By Alexis Chavez
Living in San Francisco skews people’s perceptions of crazy. Before moving here, I grew up in a very small, very conservative, agriculture-based town. There was little culture, a seemingly nonexistent homeless population, and anyone who acted “different” was just that. I hated it.
When I moved to the city, I was a sponge. I absorbed everything I could, whether it was going to street fairs, parades, or merely sitting in a park and watching the crowds walk by. Very quickly I learned there are lots of quirky folks gallivanting around. From the eccentric Burning Man crowd, to the leather daddies, to the oh-so-hip-hipsters, the city is full of characters.
Immediately, I realized, what is “normal” in San Francisco is not true of what normalcy is regarded as in other places. For the first few months I lived here, the homeless population that can be found surviving in many neighborhoods saddened me. Everyone knows about San Francisco’s “bums,” yet I was distraught not only by the idea of homelessness, but also by the nonchalance and disregard so many people expressed over the issue.
My breaking point came one night while driving down Market Street. A homeless man, with his shopping cart of belongings parked next to him, was sitting up against the Muni entrance on the corner of Church and Market. He appeared to be passed out, with a needle sticking out of his right arm. Right then, my normal-to-crazy-gauge broke. Since then, nothing I have seen or heard in this city has shocked me.
It did not take long before I realized, that I, too, in order to get about my business, would have to put aside my feelings, essentially ignore the existences of said homeless. As a broke college student, I did not have any change to spare, and the heartache was getting wretched. I finally understood why so many San Franciscans turn the cheek to those on the streets.
Living in the outer stretches of the city, where there is not as big of a homeless population, has sheltered me from seeing the roughly 6,000 to 12,000 homeless people who live on the streets on a given day. However, in the last year, I have been working in Hayes Valley, and have once again been forced to face my feelings about homelessness and the issues that surround it.
Storefronts line the redeveloped Hayes Street stretch, offering the trendiest, specialized boutiques, cafes, restaurants and wine bars. Patricia’s Green lies in the center, a park where parents, pet owners and people looking to escape the cold, concrete city streets flock to admire the art installations and the traffic, zipping all around. But at the end of a bustling day, when the shoppers carry their bags home, the street is inhabited by the people who live on them.
They can be found everywhere. In the alleys around Hayes Street, napping on the benches in the park, digging through dumpsters behind restaurants.
Underneath the black, pre-dawn sky, a man I know only as Michael sleeps nestled in the alcove of the Room Service storefront, a new custom furniture business. Covered in a blue blanket, he is surrounded by his belongings — a plastic bag full of clothes, a crate most likely used as a seat or storage, and an empty paper plate, stained with remnants of last night’s dinner.
At dawn, he rises before street cleaners and 9-to-5 folks take to the streets. He packs his stuff, which neatly fits in both hands, erasing his traces. Tomorrow, he will find somewhere else in the neighborhood to sleep.
Before Hayes Valley became the modish neighborhood it is today, the area was a much different place. In 1951, a plan to build freeways throughout the city was approved, one of which was the Central Freeway, eventually running through Hayes Valley. The first phase of the Central Freeway construction began in 1959, which is the same year the freeway plans were cancelled, per a vote by the Board of Supervisors. The vote prevented more work on the Central Freeway, leaving only what had already been built—a raised double-deck structure that jutted out from Interstate 80, across Market Street, and into the Hayes Valley neighborhood, with connecting off-ramps on Fell and Oak streets.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Central Freeway beyond repair and the northern portion of the freeway was removed in 1992. That year, the Board of Supervisors voted against building new freeways north of Market Street, so the freeway was not replaced, yet the southern part, which connected to the Fell and Oak street off-ramps, remained.
In 1995, a city task force suggested a street-level boulevard replace the freeway, but it would be a few years before this would happen. Caltrans started demolition on the upper deck of the freeway in 1996, yet neighborhood locals wanted the entire freeway removed. Patricia Walkup, founder of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, voiced her opposition for the plans of a redeveloped freeway, along with activist Robin Levitt.
