Homelessness may feel far away for most, but it truly just takes one small thing to set forth a spiral of events. For K (who asked us not to use her full name), it was an attack by her violent ex-boyfriend.
K had a very unique living situation. Growing up in a tourist-trap town in the warm Gulf Coast of Florida, K had grown up working service industry jobs that catered to tourists visiting the sandy beach town. After many years, K found herself far from home in Northern California, working and boarding at an upscale resort deep in the redwoods and “weed country,” an industry which is integral to the area’s economy but which does not make for particularly friendly neighbors.
While living in Northern California, K met and fell in love with a troubled loner with violent outbursts. Because K was an outsider to the area, when her boyfriend’s temper became increasingly bad, K found few folks to turn to. Finally, after one too many dangerous situations, K left him.
However, he, too worked at the resort — and it was difficult to avoid each other. K tried to keep a safe distance, but one day he assaulted her in the parking lot. He bent her over his motorcycle, twisting her wrist to the point of a severe sprain. K found herself in a cast, reaching out to the resort’s human resources department. They offered no assistance and no sympathy, and claimed her injury could not even be verified. They were unwilling to fire him, so she quit. That left her without a place to live. Homeless.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.
We interviewed K to learn more about her story, as well as her move to the Bay Area so she could seek assistance from what seemed like a stronger network of organizations.
WYV: What happened after your ex-boyfriend assaulted you?
K: When I went to the doctor the next day, the nurse said she was a “mandatory reporter,” and two sheriffs came to speak with me. I told them what happened, the doctor ordered an X-ray — and then nobody did anything. He was working within sight of my home, and neither my employer nor the sheriff’s department had removed him or disciplined him as of when I had an eviction notice on my door.
There was a balance due, which I was willing to pay … until I spoke to the woman in charge and she told me I needed to have a restraining order in order for them to make the “best business decision.” I realized that my personal safety was not a concern.
I assumed (silly me) that assault on another individual [at work] was a fireable offense. Or that the sheriff would have spoken to someone — mainly the person who assaulted me, or at least tried to find the witness I told him about. Instead, my employer knocked on my door with the threat of drilling out my lock.
I packed what I could with the help of a friend, and found a ride to the city. I knew, in civilization, there would be more medical and legal resources.
I was shaking — for two weeks, I had tremors. I was in the E.R. with panic attacks. The first night in the city, my friend found me a hostel for $20. I was alone, and the overwhelming feeling of desperation put a fear in my heart and my breath that I could not control. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have control — I thought I was having a heart attack.
I signed up with San Francisco’s homeless shelter program, allowing me access to showers and a place to be. I reached out to every resource I could — domestic violence groups and various legal aid offices.
It didn’t feel real. I was observing the world, but not part of it. I stopped caring about what happened. How could anything be worse? It came to a point that I was in a constant state of panic. A friend came to visit and let me know that I wasn’t alone. She provided some great resources and gave me a sense of normalcy.
WYV: Everyone has a preconceived idea of what homelessness looks like. Do you feel like a “homeless person?”
K: It seems like what we refer to as homelessness is a sense of a loss of independence. You no longer have the option of going home and pulling the covers up over your head if you’ve had a rough day. Maybe this is why some people on the street drink or use drugs … it is the equivalent of escape that we find in our home, our zen, our favorite TV show!
It seems that I am at the mercy of others now, always. Finding a place to go to the bathroom. Never having a place to put your things down for fear they will not be there when you return. As a woman, the fear of being harmed (again), physically or sexually.
The looks of other people, or even worse — the ignoring. People walking by pretending they don’t see you. It makes it easier I suppose, and who am I to judge? But it seems that the public doesn’t want to see this part of society. You can bet your ass that when I get to the other side of physically, emotionally and financially healing, I will use these experiences to the advantage of others in this position.
WYV: Do you think it is easier to find help living on the street or couch surfing?
K: I have been fortunate in this way. Living on the street, there are a few agencies which really help with a lot of the details people wouldn’t think about in everyday life — showers, a place to store your things. A couple pieces I have found missing are [things like a] mailing address. How important it is to establish yourself a mailing address, because every document is going to want contact information. Also, help with clothing and haircuts. It seems like a small detail, but it may be the confidence booster someone needs to reestablish themselves as an individual, with a fresh start.
WYV: What your experience been with local government agencies and nonprofits?
K: I have found barriers with many agencies. It seems that the amount of time I have been in the area was an initial problem (which seems sort of counter-intuitive, if the idea is to “break free” from the situation in which you are not safe). I have also found barriers in not fully understanding — sometimes it seems like people are unwilling to listen, or they have “heard it all before.”
