Old, Female and Homeless
To homeless advocates in San Francisco, those numbers sound way too low, given the problems they see just inside the city limits. But whatever the figure, there’s no doubt that life is miserable for older people without a home. Lugging suitcases or bags for dozens of blocks to and fro, from a shelter to a reservation center to the place that serves free lunches, can be incredibly taxing if you’re young and able. Doing so with the disabilities and ailments common to those in their 50s or older, from chronic back pain and arthritis to swollen ankles and gout, is that much harder. And then imagine those women’s lives, when feeling safe meant another night spent contorted into a hard plastic chair.
Longtime advocate for the homeless James Powell seemed relieved when I mentioned that I’d seen the plastic chairs: maybe now someone would do something about them. “We’re talking about women sleeping in chairs. It’s a travesty,” said Powell, a case manager with the Canon Kip Senior Center in San Francisco. Bevan Dufty, San Francisco’s homelessness czar, told me people sleeping in plastic chairs was “not optimal, but we have to have places where people can go. It’s not an optimal place, but it’s safe, which is important. There are people who thrive in shelters; there are people who refuse to go in shelters. It’s complicated.”
Sometime after I talked with Powell and Dufty, the plastic chairs were quietly replaced at Oshun (now officially known as A Woman’s Place) by more comfortable cushioned chairs.
Located in the Mission District, the drop-in center is basically two large adjoining rooms, the otherwise bare walls brightened by a single big-screen TV. When I visited Oshun, I found a diverse group of forty-five women, each sitting or sleeping in a chair surrounded by her belongings. Some had old suitcases with broken zippers, while others had stuffed their things into ripped garbage bags. The lucky ones found a spot near a wall. They’d at least be able to rest their heads by putting a blanket against the wall behind them. The rest had no choice but to let their heads hang.
Yet what choices do older homeless women have? Despite a spike in older homeless clients, says O’Connor of the St. Anthony Foundation, there are still precious few services to help women like Marcia and Dorothy. “If you’re a homeless woman, you’re guaranteed to be assaulted on the streets,” said Paul Boden, organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a West Coast coalition of homeless organizations. Boden, who was homeless himself at 16 after the death of his mother, also served as executive director of the city’s Coalition on Homelessness. “Women try to double up with guys to be safe, but they usually get beaten up by those guys, so their options are limited.”
One of the regulars at Oshun is an Argentine woman named Zulema. She’s a 65-year-old who, when I met her, had been sleeping in the plastic chairs there for six years. “I stayed in shelters for four months, but the process is inefficient and I never felt safe,” she said. “The shelters are very bad for women, especially older women.” She told me she had become accustomed to sleeping sitting up on hard plastic. “You have no control of your life at the shelter,” she said. “At Oshun, I can come and go.”
You’d have no idea Zulema was a homeless woman who slept in a chair each night if you saw her on the street. She has flawless golden brown skin and a shiny gray bob. She often wears burgundy lipstick, khaki pants, a white button-down sweater and a jean jacket. She rides her bike for exercise and earns $400 a month selling flowers she buys from a wholesaler. She often drinks tea and reads the Bible at Starbucks. Advocates describe her as one of the few Oshun regulars who haven’t had the spirit beaten out of them.
A case in point is the older woman I spoke with who had served in the military and said she’d been homeless for several decades. She warned me that every person I was talking to was lying. “Why would you believe any of them?” she screamed. “Not a damn thing has changed since 1931. It never will. You’re wasting your time.”