In 1997, Mayor Willie Brown placed an initiative, saying the freeway should be rebuilt, on the ballot, which won, allowing Caltrans to begin designing a new freeway, much to Walkup and Levitt’s dismay. The activists began gathering the appropriate signatures to once again get the issue on the ballot in 1998. This time the initiative to remove the freeway won; however, this was not the final word on the subject.
Finally, in 1999, two initiatives went on the ballot — one to remove the freeway and one to rebuild it. Voters ultimately decided to remove the freeway, a decision that stuck. The Central Freeway would come up to a light on Market, where traffic would cross over north onto the new Octavia Boulevard.
Fourteen years after the damaging earthquake, the last remnants of the Central Freeway were demolished. In 2005, the newly designed Octavia Boulevard was completed, and a year later the rebuilt freeway leading up to Market Street was also finished.
Rain pours down on Hayes Street, so much that the gutters overflow with water due to leaf-clogged drains. People scurry underneath umbrellas, jumping from one store overhang to the next. Yet, it is so warm inside La Boulange Café and Bakery that the windows are fogging up with condensation from all the bodies, piping hot coffee, and heat pouring out of the ovens.
Dressed in all black, save for a red beanie, Darnell Easter, 49, cozies up to a table by the window. His warm brown skin, slightly moist with sweat, compliments his dark brown eyes. When I usually see him, he is relaxed and conversational, as he always has something to say; yet today he seems slightly nervous, on edge. Easter has been coming to the café since last year, which he credits with helping him reach a new place in his life.
Though he often gets stares from the customers inside, some of the employees have reached out to Easter, giving him free coffee and food, something he says he would have stolen in the past. Easter usually graciously takes the food, thanks the “goddesses” who work there, and walks across the street to Patricia’s Green, a park he has often called home.
But on rainy afternoons such as this, he sometimes sits inside, quietly, and alone, without making a scene, until the rain stops or becomes a sprinkle.
Here is the story he tells of his life: Easter grew up in the East Bay city of Pittsburgh, CA, about an hour northeast of San Francisco. He was the first-born between his parents, each had one child from previous relationships, and together they had three more. Growing up biracial, Easter always felt like he did not fit in.
“I never had anyone I could identify with,” he says. The son of an African American father from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Mexican-born mother, he was never white enough, nor black enough to identify with other kids his age, and he was often called an Oreo.
Having parents of different ethnicities was also very trying because of the racial tensions of the 1960s and 1970s. The tensions were compounded by the fact his father and uncles were associated with the Black Panthers, an African American revolutionary organization.
The Panthers never approved of his parents’ relationship and for as long as Easter can remember, problems surrounded the marriage. His father, however, was not a militant soldier for the Panthers, like his uncle was. Rather he sold heroin for them. Drugs, violence and street mentality were an everyday occurrence, a lifestyle that Easter was raised in.
When he was five years old, Easter was molested for the first time by an uncle, one of his dad’s brothers. When he told his parents about what happened, they did not believe him. The molestation would go on for the next five years. Feeling guilty, confused and stripped of integrity, Easter struggled with what was happening to him.
Feeling that there was no place to run, 10-year-old Easter went to the St. Peter Martyr Catholic Church, where he cleansed himself with holy water and gave his confession about what had happened to him, in hopes he would relieve his guilt. Inside the confessional, as Easter confided about his abuse, he says the priest slid the partition aside and asked the young boy to step over.
The priest then asked Easter to explain in detail what his uncle had done to him, as he masturbated. Afterward, the priest warned Easter that, should he tell anyone what happened, he would never be an altar boy.
Feeling even more confused, Easter truly felt he had no place to be safe. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder. As a young boy, he was prescribed Ritalin, and eventually Prozac. “They never gave me a chance to be who I am,” Easter says, tears streaming down his face. “No one believed in me. It really ruined me and made me depressed.”
