The Bay Area from the homeless perspective
May 23, 2017
The Bay Area has among the worst homelessness epidemics in the world. With a rate of 795 homeless persons per 100,000 residents, San Francisco has the second worst homeless rate in the United States behind New York City. This is due, in large part, to an extremely expensive cost of living and real estate in the Bay Area; the average San Francisco renter spends 41 percent of their income on rent. This article seeks to look into the lives of the men and women who inform these statistics but, in doing so, recognize their individual humanity that they have been stripped off by society at large.
Mark Gabel on Social Inequality
Mark Gabel wishes that people in San Rafael wouldn’t be so resentful of the homeless population. He understands the notion of many Marin residents that “homeless come from all over just to get free stuff,” which he says is not the case given that he’s from Corte Madera.
For some reason, him telling me he was from Corte Madera has a strange effect on me. Gabel’s description of his own background makes me realize how much I had failed to recognize the humanity of the homeless. As narrow-minded as it sounds, it had never really occurred to me that homeless people like Gabel came from somewhere besides the street, when in reality, Gabel was, at one point, a 17-year-old high school student in Marin County, like me.
“People thinking that material wealth makes you above others,” is one of the largest societal problems about Marin County, Gabel explains and is one of the reasons that the disconnect between homeowners and homeless is so large and the stigma around the homeless is so great. “Ultimate denial,” he calls it, “I think the whole idea of homeless or not homeless should just go away. Private property and somebody being so much above another. Profane wealth. It’s an abomination.”
Perhaps Gabel’s perspective on societal inequality and disconnection is a bit extreme, but his point is still an important one: one’s wealth and monetary worth should not determine who they can or cannot talk to. Nobody seems to understand this more than the homeless, who are the most hurt by inter-class communication failure.
Tony Dipaula on Sacrifice
“Where can I play? Is the sidewalk okay?” Tony Dipaula asks a San Rafael police officer as he packs his guitar and prepares to leave. “Nowhere where I can hear you,” the officer responds. As I watch the scene unfold, I stood up from my eavesdropping location and walked alongside Dipaula. When I ask him about his experiences as a homeless man, he gives me a surprising answer, one that I would never expect anyone to offer: “Honestly, with me, it’s what I’m looking for, to sacrifice for years. It’s a ten year Buddhist thing and for the last year you’re supposed to be a traveling monk and live life from the most humble vantage point.”
There are countless charities and social programs and immeasurable efforts to decrease homelessness in America, most of which are designed to support those who descended into poverty and homelessness as a result of poor choices or unfortunate events beyond one’s own control; it was beyond comprehension for me to hear that someone would willfully experience homelessness because it contradicted every narrative of homeless life I had ever heard.
“This is the first time I’ve had a problem,” he says. “The weird thing is that yesterday there was a cop that said it was ok. Came down and sang a song with me. Same seat!”
Dipaula explains this inconsistency between officers: “This guy’s a Freemason. They don’t like me. They control all the money and they will make sure I don’t make any.”
Dipaula doesn’t have time to elaborate too much on his conspiracy theories around Freemasonry, but he refers me to his Facebook profile where he is documenting his journey. Here I find posts on the topic in which he alleges the Freemasons were responsible for poverty in New York, the polarization of the current political climate, and that they simply control the American government. How he substantiates his theories is unclear, but what is certain is that Dipaula’s perspective of modern American society is rather hopeless, which may explain why he’s willing to sacrifice everything:
“At this point, I’m just hoping for the rapture.”
Mushroom on Choices
Mushroom sits in front of a Starbucks with a golden-brown colored pitbull, wearing a handmade top hat with a wild print on it, swiping across the cracked screen of a tablet. On the other side of the building is the San Rafael canal, and it smells like low tide. I say hello and introduce myself, and it feels as though, without any physical walls to establish privacy, verbally acknowledging a homeless person unsolicited is equivalent to opening their bedroom door without knocking. I feel like I’ve intruded, and I’m sure he feels exposed, so it’s understandable why his answers to my questions were short and why he had a defensive edge to him in that moment.
“I ended up being homeless by hanging out with some bad individuals when I was young and they got in trouble even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I was there with them. They told on me, and I ran from it, and I ended up on the streets,” he tells me.
I change the topic to something less personal and ask him about his perspective on bay area resources for the homeless. “Resources are ok if you’re under 24…or you’re like a crackhead, a heroin addict, or a drunk. If you don’t do hard drugs or you don’t drink, they don’t give you nothin’.”
Mushroom obviously resents his perceived persecution by a system that he believes rewards people for making poor choices.