Really, what is needed for me is transitional housing. Shelters are great, and offer night-to-night help (if there is a bed open). Sometimes there is a crisis shelter. But I am still suffering physically and need time before I can heal enough to work and get back on my feet. Staying in a shelter is not always safe, and not having a place to store my things seems to be a problem for all homeless people.
D.V. beds seem to always be full. Another barrier with D.V. transitional housing is that I do not have children and am not pregnant — granted, I would rather sleep outside than take those resources from a child.
The devaluing. Government agencies, and all organizations, seem to be fragmented. I’ve been told that S.F. has one of the most comprehensive homeless shelter programs. Which may be true. But what I have found are lots of pieces — lots of phone numbers. When you’re in that state where you are scared and alone and your whole world has been turned upside down, what is needed is comprehensive advocacy. You need one person who is there for you, who can make the phone calls and be your friend, and help you figure out a plan.
WYV: What’s the worst thing about not having a stable living situation?
K: Just as it has been phrased: the instability. Not feeling the independence of being an adult and making my own decisions. The sense that everyone, outside of nonprofits, wants something from me. One woman told me that men would let you sleep there if you had sex with them, usually.
There seems to be this idea that to be “homeless” means you have somehow mismanaged your life. But I think most adults who are in this situation have found themselves in circumstances outside of their control. Sometimes that means not having the will, yes. Sometimes that means not having the ability.
WYV: How does not having a home affect other areas of your life?
K: I have a bachelor’s degree. I finished Summa cum Laude from one of the top 10 private schools in the Southeast. The physical and psychological damage from these events, and the subsequent effects (including homelessness) have taken a chunk out of my history. Professionally, I am spending time looking for “filler” jobs, ways to eat, a place to sleep and shelf to [store] what little possessions I have. I should be building my career (in non-profit work).
This is something I actually take as a blessing, because I know I am strong. I know I will “make it” through this. Regardless of whether my personal life ever recuperates, I am fully confident that I will one day find myself standing on two feet, with my hands ready to work in the service of others. And I am grateful for this time — as really terrible and scary as it is — because I will able to understand and help that much more.
I am disgusted by men. I want to cry when I think about romance, or when a man looks me in the eye on the street. I hope I’m able to work through it; I would like to be a mother some day. Personally, this has left me ashamed. I don’t feel like I have a sense of privacy. I feel in debt to anyone and everyone who helps.
I am finding myself with much more appreciation for what brings me joy. I find myself undistracted by the rest of the world, and it is imperative to see positivity and good things where I may have missed them before. It is a struggle to distract myself from the emotions of panic attacks while not allowing myself to detach. It is a delicate balance, but I will not allow these experiences to change who I am. I am self-aware and allowing myself to feel and see hope. There is always hope.
WYV: If you could tell survivors and those currently involved in abusive relationships one thing, what would it be?
K: The most important thing is to maintain anonymity. There is a program called Safe At Home in California that will help you. If you have funds available, get a P.O. box. It is terrifying to not have an address to put on documents. If you have to, use General Delivery.
Secondly, and this is just one heart reaching out to another: you didn’t deserve this. It is said a lot and on the other end of domestic violence hotlines you can hear the young women with the soft tones saying similar things, but it seems like they have been coached and don’t really understand that fear.
As somebody who typically blames myself for everything, it took a while to understand that there is nothing you can do to deserve that moment when he snaps. That’s his choice, and his problem. Even if it is a push/push back situation. Even if you feel like you provoked it — you don’t deserve this, ever. Never. Say it with me? Never do I deserve this.
WYV: What do you want the general public to know about your experience that we have not covered yet?
K: My situation is not the worst — by far. There are women (and men) suffering and in fear every day of their lives. It is not something to pity. It is not something to look at someone differently over.
I remember walking to the place for women in San Francisco one day, and overhearing a couple of young women talking for a few blocks about nothing in particular. And it seemed so foreign to me, like a distant shore — the normalcy. I remember having fun times with friends. I remember not needing to worry that everything I cared about had been taken. You see, I had build a life for myself at [the resort]. I had settled in. I was a manager there, and never could have guessed this is what would happen.
I am grateful for the nameless who have genuinely cared. I am grateful for the simple blessings which have given me hope that the whole world isn’t awful, and that it will be okay. I would like others to feel that as well.
I am grateful for the person writing this story, and for the magazine taking an interest in seeing the unseen. And I am grateful to the powers that be for the opportunity to grow from here. There is nowhere to go but up, and if things can be this low, imagine how high I will soar when all is said and done.
And I am grateful that I have not lost sight of who I am. I will fight with all my might not to become jaded, but more aware. Not to lose innocence, but to protect it with all my might. I am grateful for the beauty in the world, in a way I have never been before.
There is a Nina Simone song called “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” It reminds me that I survived.