He says the feelings of despair and depression only worsened when his parents divorced when he was 13. His dad left his mother for their babysitter, a white woman his mother had once told him to get along with. He blamed everyone for the divorce, and became angry, throwing stones to relieve stress.
Acting out in a fit of rebellion, he began to steal. He stole candy and other small things from the store, though he never got caught, and he also began to steal pot from his father. His parents were never the affectionate type, but Easter thought if his dad saw him smoking marijuana that perhaps he would love him more.
Despite his reckless behavior, Easter fell in love with acting, and the theatre provided him with a place to escape. He began acting in high school with the Willows Youth Theatre in Concord, CA. His first role was as Judas Iscariot in Godspell. To this day, he can still sing every line to his solo with his thunderous voice.
High school came and went, and when Easter was 18, he developed a drinking problem. Still angry over the divorce, he would drink to develop enough courage to confront his dad about leaving his mother. Disillusioned and drunk, Easter decided to get back at the priest who had molested him so many years before.
The priest, still active in the church, lived next door to St. Peter Martyr. Easter says he went to the church to see him one day and ordered him to the granny flat in the backyard of the house. Once inside, Easter ordered him to lie down, as he blindfolded the priest. He then proceeded to “get back” at the priest, he says as his eyes flicker between uncertainty and excitement, by performing oral sex and masturbating on him.
Once he was finished, he says he took a picture of the priest and threatened to reveal the picture if he did not give him $100.
The priest obliged and Easter took the money and bought more booze. On his way out of the yard, he stopped at the statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in the front yard, and asked for forgiveness. He says he continued to blackmail the priest for the next two years.
In the 1980s, Easter spent a year in jail for embezzlement and fraud. He learned how to steal credit card information from carbon copy receipts from a pair of girls he met in the theatre. After his release, he went back home to find there was nothing there for him anymore.
Soon after, he met a retired Navy sergeant in Concord, who needed a crank connection. Easter, having drug connections in the ghetto, became the liaison the Navy sergeant needed. The relationship lasted for a few years, the pair grew close and Easter moved in with the sergeant and his family.
In 1992, Easter met his friend Lisa, who introduced him to the new and thriving rave scene in San Francisco. As a dancer and performer, Easter instantly loved going to raves. The scene was taking off, and as Easter remembers, there was a party going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Going to raves allowed Easter to make money by selling drugs, and provided him with a roof over his head. When he was not partying, he couch-surfed with friends, but always had money to pay his way. In the middle of gang wars and violence, the rave scene offered Easter an escape—somewhere he could feel safe.
It was at one such rave where Easter first tried Ecstasy. The drug made him feel things he had tried to repress. The emotions from the molestations surfaced and he began to cry. His friends hugged him, telling him it was good to let his feelings out, and for the first time, Easter felt secure. The parties routinely involved Ecstasy usage, which would turn the parties into a big love fest. Hugs, happiness, music, and dance, Easter finally found his identity. The rave scene provided him with a place where he felt he belonged. After years of feeling like “the other,” Easter, and hundreds of kinds like him, found a home.
Raves were happening all over the city in the 90s — 1015 Folsom, DNA Lounge, Groove Kitchen, to name a few. Easter began taking part in throwing these parties, including one called A Family Affair, which went on for six years. His love for theatre was showcased at performance art parties, where he would perform on stage.
Around this time, Easter also began a relationship with a man named John Pauli. The two shared a love for raves, and the relationship was Easter’s first. Because of his issues with trust, Easter had never allowed himself to get close to anyone.
In 2000, after one of his performances at Dubtribe, a local party, Easter was catching his breath backstage, when drag queen Joan Jett Blakk took the stage. Blakk, a friend of Easter’s, called Pauli on stage. Before Easter’s eyes, the two professed their love for one another, and announced on stage that they were a couple. The proclamation stunned and bewildered Easter, who says he became depressed over the announcement.
“When you fall, people throw stones at you,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes, “It’s happened all my life.”