“As being homeless in San Rafael, I can make 15 to 25 bucks an hour flying a sign… People don’t want to buy my art because I’m a homeless person. I find that I can make more money flying a sign than busting my ass making hats, so I kind of just stopped making hats.”
He sees this phenomenon as yet another way that society discourages him from making a positive choice. He believes his dehumanized status forces him to beg instead of being creative and productive, which he resents.
At the end of our conversation, I thank him for his time and start to walk away when he asks, “Do I get a dollar?”
Greg on Police
Greg was underneath a tree in a parking lot across the street from St. Vincent De Paul in San Rafael. As I cross the street to approach him, I receive strange looks. I am clearly out of place; this section of B street is unofficially reserved for the homeless, and here I am, walking toward a group of homeless men, iPhone in hand, clearly not homeless; apparent social class is an overwhelming communication barrier in this moment. “You’re not a cop, are you?” Greg asks after I introduce myself. “No,” I assure him, “this is just for a school project.”
Greg doesn’t exactly appreciate Marin County police, especially when it comes to their treatment of the homeless. “It’s a police state,” he asserts.
He talks extensively about police and what he believes is a failure on the part of police to understand that, just like them, the homeless are humans. Some struggle with addiction, others with mental health issues, but the fact of the matter is that the homeless are just as human as any other Marin resident. Despite this basic truth, there is a severe disconnect between homeowners and the homeless, between police and the homeless, a disconnect Greg believes is “f***ing bulls**t.”
“We were standing under the banner and it was pouring rain and police came and made us leave,” Greg recounts, “This winter was so cold. I think I got frostbite… I would never wish this on anyone, I don’t care who you are.”
Bridget Tuescher on the Homeless Experience
“What’s it — I mean, I guess,” I hesitate to ask a question I realize may be too personal to ask someone I had met just 30 seconds prior.
“Go ahead, just ask,” she tells me.
“What’s it like?” I finally ask.
Bridget Tuescher is a 52-year-old homeless woman in San Rafael and a member of the Tamalpais High School class of 1981.
“I woke up one morning and I saw my face in the mirror and I had aged significantly in three months and I realized then,” Tuescher says. This was the moment she understood that she truly was homeless: “I really realized that it’s a hard life.”
I ask her about her perspective on resources in Marin for the homeless, and to this I get two answers. First, the free food is good. Second, which her friend interjects, is that “the jail is the top notch best jail around. Marin County has the cleanest jail around.”
Tuescher and her friend explain how some choose jail over homelessness: “you get three square meals a day and a place to lay down. It’s easier than this, easier than being homeless.”
After so many years being homeless with no feasible way out, and after countless traumatic experiences involving prostitution, substance abuse, police encounters, and much more, Tuescher is understandably hopeless about her and other homeless’ fate: “This should be the thesis to your paper,” she tells me, “there is no solution to homelessness.”
Snake on Addiction
Walking down the grassy fields of Albert Park in San Rafael, I came across a man who identified himself as “Snake.” At first sight, his large frame and scarred cheeks were intimidating. He wore dark glasses and a Dodgers cap, and his Russell Terrier eagerly led their march around the field. Before approaching Snake, I first waited to simply watch him interact with his dog. The love shared between the two was quite apparent as the slightly-limping dog pridefully piloted their journey across the field, stopping to smell every dandelion. After I introduced myself, Snake began to tell me a story about his financial downfall, starting with his brother’s tragic death at the age of three. “On the day of the funeral, a couple of older folks in the neighborhood smoked me a joint of gold seal hash, and I slept well that night. It was the day of my brother’s funeral and it didn’t hurt,” Snake commented, shaking his head and smiling in regret. “So that was the gateway right there.” Drugs had been a major part of Snake’s childhood, first in the form of hash and marijuana but later with more serious drugs like LSD and even heroin. “The number one reason for people becoming homeless, I believe, is addiction. Either to money, to drugs, to sex. When I tried drugs I didn’t feel the anger, frustration, and pain anymore, and I found a friend. It had me right there.”
JT on the Young Homeless Community
“Now that I don’t have money, my lifestyle is a completely different scene.” JT Stewart has perceived the world through two entirely different lenses. Growing up happily in Los Angeles, Stewart moved to the Bay Area as an 18-year-old with promising hopes as a construction worker; however, he struggled to get steady work due to his young age. “Especially if you’re union, the younger you are as a construction worker, you don’t stand a prayer. You’re the first to get laid off. It’s harder to get help as a younger person. For example, I can’t get SSI or food stamps.” As a 23-year-old man living without any money or a home, JT has certainly witnessed multiple sides of the economic spectrum. Furthermore, he assured me that there are quite a few other young homeless men in the community. “There are a lot of homeless people under the age of 25 in this area. Many of them worked in construction as well.”
