The downward spiral: Homeless in San Francisco

Julia Scott Jul 6, 2012

The downward spiral: Homeless in San Francisco

Julia Scott Jul 6, 2012

Sarah Gardner: We heard Chris Farrell talk about “financial security” earlier in the show, and it got me to thinking, what if you didn’t have any financial security at all? That’s true for most homeless people in this country.

Reporter Julia Scott spent some time with three homeless people in San Francisco to find out how they got there and how they survive day to day. And as Scott discovered, losing a job often triggers that downward spiral onto the streets.

Julia Scott: Joseph Luna woke up this morning in a sleeping bag under the Harrison Street on-ramp to Highway 101. He sleeps here when he needs to get out of the rain. I arrive at 7:30. He’s still asleep, curled up on a bed of cardboard and wood chips.

Scott: Morning, Joseph.

Joseph Luna: Morning. I need some coffee bad, now.

Scott: How did you sleep?

Luna: Not too bad, this redwood mulch stuff, it’s soft. Compared to the cement, it’s a lot better than cement. Went to bed like 9:30, 10 o’clock.

Luna doesn’t sleep past eight because he’ll get rousted by police. His sleeping spot is near a five-way intersection, in back of a city tow lot. Not exactly camouflaged. He gets up, stacks the cardboard and starts shoving his stuff into a big black duffel bag, the only bag he owns.

Luna: I got baby wipes and shaving cream and Purell, a little bit of soap and some flip flops.

He holds up a blanket.

Luna: It looks like a little kids’ blanket, kind of a nonny blanket, you know. It’s like some kind of security blanket. At my age that’s a joke, but you take what you can get.

Luna’s 38. He’s sleeping on the street because shelters remind him too much of his time in prison. He hasn’t showered in a couple of weeks. He’s medium build, scruffy, with black wavy hair. He fell asleep last night reading a historical novel. Breakfast is the same as dinner last night: A bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Luna: I’m going to go see if I can get my hands on some coffee, and then I’m going to go to my clinic. After that, I usually go back up to the U.N. Plaza to see if I can meet up with people that I know. See if people are OK, if everyone’s still alive.

Here in San Francisco, I spent time with three people who lost their homes and everything else. Everyone you’ll hear in this story went to college. They’re sober, they’re smart — yet they’re still homeless.

Luna comes to the public library to regroup. He spends a lot of time sitting and waiting and reading.

Luna to librarian: This book was on hold for me. I want to try to check it out?

Librarian: OK, sure. There you go.

Losing a job is the biggest cause of homelessness in San Francisco. The main reason the homeless stay unemployed is lack of job training. There are other reasons, too. One of them seems obvious: No permanent address. No address, no ID. No ID, no job.

Luna needs an ID, but he also needs job training. He has a degree in hotel and restaurant management, but that career didn’t pan out. He says it’s hard to see how much his life will actually change.

Luna: I’m a felon without a driver’s license, and so even if I did have an address, that would put a pretty big damper on a lot of jobs.

Luna used to be addicted to heroin, but now he’s in treatment. He has a caseworker, but no housing. A disability put Luna in the hospital 10 years ago, nerve damage from a construction job. He couldn’t work, so he started selling drugs. He’s been in and out of prison since he was 13. But he says he’s never going back to jail because of his son, who lives with his mom. The 10-year-old boy doesn’t know his dad is homeless.

Luna: He has no idea that I have to sleep on the street sometimes. Very purposely I make him think that I’m just fine, even if I’m not.

David LaFleur also spent years on the street after losing his job, waiting for something to happen. I meet LaFleur in an alley off Sixth Street in San Francisco. It’s a place you wouldn’t really want to walk through, at least not at night. It’s full of trash. There’s some empty, fenced-in parking lots.

David LaFleur: This was my reality at one time, you know, it was this alleyway. A lot has happened to me in this alleyway right here.

This is where LaFleur slept and did drugs, on and off, for six years. He doesn’t really like to come here now that he doesn’t have a reason to. For him, a walk down memory lane isn’t bittersweet. It’s just bitter.

LaFleur: And I built a cardboard condo, if you will, it was made out of plywood and cardboard and stuff like that. It was pretty cozy.

A few homeless folks sit in the alley today, next to some garbage bags. They’d probably find it hard to believe this tall, well-groomed man used to live here. The truth is, LaFleur is still technically homeless. He lives in a clean and sober program house. He’s been out of work for half a decade.

Today, LaFleur is focused on finding work. His launch pad is the San Francisco Public Library, main branch, just two blocks from the alleyway. He’s here at the library every day, surfing job sites and faxing his resume.

