San Francisco

A story I wrote for a contest in San Francisco. The topic? Being Homeless. I didn’t win. But I still like this a lot.


SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 5:28 a.m. on the corner of Filbert and Stockton Streets.
My hands are numb, as are my lips and ears. My nose is dripping into my
mustache. My light jacket is the only thing keeping the wind from freezing the
rest of my body.
I already hate being homeless.
And Ive only been out here for 25 minutes.
Im sitting on a green bench that is covered with bird droppings and graffiti.
To the right is a church, Saints Peter and Paul Parish. To the left, a man sits,
curled into a vertical fetal position, rocking back and forth. He rubs his hands
together, as if warming them, over and over.
He says his name is Tommy Allen, and that he is 46 years old. He says he has no
home. He then repeats the information as if I havent heard.
Tommy, he says. Tommy. Tommy.
His long beard is the dirty gray color of the early sky, and a well-worn, green
baseball cap hides the top of his face. Its as if he doesnt want to be seen,
but he still keeps telling me his name.
Im Tommy, he says, hands working furiously, eyes permanently fixed on the
ground. Tommy.
Tommy then sits closer to my side of the bench. He leans his body to his right,
almost resting his head on my shoulder.
I pull away, and he jerks back to his side of the bench. All at once, Im
ashamed and relieved that Tommy is back where he belongs.
– – –
This is what its like to be homeless in San Francisco.
Cold. Hungry. Scared. Pitiful.
And so much more.
In a place where opulence and poverty live so close to one another, it seems
that two battles are being waged. Some are fighting not to become one of what
the Mayors Office of Housing estimates to be the 11,000 to 14,000 homeless
people on the streets every night. Others are fighting to develop new ways to
help those without homes.
In this town, its very easy to see yourself homeless, Johannes Cassa said.
Cassa, a 27 year-old cab driver, moved to San Francisco from Marseilles,
France, three years ago. His dream is to go to film school and make movies. But
right now, all Cassa can do is try to save his money.
Everything is so expensive here, he said. It is incredible. You have to be
someone to live in this city.
I dont know if I can make it, but I have to.
Cassa explained that in France, the government pays its homeless population a
stipend to help them survive.
In San Francisco, the situation is the same.
Homeless individuals in the city currently earn a cash allotment of $320 a
month, but if Gavin Newsom, a city supervisor and mayoral candidate, has his
way, that total would be reduced to $59 a month. His Care not Cash initiative,
also known as Proposition N, would instead provide social services for the
On Nov, 5, the proposition passed with about 60 percent of the vote, but was
later challenged by a homeless woman and a hospital nurse. On May 8, Superior
Court Judge Ronald Quidachay ruled that voters cannot decide how much money the
poor should be given.
Since then, a second city supervisor, Chris Daly, entered the picture to
propose his own plan, and a new debate arose when officials could not agree on
what housing actually meant.
Newsom said all the arguing isnt helping the people at all.
On a technicality, the judge made a decision overturning the will of 125, 000
San Francisco residents, Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle in May. Im
confident well get this through.
Those who do not agree with Newsoms plan feel the city will not have enough
money to provide shelter and food for the estimated 3,000 people who will need
assistance if Proposition N should pass.
As a foundation, we oppose it, said David Hanzel, communications director at
St. Anthonys Foundation, a private, 53-year-old, non-profit shelter and soup
kitchen on Golden Gate Avenue. We honestly dont know whats going to happen,
but the promises that were made just dont sound feasible.
Hanzel said St. Anthonys serves lunch to about 2,000 homeless every day. In a
study conducted in the fall of 2002, the foundation discovered that in seven
years, the percentage of homeless guests had increased from 24 percent of their
total guests to 55 percent.
Its an alarming increase, Hanzel said. Is the city aware that the homeless
population quite possibly could have doubled since 1995? It did here.
– – –
I dont know if I can believe him.
Tommy starts to tell me that he has a family somewhere, someplace he cant
I have children, he says, in a voice that sounds like a coffee grinder. Two.
A boy and a girl.
Hes still shaking, swaying back and forth. He tells me these things, but I
think he may be crazy. I cant be sure.
The sun is starting to rise, giving the trees a soft, pink glow. Its starting
to warm up, too, and I feel good because I know I dont have to stay here too
much longer.
People begin to walk by, and as they pass, they look at Tommy and me. Just a
quick glance, out of the corners of their eyes they dont want us to see their
frowns. They dont want us to see their pity, or their fear. I know its true.
Ive done the same thing.
I look at my watch. Ive been here for almost an hour.
Ive got kids, Tommy says.
I wonder if its true.
– – –
Golden Gate Avenue is like a constant parade for Homeless Pride.
There, people band together while waiting for space at the Knights of Columbus
shelter, owned by the St. Anthonys Foundation. They laugh, joke, strut and
amuse themselves with music and games.
One man strolled down the street wearing an American Flag-print top hat, a pink
feather boa and a long, black trench coat. He carried a small radio with him
that played various pieces of classical music.
Hello, my fellow Americans! he screamed. Hello to you all!
Another man sauntered up to passers-by with a request:
Hey, you think you could spare a quarter?
If his subject refused, the man took in all in stride.
Hey man, word to your Mom, he said. And praise God!
Bernie Galvin, leader of a San Francisco group called Religious Witness for
Homeless People, said she takes offense when she hears people using stereotypes
for the homeless.
These people are not all depressed or crazy or drug users, Galvin said. These
are people like you and I, but who have not gotten a fair deal in life and are
doing their best to handle it. They are not problems, they are people.
It was through the maze of people on Golden Gate Avenue where Vinny DAntonio,
a 17-year-old high school student at De La Salle in Concord, walked to St.
Anthonys Foundation.
We have a religion class at school where we have to take so many volunteer
hours, he explained. So, I thought the biggest problem in San Francisco is the
homeless situation. And I came here to take care of my volunteer hours and help
feed the people in the soup kitchen.
With two hours to go before lunchtime, about 50 homeless and hungry people
already stood, waiting, forming a line down the block. They stood with their
Tupperware and plastic bags, because the foundation lets them take seconds and thirds on
everything the meat, the fruits and vegetables, even the dessert.
So they can have something for dinner, too, said Hanzel, the communications
– – –
I feel its time to go.
I really, really want to leave Tommy and go back to being a person who has a
But he just keeps on talking to me.
I have a family, he says. A family.
I think I believe him now.
He leans over again and puts his head on my shoulder.
Im still pretty scared because of it, and I really want to get away and take a
long shower. But I stay for a moment.
Because I know that in seconds, Im going to leave.
Unlike my companion, I have somewhere to go.