Homelessness in San Francisco has far surpassed crisis point, with the Californian state having one of the highest populations of homeless people in the US. Stylist spoke to 3 women at A Woman’s Place, one of the only gender specific homeless shelters for women about the circumstances that led to them living on the streets and what their experiences of living in shelters and transitional housing have been like.
With an estimated homeless population of 8,000 people – an increase of 17% over the past two years – San Francisco’s housing situation has reached crisis point, with 10% of its population not having a fixed address. The California city’s affordable housing shortage is only getting worse as the tech industry continues to widen the inequality gap, an issue that Google nodded to when it announced a $250million investment fund in June that will help to build 5,000 affordable housing units near its offices in the Bay Area and major transport hubs.
The city’s homelessness problem affects those most in need of help: people earning low income wages which haven’t risen alongside the cost of rent and people with addictions, mental health issues, illness and disabilities. It is second only to New York in terms of cost, with a median monthly rent of about $4,500, according to real-estate website Zillow.
Homeless shelters for women
But it’s not only Google who is trying to help. A Woman’s Place is one of the only gender specific shelters in the city, catering to the unique needs of homeless women by offering services that include long-term treatment programs for those with mental disabilities, sexual or domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and HIV+ and AIDS-related issues. Founded in 1995, it serves 54 women nightly as well as 400 women a year.
Some of the specialized programs include a shelter program, an 18-month transitional housing program, the CARE program for primarily African American women and transgender women with HIV, and a substance abuse program. Maria Bellinger is the program coordinator and has first-hand experience of living on the streets.
Causes of homelessness
“I do this work because I was homeless once,” she tells Stylist. “I always thought I made the choice, but that’s the myth: that homeless people are homeless by choice. It’s normally just the best of a bunch of bad choices. Everyone I see has experienced sexual violence, and it’s mostly that, combined with other factors that lead them to leave home. Sexual violence coupled with generational poverty, that’s a recipe for homelessness right there.”
Maria’s world was upended when she left home due to a bad relationship aged 22. “People who had the day before treated me as an equal would suddenly treat me like I was nothing, like I was a piece of trash,” she recalls.
At the time she thought the homeless people she met were the most genuine community she had ever encountered, and that maybe this was where she belonged. But the toll of living on the streets – sleeping in the rain, being sexually assaulted and never feeling safe – led her to start taking opiates. She faced the choice most young homeless women have to make at some point: whether to resort to sex work. She couldn’t bring herself to, so as soon as she and her new boyfriend had enough money, they decided to leave the city.
“It was 18 months before I managed to get off the streets and that’s me, a white lady who’d been to college and hadn’t had an abusive childhood,” says Maria.
Everything came together due to a series of lucky encounters and the kindness of strangers and they left having been gifted a backpack and a tent. She got clean and found peace back in nature, working at a ski resort. Later, she went back to college and ultimately ended up helping homeless people, doing research and volunteer work before joining A Woman’s Place three years ago.
Getting off the streets
How you’ve grown up plays a huge part in being able to recover from homelessness, says Maria. “Clients who advocate for themselves get the most services, they tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. Whereas the ones who come from generational poverty and abuse seem to often accept their fate. They’ve been told they’re a problem child since kindergarten and have grown up without love or security.
All the ways that people make living in the city and the Bay area affordable – sharing with roommates for example – are too frightening for people recovering from trauma. Wages are also a problem: women have always been forced into low-paying work. I see this in my clients but also my staff: they’re working for minimum wage, working two jobs, they’re taking care of their families, their rent is going up then they get injured… or just the toll of constant struggle crashes down on them and they have a breakdown. And as soon as you’re a homeless woman there are men coming out of the cracks offering to take care of you and none of them have your best interests at heart.”
A decent salary also doesn’t guard against homelessness. Many of the occupants at A Woman’s Place are working full time but still not earning enough to pay San Francisco rent, where a room alone will set you back over $1,000 a month. Maria explains, “I have women here working in tech companies, or who have a master’s degree. They’re scared to tell their employers they’re homeless. And if people do earn a bit more, then they stop qualifying for Medi-Cal, but maybe have asthma and their medication is $500 a month so then they skip it and end up in hospital and lose their job. Your heart breaks a hundred times a day.”
The shelter provides much needed stability for women trying to find their feet, like Yvette. She left home after her partner became abusive when she lost her job as a medical assistant. “I came here three months ago, broken and falling to pieces, and I’m still trying to pick myself back up,” she says. “My dream is to help people, so I’m studying to be a counsellor. I’m in the right place. I’m so grateful for a place to stay and food to eat. But it’s also very hard being here, having no privacy, dealing with people’s issues. I want to help people, I don’t want people to suffer, it’s an ugly feeling. Women go through so much abuse.”
Another resident in transitional housing is Jewelz, who is half-British, half-American and moved here from England in January. “My father was visiting England with the American Air Force when I was conceived. I don’t know if he knows that I exist. My mother gave me up when I was two and an English couple unofficially adopted me until I was 10, but then I went to live with a Jamaican family who abused me. I slept on a couch for six years and was abused by their eldest son; I fell pregnant at 14, was induced and delivered a dead baby. I ran away, and was raped more than once. I was homeless until a Caribbean lady took me in and helped me finish school. I managed get into university to study music and ended up working for theaters and the BBC. I’ve never had counseling for the trauma I’ve been through. I started to experience depression and ended up deciding to come to the USA to find my father. I came to San Francisco to stay with a friend’s son, but when I got here I found he was smoking crystal meth. He became frightening so I had to escape. I went to a drop-in center where someone sent me here. Fortunately, I met Maria and told her what I’m trying to achieve and that I just need a bit of stability, so she put me into transitional housing.”
Everyone appreciates the work the shelter is doing, but for those like Jewelz who are mentally stable, being surrounded by many who aren’t can be traumatic. “I’m grateful to be here, with food and toiletries, but the residents can exhibit extremely challenging behaviour and they’re sleeping right next to you. It’s almost broken me on a number of occasions. I’ve had suicidal thoughts, where the idea of death was more peaceful and comforting than another night here.”
However, some women don’t want to leave. Maria explains that many choose to stay here rather than go into housing because they’re too afraid to even have male neighbours due to their past trauma. “These women are here because we’re just women. We have a drop-in centre that’s full of older women who could totally get housed or be in a shelter, but they’re sleeping in chairs because they’re too scared to even be in the same building as men. This idea that women can heal other women and empower each other is really what we’re all about.”
While politicians and global companies try to solve the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis, Maria thinks we need to look deeper for the real solution. “What it comes down to is the whole idea that homeless people are homeless because of something they’ve done, that it’s a personal failing. There’s no bootstraps to pull yourself up by if there’s no boot in the first place. Let’s actually listen to their stories and talk to people. It can’t just be that affordable housing gets built for what we consider to be ‘nuisance people’ who we still don’t care about. Because then the problem will just continue.”