1967: If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
2015: If you’re coming to San Francisco, be sure to bring some dollars for your fare.
Six unforgettable and unforgivable years ago I moved to San Francisco, hoping to flourish in a libertine paradise of limitless self-expression, and ran straight into a wall of disappointment. My naive hopes of hedonistic revelry in a sort of mirror universe where queers ruled and everyone got along were violently shattered. What I found were the glimmering fragments of a fallen utopia usurped by greedy opportunists and conservative reformers, embroiled in a full-scale class and culture war, as various groups of people sharply divided fought for limited resources in a compact space and the cost of rent was outrageous… and rising. I lost my job, house, and direction in life completely, then experienced a radical rebirth, became a squatter and fell in love with life outside the capitalism box, and arrived at a “free living” philosophy that I believe will influence the rest of my life.
Standing presently at a crossroads in my life, I’d like to record my impressions of the City’s disturbing transformation, touch on ways I’ve felt degraded and subhuman due to being homeless, and highlight the consciousness-raising adventures I’ve had here with shout outs to some people and places with whom I feel connected as well as the profound liberation that grew out of my experience of having no fixed home. I’m permanently changed and a little shellshocked by all that’s happened, excited but uncertain about the future, for me and for SF, which is, as Candace Roberts sings in her great new music video that you should definitely find on YouTube (http://youtu.be/-yoRVJzQAe0), “Not my City any more.”
During my first two years in the Bay Area I was violently mugged and assaulted in Fruitvale, got a good job with a global hospitality company but then lost it due to PTSD resulting from the Fruitvale incident, shared a house in the Richmond (my first in SF) with a creepy and perverted older man who terrorized me when I couldn’t make rent, escaped that nightmare to an SRO, worked for the 2010 Census, learned a lot about SF history, moved into a house atop Mt. Davidson (highest elevation in the City) where one of my housemates was a maniacal con artist living under a false identity who tricked me into giving him money, wrote for SF’s main LGBT paper the Bay Area Reporter (now a pale conservative shadow of its radical roots), got a job as a clothing checker at a club called Blow Buddies which had nothing to do with blow dryers, then moved into a flat on Folsom Street with a British witch dominatrix thinking I’d finally found my “Tales of the City” niche, only to lose my job and realize I couldn’t make rent. I was burned out by stress and the fruitless quest for employment, which required me to be passionate about brands and advertising (yawn), knowledgeable about technologies I couldn’t afford, or willing to go the route of human exploitation. I checked “none of the above,” and fell into the abyss.
SF’s longrunning and recently revamped Street Sheet asserts that “no one chooses to be homeless” and that “most homeless people in SF were residents before they became homeless.” Both are true in my case. I spent the first month in a parking lot. If I didn’t leave by 7am, a parking lot worker would wake me up and hustle me out. Still, I was luckier than the people camped out on the sidewalk in front of the lot. City workers came by every morning at 5am and gave them five minutes to clear themselves and all their stuff off the sidewalk or get sprayed with cold water.
Policies like this have earned SF a reputation as, to quote a Food Not Bombs organizer, “one of the nastiest cities toward homeless people.”
Eventually I left the parking lot, wandered the hills and valleys awhile in grim solitude, and started using speed as a way to stay up all night. I got enough to eat thanks to food stamps and the soup kitchens, and only occasionally resorted to stealing to make ends meet, and only from large corporations. (Such as Goodwill, which has grown profitable by taking things freely donated and marketing them at steadily rising rates; I think we should bypass Goodwill completely and set up a free market to give the stuff directly to poor people.)
Occasionally, I showered at the multi-service center in SoMa, but hated the prison-like feel of the place and its depressed and depressing security guards, and my hygiene took an unavoidable plunge. I rented a storage space for my clothes and other valuables, only to lose it and everything I owned later on.
Whether it was courage that drove me, or apathy that made me not care, I defied the police and sensational news stories I’d read about missing people and burned corpses and set out to explore all the parks, devoting the most time to Golden Gate Park of course, bewildered by the sheer size and complexity of that labyrinth, which completed my sense of having entered another world… one that the tourists will never know.
The parks were closed at night, and police were known to raid Golden Gate Park with dogs in the pre-dawn hours (another barbaric policy), but in daytime I could sleep there with less fear of harassment; I became nocturnal, further isolating me from the mainstream. All over I found little forts and hiding places, remnants of camps left by others, and way too much litter. I grew up in national parks and got in the habit of picking up after myself outdoors, no excuses. Perhaps if we all did so, there would be less opposition to drifters crashing in public spaces.
That being said, SCREW the no camping rule, in SF or anywhere else. If a person has no other option, they can spend the night in any park or public space where they feel safe, with or without a tent, end of story. Laws or ordinances to the contrary are inhumane and devoid of compassion, and I do not recognize them. Your inconvenience at having to look at homeless people while you walk your dog in the morning takes a back seat to other people’s basic need for sleep and shelter.