LaFleur: I’m looking for this website that a friend of mine gave me, it has jobs on it.

LaFleur is 51. He hasn’t had regular work since he was laid off six years ago from a job installing metal roll-up doors. His backpack is stuffed with notes and copies of his resume. He’s answered more than 350 job ads in the past year. LaFleur struggles with computer skills and he has trouble getting interviews.

LaFleur: That’s a job that I’m applying for, this one right here, which is a spa service technician, that’s what I normally do. I’m also an ironworker by trade.

LaFleur went to community college. He grew up near San Francisco. He was paying rent on a nice house where he lived with his girlfriend. Even when he lost his job, he never thought he’d end up homeless. He started using drugs and went to prison for a while. When he got out, he found out he was manic-depressive.

LaFleur: It was a step-by-step process. You lose your job. You lose your relationship. Then your cars, and the only thing you’re really holding on to is the roof over your head.

Today, things are looking up. LaFleur just found out that he was approved to move into a residential hotel. It’s been a long time since he had four walls that belonged just to him.

LaFleur: I’m not going to be homeless anymore, that’s what I’m saying.

San Francisco spends $38 million a year on supportive housing. But subsidized housing isn’t all its cracked up to be. Just ask Kathleen Leigh. She and her partner, Susan Hanson, live in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood.

Kathleen Leigh: This is where I live. This is the Wynton. It’s four floors, I live on the fourth floor.

The Wynton is one of hundreds of residential hotels subsidized by the city, and officially, it’s temporary housing. But some people have lived here for a decade, even raised children, in a hotel room that’s only 150 square feet.

2008 was the year Leigh and Hanson became homeless. The couple was painting high-end homes when the market collapse took most of their clients’ disposable income.

Leigh: It was like, the light switch — somebody flipped it off and there was no more work. It just stopped.

The couple had a secret: They were addicted to heroin. They lost their house in Sacramento when they couldn’t pay the rent. They packed their stuff into their car with Molly the hound dog, and drove in to San Francisco. Leigh remembers their first night on the street.

Leigh: We had been broke down and living in the car, kind of just waiting for them to tow it. We’d go back every night and if the car was still there, we’d sleep in it. The day that it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t sleep in it anymore. Kind of doing it like that. And the car was gone.

The women were in their late 50s. They got sores from sleeping on the sidewalk. They collected bottles for money, but Leigh got sick from putting her head in trash cans to scavenge for recyclables.

Leigh: It is so raw and desperate and freaked out. And we knew a little, we knew that the Tenderloin was here, we knew this is where you would go to get assistance of some sort. We had not a clue what we were asking for.

One day, someone from San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team asked them if they needed any help. They went through a detox program and got placed in a room.

Leigh to Molly: How you been hound dog? How you been today?

Molly howls

Their rent is $650 a month, cheap by San Francisco standards. And they’re grateful, even if the communal bathroom is filthy and the building is infested with bedbugs. Their housing is subsidized by welfare.

Leigh: Over here is our little sink. This is where we wash our hands, wash our dishes, wash our faces, drain our spaghetti.

Leigh just got home from work. Hanson has made her special “kitchen sink” vegetable barley soup on a camp stove they keep under the bed. She buys the ingredients at the farmer’s market with food stamps. While we eat, I ask if they ever saw themselves with this kind of a life. Hanson says no.

Susan Hanson: We’re white girls from the suburbs, and it just… it’s different. You’re in everybody’s business, whether you want to be or not. Sometimes I hate it, sometimes it makes me laugh and sometimes it pisses me off and makes me sad. So, we are rebuilding our lives.

Today, Leigh works 20 hours a week at the public library. Her job is to reach out to homeless library users on behalf of a social worker. She likes helping people facing the same situation she was in.

Leigh: I’m just living proof, look, here I am. And look, there I was, right where you were, and now I’m here, and you too can do this if you want to, or whatever part you want to do.

Of the three people I spent time with, Leigh and Hanson are most likely to leave homelessness behind. There’s a rolled-up rug in their closet, wrapped in plastic, that’s too big for their room. They can’t wait to unroll it in their next apartment.

In San Francisco, I’m Julia Scott for Marketplace.

Gardner: Next week on the show we’ll hear from another group of people finding it hard to hold down a job these days: Seniors. Here on Marketplace Money we believe we’ve got a lot to learn from our elders. We want to know what financial wisdom you’ve received from grandparents over the years. Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or via e-mail.

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