William Robinson on his Financial Collapse
As I walked up C Street, I noticed a man with black dreadlocks under a bright red beanie that contrasted sharply off of his otherwise dark and baggy outfit. He sat with one knee up while his back leaned against the beige wall in the corner of a San Rafael public parking garage. “Some people have been out here for so long that they become mentally ill,” William Robinson told me, avoiding eye contact. “Some get depressed and become alcoholics or drug addicts. I’ve now chosen I’m not going back into that system.” Robinson has been avoiding addiction of any kind for the eight years he’s been homeless. He is one of the many who lost his job during the economic chaos of 2008’s financial crisis. Shortly after, Robinson became extremely ill: “I ended up developing cancer [during] my last job in the private security industry. I had someone to handle my financial affairs when I was in treatment, and they ripped me off. They took everything, and I had no job to come back to.” Robinson slumped, clearly still emotionally affected by his experience; however, his eyes lit up when he analyzed the perks of a homeless life. “I look at myself now as being free from having to pay bills and having to be a slave to rich people while I stay pigeonholed in a mediocre life. I feel like I’m totally and completely free now.”
Dale Mack on Police Harassment
“It’s not what you see in the movies. Bad things happen to good people, and we’re not all bad people.” Dale Mack sat in a squat while holding a burgundy and gold umbrella above his head, protecting his shirtless torso from the 92º San Rafael heat. “A lot of people judge us because of where we’re at and what we do. There’s a lot of other people in our shoes who steal to get by. Don’t be mad at us because we’re out here with signs asking for a buck or two, at least we’re not breaking into your garage and stealing your stuff.” He chuckled while sliding his hands through his ginger dreadlocks. “That’s the way I look at it.” Dale is a recognizable face in the San Rafael homeless community. After a strenuous day of baseball practice at Albert Park, it wasn’t unusual to be greeted by him on the walk back to my car. However, during the days when the team had to carefully walk around the police officers who examined the homeless’ pockets to get to the diamond, Dale was never to be seen. “Sometimes cops harass me. They throw all of our stuff away about once every couple months.” He put his head down, once more exploring the tight curls of hair atop his head. His squat turned into a hopeless slouch. They threw away my phone, my ID, my birth certificate, everything, man. It’s really hard to get that stuff back especially when you don’t have no resources.” Despite this obstacle, Dale perked up as he assured me that there are happy moments in his life as well. “It’s definitely not easy to live without a home. But still, I’ve got my girlfriend, my guitar, and a couple bucks in my pocket. What else could I need?”
My Encounter with Richard
I had just finished my fifth interview with Dale; and after taking a deep breath of relief having finally completed my research, I began to walk back to my car in the parking lot behind the baseball diamond. Distracted by the massive navy and gold San Rafael Pacific’s banners being hung on the outdoor walls of the stadium, I nearly walked into a man who was lying peacefully in the field. I jumped to my left and awkwardly yelped, “sorry, sir!” The man looked puzzled. He remained frozen on the turf, moving only to take a swig of his nearly empty Schweppes bottle. His black Adidas track suit was tied around his waist, allowing him to showcase his white “FINLANDIA VODKA” cotton shirt. “Have you ever seen this book?” He handed over a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky that looked like it had survived a volcanic eruption. The cover was nearly torn off, the text of each page was severely faded; yet this flimsy pocketbook was the prized possession of the stranger laying on the ground in front of me, claiming he never went anywhere without it. I told him I had heard of the book many times, but I have never read it myself. His eyes sparkled at the opportunity to explain his favorite tale. “Well,” he grinned, “we have a lot to talk about.”
At this point, I felt I should probably take out my recorder.
“It’s a tragedy. Well, there’s good parts too, but Raskolnikov just can’t catch a break.” Raskolnikov is the protagonist in Crime and Punishment. “He is completely alienated from society, but he knows he is smart. He starts out with a lot of pride because he knows how smart he is. But throughout the story, he gradually forgets. He gets so caught up in his own head that he realizes he’s only mediocre, and he becomes depressed.” Stunned at this man’s drastic shift in tone, I struggled to think of an appropriate response. “I’m Richard, by the way.” Richard and I continued to chat about the story. He told me about Raskolnikov’s passions in life, then asked me about mine. I explained that I am very intrigued by art in nearly all forms, and he delightfully agreed. About ten minutes later, I found myself sitting on the hill of Albert Park in deep conversation with a homeless man whom I almost tripped over shortly before. “You know what, Sam,” Richard sighed, taking his final sip out of the Schweppes bottle. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m Raskolnikov.”