When the rave scene died out in 2008, Easter began hanging out in Hayes Valley. He had never been homeless before, even though Easter never had a steady place to live. In May 2010, Easter took up residence at the Oak Hotel on Fell Street.
Using vouchers he obtained from Project Homeless Connect, an organization that aims to help the homeless get off the street and into housing, Easter stayed at the Oak Hotel until January 2011. His vouchers were used up in November, but he made an agreement with the manager to clean the bathrooms and do work to earn his keep.
He says the manager began running him ragged with all of the hard work. Though he had a place to live, he had no time to dumpster dive to make extra money for food and drugs. After his housing fell through, Easter started sleeping on a bench in Patricia’s Green.
During the day, he would wander the streets, but always find himself back at the park. He made friends with some of the other homeless people, though some were unapproachable, their minds lost to crack.
In March, Easter went back to Project Homeless Connect’s event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. He got more housing vouchers, valid for the next six months. He hopes the new pair of dentures he is having made, thanks to Project Homeless Connect, will help him look more presentable when searching for jobs. “I haven’t done enough in life. I want to help children. I want to show these parents how to raise them. I could change things,” he says.
Easter was just one of hundreds, if not thousands, who waited in line for Project Homeless Connect’s services on Wednesday, March 16. Hordes gathered in front of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium where the event was held, waiting in line for hours; some even camped over night.
Project Homeless Connect was started in 2004 by the San Francisco Department of Public Health as a way to bring critical services to the homeless. About 250 non-profits, private businesses, and volunteers come together to help the citizens in need. Sprint, Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, Larkin Street Youth, and the Riley Center, among others, provided services such as free phone calls, veteran services, free haircuts, wheel chair repairs, needle exchanges, medical attention, and vision and dental services.
Outside, the line wrapped around Grove Street and onto Larkin Street as people waited in lines to gain entrance to the auditorium. Those with pets could drop them off at the pet sitter facility, which was located next to the pet veterinary service booth. Cats and dogs could be heard barking and meowing, longing to be returned to their owners.
A mix of chatter and traffic buzzed along the streets, as City Hall suits walked by our city’s most destitute population.
The inside of the auditorium was set up like a convention of sorts. Once inside the building, the line of people extended into Larkin Hall, where each attendee went through a check-in process. Volunteers, speaking multiple languages, acted as guides, intermediating between the line and available seats at the check in tables, calling out numbers as if it were an auction.
“I have two over here!” one volunteer yelled at another guide, who then escorted two more people to the appropriate locations. The attendees were asked a series of questions before being allowed to roam about the main room.
The main auditorium, where so many high profile musical acts perform, was transformed into a type of shopping center. Each service had setup of long tables, draped in cloths, some of which were decorated with pamphlets, candy and other freebies. The blue drapes were drawn over the stage and the upper level seating was empty, yet the room was loud with chatter. Despite all the bodies in the room, you could still feel the enormity of the space.
“Man, I ain’t ever been in here,” one man gasped in awe, as he sat filling out food stamp paperwork. “This is amazing.”
Attendees exited the building through a food line provided by the San Francisco Food Bank, which gave each person non-perishable foods to take with them. Back on the street, many lingered around the auditorium, their bags heavy with food, some waiting for their friends, some with no other place to go.
It is a Saturday evening in the Mission district, the weather mild after a warm, sunny day in the city. The sidewalks along 16th Street are filled with people walking, pouring out of bars and standing in front of restaurants, while the streets are backed up with traffic as drivers look for a place to park.
On the same street, right between Mission and Valencia, lies Julian Avenue. At the address 179, the Julian House is located. It’s a hotel that features 36 themed single occupancy rooms.
Darnell Easter has been living in room 10, thanks to housing vouchers, for the last month. The first floor of the three-story Edwardian building is a sandy brick, while the rest of the building is painted pale yellow with brown trim. Inside, the hallways have white wainscoting, the upper half of the walls painted taupe.
