Sunday, October 24, 2010

Booksmith Community Forum on Homelessness, Aug 24, 2009

The following article is reproduced from the Winter 2009 newsletter of Homeless Youth Alliance.  The original article was written by Suzanne Rivecca.  Photograph taken by David Crommie.

As many independent bookstores struggle to stay afloat, The Booksmith, located on the same block as Homeless Youth Alliance’s (HYA) drop-in, has thrived in part because it is an active, engaged member of the Haight Community.  Owners, Praveen Madan and Christin Evans tailor their inventory to match the interests of locals and tackle topical neighborhood issues like homelessness in a series of spirited community forums.  On August 24, 2009, the store held its third forum on homelessness in the Haight.  Attended by a standing room only crowd, the panel featured three people who have experienced homelessness in San Francisco; SF Gate columnist and author Violet Blue, Mark Bittner, author of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and Jen Dehen, a 26-year-old HYA participant who is currently living on the streets in the Haight.

Praveen moderated the forum, beginning with an anecdote about the first time he met one of the panelists, Violet Blue.  She was doing a book signing here on Valentine’s day,” he remembered, “and she said, ‘I used to panhandle right outside this store.’  He invited Blue to attend a March 2009 Booksmith forum on neighborhood service providers featuring HYA and Larkin Street Youth Services.  The Homeless Youth outreach workers were met with much hostility,” remembered Blue.  I was in the audience and wound up taking the floor to explain to the angry people what it’s like to be young and homeless, why the Haight is such a homeless youth magnet.  I got in a couple of arguments from angry, ‘we need more cops’ people who are under the impression that being a homeless kid is a choice, something to be ‘discouraged.’  The outreach workers rushed me afterward, in a good way.  You don’t see many survivors like me, I guess. That’s how I got asked to come back and speak on the panel.

The negative attitudes Violet Blue encountered in March resurfaced at the August forum. After the three panelists shared their stories, they engaged in a Q &A with audience members that occasionally became heated, reflecting the uneasy mix created by the Haight’s recent gentrification and its countercultural history.  HYA, as one of the last remaining homeless service providers in the neighborhood, has been a frequent participant and occasionally a target in the dialogue surrounding the culture clash.

There was also a lot of support and encouragement in the room, however.    Although it was difficult for the speakers, Jen and Violet Blue, to share intimate details of their struggles with a roomful of strangers, they did so out of an honest desire to correct misconceptions and foster understanding and common ground.  Their stories shed light on issues that are central to understanding the problem of homelessness; the origins of homelessness, the failures and inefficiencies of city services, and the differences between grassroots and government-designed programs for the homeless.

As follows are the panelists’ answers to the questions posed by the forum moderator, Praveen.

How Did You Become Homeless?

Violet Blue:  I didn’t make it past the ninth grade.  I became homeless before my 14th birthday.  I never knew my father or my mother’s family.  My mom did a lot of drugs and constantly had violent boyfriends in and out of the house.  I have early memories of her being choked by a man who I called Daddy.  She beat me with a belt and wouldn’t let me have friends over, because she was selling drugs and didn’t want anyone to know.  I read a lot and played a lot of video games. Eventually my mother started leaving me alone with guys she hung around with.  Once I realized there were expectations that I was supposed to do something with them, I left.  I stayed at friends’ houses at first, but ended up sleeping on rooftops and streets and dumpster-diving.

Jen: I ended up on the streets when I was 15.  There was no violence and definitely no drugs in my house, but my parents were very religious, and their religion just wasn’t for me.  It created a lot of tension in the house.  My three younger brothers were having a rough time because of my rebellion; they were being yelled at a lot and the tension between me and my parents spilled over onto them.  One day in study hall, there was a girl who’d been in juvie hall and I was telling her that if I had another option I wouldn’t go home.  She told me to take a bus into the city. There wasn’t a transition; I just ended up on the streets.  I’ve been on the streets on and off for 12 years.

Mark:  I was 22 when I hit the streets.  I was on a spiritual trip.  I was among the homeless but I wasn’t there for the same reasons they were.  There was an idea running through the counterculture  that people on the street knew things that other people didn’t.  I grew up in the suburbs and strip malls, and it was squeezing the life out of me and I had to find something else.

What was it Like Being Homeless?

Violet Blue:  My experience was unique because I’m female.  I decided to never do sex work or get involved in speed or coke because that reminded me of my mother.  People always ask, ‘Why come to the Haight?’  Well, being a skinny, green-eyed 14-year-old homeless female in the Tenderloin or the Mission is not a good idea.  I came to the Haight because there’s no pressure for sex work up here.  I had no ID and no address, didn’t have a social security number until I was 16, and I couldn’t legally get a job.  Any work I did had to be under the table.  You have to size people up very fast, all day long, continuously —- both those who give you money and other homeless people.  I stayed safe because of the network of kids I found on the streets.  We stuck together and took care of each other.

Jen:  15 to 18 was a blur because I was in shock; going from having a family and a schedule to being homeless.  Other than my parents pulling me close and saying ‘Don’t touch them’ when we’d pass homeless people on the street, I had never been told about homelessness, never read anything or seen documentaries.  So it was a shock.  Being 15 and looking 11 was super. Fifty percent of the older people on the street were protective; they could spot someone who was brand new, and they’d say, ‘You need to watch out and keep an eye out for certain people.’  It was exhausting and scary.  But I was headstrong.  It eventually became easier to size people up.

