Asians”. All of it has to be ignored and smiled at. I won’t ever openly call any one on any of it, because I am grateful and you know what, I cannot take any more hassle. I just want to write, to play my guitar and survive long enough to get us out of here.
We are not on probation, but the shelter wants to know what time we leave, what time we get back, why we are going outside, and where we are going to, and where I have been. I am a grown woman. I have not had to account for my whereabouts in many years. This infantilization of homeless people, this invasion of privacy is totally outrageous, but it is either comply or get out. I have no problem taking my temperature every day, and letting them know we are healthy, but to be questioned about my health with no privacy, in front of everyone, in the foyer of the shelter is not ok. “Have you had an upset tummy? Been sick?” I am often sick, I have gastro issues due to celiac. Instead, I smile and just say no. About the first time in my life that I did that…I guess.
Life in shelters is very hard indeed. This is not some kind of place to flop and be taken care of. I always said I would never go into a shelter again. My manner, my words, my demeanor, my actions are constantly scrutinized and cataloged. No one is allowed an off day. I get told to ‘get over my trauma’ and it is ‘in the past now’, I get told to smile, be happy, that I am privileged. To some extent that is true. It doesn’t feel like it when I have to worry about ice knocking down my door. It doesn’t feel like it when my son is refused a place on a baseball team because of lack of documentation, or when he is told he cannot attend school. It doesn’t feel like it when he is told that he doesn’t suffer discrimination and is ‘the other white’. It hurts, and there is nothing to do except get on with it. I don’t have the ability to say anything and it end well for me.
For all the struggle and the disruption and the bad, there are some wonderful people here, who have been supportive and kind and loving and just the most amazing people. They do what they can, and they do it for little money and for a lot of hassle and danger. These workers deserve medals. I consider them friends, even though they are not allowed to be my friend because I am a client. They go the extra mile and they are there when they can be to help me fight to get housing in a city I can function in, and perhaps thrive. It is this that will be the overwhelming memory of my time here. I appreciate them immensely. The kindness even though they will be disciplined for ‘catching feelings’ or being friendly’ has not gone unnoticed, and I hope to see them as friends when I leave here, because I will leave here. I have to. This is no way to live.
Who knows, if one person reads this and looks at the homeless families with a touch more kindness, perhaps the last eight months might have been worth the struggle…