Despite the clean appearance, and fresh paint, the place still feels old and dark.
I am greeted by Easter at the front gate. Dressed in a cowboy hat, brown blazer and unbuttoned shirt, Easter is especially frenetic. He tells me his roommate is having relationship issues and that now might not be the best time to visit.
As I try to figure out a more appropriate time to visit, he asks me if I want to take a quick look around the building. He grabs me by the arm and escorts me inside the building, acting as a tour guide, and it is not long before he is knocking on his door, yelling to his friends inside to let us in.
Room 10 sits on the left side of the hall on the first floor. The room is tiny, no more than eight feet wide and 10 feet long, and shared with a roommate. The walls are painted a bright blue and are speckled with a few posters, including one of Albert Einstein.
There is one window covered with a white curtain, a small closet, a sink, a bunk bed and a wall of shelves filled with CDs, a microwave and lots of clutter. The floor is covered with clothing, plastic bags, shoes and lots of unidentifiable objects that have been taking up space for who knows how long.
Easter’s roommate sits alongside a friend and Easter’s boyfriend Poe. The four men sit around a 13-inch television screen watching the musical Cats. The room smells musty, with faint hints of smoke.
I step inside for a brief moment, before feeling slightly claustrophobic from all the stuff and people inside the small space. Easter and I continue on the tour of the building, heading upstairs. In another room, we run into Chris, a tenant who is painting a room across the hall from where she stays.
At the moment, she is working on a giant sun, yellow with gold streaks, and long rays bursting from the center. Her idea, she says, is to have a beach themed room. She says she hopes the room will be tranquil, and Easter adds that the purpose of the art in the rooms is to uplift the people who stay there and keep a positive vibe.
“Crack and heroin can be so ghetto,” Easter says, his voice full of attitude and distaste as he refers to old tenants, though I wonder how long it has been since he smoked crystal meth, his drug of choice.
Easter walks me back out to the front gate, where my ride awaits, and says he hopes to see me soon. He waves goodbye, throwing up a peace sign, smiling, before turning his around and walking back to room 10.
If there is anything I have learned about San Francisco that I did not know before, it would be that this is a city of complexities. From the detailed and dated architecture to a diverse population to progressive politics and social issues, there are often multiple sides to any given issue.
When it comes to homelessness, the issue is as complex as any. I have heard many people disregard the plight of the homeless, by either ignoring the issue, making light of it, or by blaming those with no place to live, calling them drug addicts or saying they chose the lifestyle for themselves.
Sometimes, this is the case, but such generalizations are often stereotypical. I say that because often times the people passing such judgments have never taken the time to get to know a homeless person, nor see things from his/her point of view.
Other times, some say the resources are available, but it is the homeless who are not reaching out, however many resources are diminishing, like everything else, in this crumbling economy.
Whatever the sentiments are, the facts speak for themselves. According to the Coalition on Homelessness, in January 2009, the homeless count in San Francisco was 6,514 people, though they suspect this is a low estimate, since families and youth are usually underrepresented. And, the number seems to be growing, as 45 percent of the respondents were said to be experiencing homelessness for the first time.
To me, I think a society can only function as well as its weakest link, and those with no place to call home are in one of the most desperate positions I can think of. Homelessness, along with the problem of hunger, seems to say as much about society as it does about the people experiencing it.
Solving the issue of homelessness is not cut and dry, and the only solution I can think of is offering more resources, beds and facilities to help get people off of the streets and into housing. Sadly, the current state of the economy is only making things worse for everyone, from government employees to state-funded programs to the everyday folks struggling to pay bills.
Homelessness seems to be a major crack in the foundation of our system, splintered into all different kinds of complex issues. While this plight might not be solved overnight, if ever, what we can change is our perceptions and attitudes about those less fortunate than ourselves. At the end of the day, we are all human beings, living on this earth, and no matter what choices we make or what has happened to us, we all deserve to be treated with a level of dignity and respect.