One man let his dog mock-attack me in my tent early in the morning, startling me awake.
Another time I woke early to a woman’s voice calling, “WAKE UP, it’s time to move on, the police have been called!” When I zipped open my tent to ask her why she felt the need to call the police about someone sleeping, she held up the bag of dog shit in her hand and replied, “I’m cleaning up.”
And one afternoon as I was taking a nap on the Civic Center lawn, a surly police officer kicked my foot to wake me up, told me I was too close to the playground, and when I reacted angrily, he gave me a ticket with a court date.
What is wrong with these people? Frankly, I don’t see how parks that are designated public can be closed anyway, it seems like a lawsuit needs to happen at some level to challenge that. Recent attempts to get a “homeless bill of rights” passed are on the right track, but have failed so far in SF and Sacramento. I guess the state’s homeless people lobby doesn’t have deep enough pockets.
Early on I made a friend named Alix who influenced my course, a visionary with a DIY art space called the Big Gay Warehouse, located in gentrification-resistant Bayview. Once I discussed with Alix my surprise at how quickly I’d adapted to this animalesque life of sleeping outside and foraging by night, and how I related more to raccoons than humans at times.
“This should feel strange, since it’s so different from how I was living just two months ago, but for some reason it doesn’t.”
She replied that a lot of people were feeling the same call back to nature, that the future for people like us might be to leave the city to the drones and the corporations and return to the land, like the Radical Faeries at their sanctuary in Wolf Creek, Oregon.
In the short term, she recommended I hook up with Occupy Wall Street, who had just set up camp in a plaza by the waterfront and were making quite a scene.
After the night it rained and I woke up literally lying in a puddle of cold water, I decided to ditch the park and follow up on Alix’s lead.
And that’s when everything changed.
Many people shit on Occupy later, and veteran activists were occasionally scornful of the “johnny come-latelies” and weekend warriors who emerged from the woodwork with excellent intentions but few clues. But Occupy for me was the gateway to a liberation I had not previously known to be possible, the death of my former self as a round peg in the square wheel of capitalism and the portal to a new life that I have come to view as infinitely more satisfying. How I miss – well, sort of – the golden calamities of the Occupy SF tent camp (occurring nearly nightly), with its police confrontations, clamoring discordians stirring shit up in drunk and hungry rage, and Department of Public Health inspection media storms! It was so nice of DPH to suddenly care about us.
More importantly, through Occupy I hooked up with Homes Not Jails, which became my surrogate squatter family for the next two years (2011 to 2013.) We fought a lot and had personality conflicts, and public drama-filled meetings that ran way too long, and I drifted away from the group eventually into a private escape universe of trauma recovery. When I finally emerged from that solipsism bubble, it seemed everyone had dispersed, so I never got a chance to say it really, but I loved those HNJ kids. When we descended at night on the city like a squad of housing ninjas going about our extralegal but wonderful work, all the drama flew out of the window and we were united. Every time we cracked a new house, I felt like I was 18 years old again, with a whole life of infinite possibility before me.
At first, I used the newfound total freedom of homelessness for self-indulgent reasons. I gravitated away from the HNJ model of organized public actions toward a solitary program of sleeping occasionally in public parks, stairwells, and other weird vacant empty spaces I find during my catlike prowlabouts through the City. But gradually I developed a sense of social responsibility and a wish to re-engage the real world. The resistance movement is under attack, but my recent experiences of volunteering at the Tenants Union and with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (antievictionmappingproject.net) have convinced me the movement is not dead, but merely changing, as it must in the face of new challenges.
The old SF is shrinking but can still be found in some great places, such as Diamond Dave’s radio show at Mutiny Radio (pcrcollective.org, 2781 21st St @ Florida) every Friday 3p to 6p; Eviction Free SF, which holds public meetings every Wednesday 6pm at the Redstone Building (2926 16th St @ Capp in the Mission); and VolxKuche, a veggie/vegan “people’s kitchen” that convenes on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of each month at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, 110 Julian Ave @ 15th St in the still-radical inner Mission.
Join the movement and protest the proposed installation of a 350-unit luxury condo building at 16th and Mission, and help Station 40 (3030B 16th St) fight its unlawful detainer (a press conference was about to take place just as this article went to press), so Food Not Bombs can continue to prepare and serve food there. Don’t let Mission Street become Valencia Street Part II: the Extremely Gentrified Sequel.
As for myself, SF has changed me in some ways that will surely be lasting. Life is exciting when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight. If severe instability is the price to pay for something approaching true autonomy, for now, I will pay it. I would so much rather live life on my own terms, investing my time and energy in meaningful work and in communities I care about, than spend every morning waiting for a bus that’s too crowded to take me somewhere I don’t want to go.