Mark:  I got kicked out of the van I was living in, and I wasn’t happy to be on the street because it was a constant hustle; a lot of energy was expended to find food, a bathroom, etc – it was constant work.  I was a street singer and made some money from that.  Slept in alleys, rooftops, laundry huts, a storeroom.

How Did You Get Help?

Violet Blue:  Going to the Tenderloin for services was something I tried to avoid because of the pressure for sex work.  I didn’t like the soup kitchens where they made you pray for your food.  I tried to get food stamps, waited in lines, etc.  Then I found out you can’t buy tampons with food stamps, and my patience with the system was exhausted.  I appealed to Child Protective Services at one point because it’s exhausting being homeless. They put me in a Christian home and tracked down my mother and ambushed me by staging a reunion with her.  My mother claimed that everything  I’d said about the drugs and violence at home was a lie, and that I was an extremely damaged young girl.  After that, I went back out on the streets until I got myself off them.  What helped me above all were the acts of individual people.  People who worked within the system but knew how broken it was, and went out of their way for me to circumvent the bureaucracy and get me immediate help.  There were also the individual acts of kindness.  Some guys in the Castro let me do backdoor prep work in the cafe, which kept me fed and gave me job skills.  The guys who ran the cafe let me use their address to get my ID, and I got a food service job and asked adults who hung around the cafe for help doing things like opening a checking account. There was a punk girl who had a room to rent in a houseful of skinheads —- a crumbling Victorian with no heat or furniture —- and I’d go there to sleep. The room was $144.66 a month.  It was tooth and nail.

Jen:  I was off the streets for over a year at one point.  I had been working under the table at a bar downtown, but living under a bridge. Then I got hooked up with a room in a single room occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin at Turk and Taylor.  I got on General Assistance and food stamps, had to go in every week to keep my eligibility.  There HYA hired me as a part-time lead Peer Educator for their Satellite Syringe Exchange project.  I made less than $600 a month, but my income disqualified me for General Assistance.  Which means I lost my housing, because according to them I made too much money to be allowed to live in a crack house.  I ended up having to leave the city for a while.  I just came back to San Francisco this summer.

Mark:  I was among the homeless but a little distanced, because I didn’t want to get tarred with the same brush; it was difficult to get anyone to help you if they saw you as just another homeless person.  For me, it wasn’t the hip people who were helpful —- it was the plumbers, taxi drivers, movers, the blue-collar folks who had no interest in art.  They lived in SROs, where I was allowed to sleep on the roof. 

Eventually I became the caretaker of a place in Telegraph Hill, and when that property was sold the new owners let me stay on.

The Community Response

Audience responses to the panelists ranged from the empathetic and curious to the intrusive, misinformed and hostile.  One woman, a Haight resident with young children in tow, took issue with Blue’s criticism of faith-based programs, saying, “I just don’t understand what’s so wrong with having to pray for your food.”  Another neighbor said that he heard that the city spends $100 million on services for the homeless.  “As a taxpayer,” he said to the panelists, “why should I have to pay for your bad choices?”  Others used panelists’ complaints about the ‘system’ to impugn all service providers, making no distinction between low-threshold, grassroots neighborhood-based programs and the Byzantine bureaucracy of government-run programs such as food stamps (which in California requires fingerprint-imaging and mugshots, a practice whose negligible impact on fraud does not make up for the millions it wastes every year) and General Assistance.  A significant part of HYA’s Outreach Counselors’ job is to help homeless youth navigate the complicated process of getting housed, signing up for Healthy San Francisco, securing placement in rehabilitation or detox programs, making and keeping medical appointments, accessing benefits, and communicating with the city’s Homeless Outreach Team.  HYA frequently acts as an envoy between mainstream services that are staffed by overloaded caseworkers with no firsthand experience of street life and homeless youth whose histories of abuse and alienation predispose them not to seek help through traditional channels.

There were also expressions of support at The Booksmith that evening.  Several audience members thanked the panelists for sharing their personal stories and commended them for how much they have been able to accomplish in the face of daunting odds.  Others asked thoughtful questions about how to approach homeless youth and how best to help a young person who needs it.  The answer was simple; talk to them, look them in the eye, interact with them like human beings. These answers underscored a common refrain in the panelists’ stories.  Particularly in the case of Blue and Bittner, it was individual acts of kindness and respect, not punitive acts of judgment, that made it possible for them to transition from homelessness to successful, fulfilling lives and careers.

Follow-up On Panelists

Violet Blue’s participation as a panelist coincided with her birthday.  Recounting the experience on her blog weeks later, she wrote, “Some people took out their hate for homeless people on me and the two others who were up there to speak about what it’s like.  Telling strangers about what I went through, and facing the self-entitled, righteous anger only cemented how alone I felt about my human anniversary.  In November 2009, Violet was interviewed on Oprah about an article she published in O magazine.

Jen recently turned 27.  She is still living in San Francisco and navigating the city’s network of services, working with an Outreach Counselor at HYA to secure temporary housing and get back on her feet.

Mark Bittner is currently working on a book, Street Song, about his experiences being homeless in San Francisco.