Sneaking Into Shelter: My Hideous Homeless Night FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 22 Jun 1999 14:07:30 -0700 (PDT)


FWD  http://www.sfgate.com/eguide/music/hyena/

     June 1, 1999

     SNEAKING INTO SHELTER: MY HIDEOUS HOMELESS NIGHT
                              
     By Hank Hyena, Special to SF Gate

Disguised  in stained slacks, torn sweatshirt, black ski cap and five-day
facial stubble, I walked into Mission Rock Homeless Shelter last Thursday,
begging for lodging.

Wretchedly, I slept that night with the poorest of the City's poor.

Are shelters benevolent oases of hope, or dangerous filthy pits of
bureaucratic cruelty?  I wanted to inspect the shelters as a journalist,
but I was denied access by every administrator I telephoned.  The only
possible entry, I realized, was to costume myself as an indigent.

"I hope we get in," an African American man named Benjamin frets as we
shiver by the gate with 100 or so other hopefuls, waiting for our names to
be called.

Mission Rock, located in China Basin at the intersection of 3rd and 4th
streets, is San Francisco's largest shelter, accommodating 600-plus souls.
Its capacity is strained when the weather's unpleasant.

"I don't ever want to sleep in the street," Benjamin continues, "because
I'll always be looking up whenever someone walks by, thinking they might
want to kick me in the head.  My friends Jack and Barbara were sleeping by
the bus station and they got their arms broken.  Three people beat them
with sticks -- two men and a woman.  The police busted them and the only
excuse they had was: they didn't like homeless people.  That scares me."

"Me, too," I say, nervously.

"Another homeless man got rolled up in his blanket and lit on fire,"
Benjamin adds.  "I hope we get in tonight, even if we don't get blankets."

"I want a blanket," I sniffle.  "It's cold."

Peer advisor John Rodriguez finally shouts out our names at 7:45. There
isn't any room in the men's dorms, he announces, but there'll be 60 cots
with wool blankets available in the lobby.

Thankfully, we move into the dark dinginess of Mission Rock's lounge; it's
coed, but 90% male.  Sixty people are riveted to a TV monster-movie called
"Largo," with a smaller clique of Latinos absorbed in a Spanish drama on a
tiny corner set.  Domino games are in progress on a long central table.

The majority here are African-American and Hispanic; looking around I
estimate that 20% are Caucasian, like me.  Surprisingly, there's no
pervasive air of depression -- friends are mingling about with loose
banter: "I see you, Juanita!" and, "Hey fool!  Gimme a cigarette!"  Most
tenants appear to be
regular bedders, not one-nighter standers.

The staff gives me a baloney sandwich and a slice of cream cheese -- both
generously donated by local food services that deliver excess grub when
their work day ends.  Later, there'll be shipments of apples, oranges,
bananas, cherry pie, carrot cake and sloppy joe sandwiches.

Cautiously, I sit near the television set by a young African-American
couple who are giggling and cuddling with a dinner of Ritz crackers and
Coke spread out in front of them: they look like they're enjoying a date at
a drive-in movie.

I'm fearful of being "outed" as a fake, but I eventually note that a dozen
other people look considerably less "homeless" than I do.  A balding
professorial man in corduroy blazer, blue tie and unscuffed loafers looks
remarkably like Richard Dreyfus.  An attractive, purple-haired young woman
seems like a shagable Brit, and two gorgeous, high-styling transsexuals
strut about, displaying their firm, enhanced cleavage.  Other personalities
include a goateed young man dressed entirely in purple with a bandaged
right hand, and a tall angry skinhead trembling in black cutoffs.  There's
also at least six old coots who look like my dad's fishing buddies.

Only one troublemaker exists -- a gaunt, white 50ish man with a terrible
odor.  Wherever he goes, people moan: "What's that smell? Goddamnit, you
stink!"  His enraged reply is always, "SHUT YOUR F******* MOUTH!"  Wherever
he sits, the nearby area quickly clears out.  He wants companionship,
though, so he keeps moving towards groups that rapidly disperse in his
presence.

The TV thriller unnerves me, due to my new roommates cheering on the
violence.  Edging away, I examine the Bulletin Board that advertises Anger
Management Groups, Support Groups for Recovery, Mental Health Services,
Clothing Distribution, and dining schedules for St. Anthony's and Martin de
Porres.  I don't see any jobs, or job training, posted anywhere.

Next I head to the bathroom, which turns out to be an exciting microcosm of
the community, amplifying all its degradation and hope. Exposed toilets
guarantee the same dehumanizing lack of privacy as
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/eguide/archive/1998/11/24/hyena
.dtl> federal prison, but that's the only sordidness here -- no one's
shooting up drugs or vomiting.  Instead, the principal activity is men
scrubbing intensely in the small steaming showers, fervently trying to
remove the grime of their situation.  Other men are awkwardly trying to
launder clothes in the sink.

An immaculately-groomed Arab man meticulously shaving his face in the
mirror confides to an adjacent companion:

"I've been here a year and a quarter...  Some men end up back here after
they leave, but not me!  When I leave, I'm never coming back.

"Are you going to leave San Francisco?" asks his friend.

"No!" says the Arab.  "I will get a good job."

I brush my teeth vigorously, cursing the fact that I forgot my dental
floss.  I scour my face several times, but I can't take a shower, because
there are no towels provided.  I'm homesick already -- I miss my Queen-size
bed and my hugalicious wife.

The main problem here is the sad, sick stench that seeps into my brain and
my blood -- I fear I'm living in a petri dish of infinite germs.  Why can't
the City provide laundry facilities?  Many homeless men are trying to get
clean, so let's help them!

"Frazier" is on TV when I emerge from the bathroom.  Oddly enough, its
upper class humor elicits huge laughs from the economic bottom-dwellers.

I'm worried about violence, but there's a "One Strike, You're Out" code
that helps keeps everyone docile.  When a slap fight erupts at 9:45, both
combatants plead to the staff, "Don't throw me out!  Please!  He started
it!"  Tempers vanish immediately, and both pugilists are allowed to remain.

At 10 pm, the TV is abruptly turned off.  Dorm denizens are marched off to
their quarters as the lobby is transformed into a congested sleeping area.
Sixty narrow urine-stained khaki and aluminum cots are set up eight inches
away from each other.  I'm placed in no. 11, between one of "my dad's
fishing buddies" and a chubby man who's ominously scratching his armpits
and crotch.

"Did you work today?" the scratcher asks me.  "Why not?  Didn't you do
street labor?  Did you hear about the carnival coming to town?  I'll work
there. Did you eat today?  What did they feed you?  Baloney?  What time did
you get it?"

He peppers me with questions.  Feebly I answer, nervous that I'll be
exposed -- but suddenly, in mid-sentence, he snores off to sleep.

Around us, other men converse with their cot neighbors:

"You Filipino?" One brown-skinned man addresses another.  "I like Filipinos
but I like the women better than the men."

"You're from India?" An aging hippie asks a tiny nervous man, who has
arrived late, in a gray suit.  "Welcome to the American Calcutta."

"I don't at all like it here!"  The reluctant subcontinent visitor
shudders.  "But I don't know what else to do!"

Men who are shorter and smarter than me know how to sleep here: they shroud
themselves tightly in the wool blankets, like cocoons.  But me?  My
ungainly body thrashes outside the rickety cot's edge, in the chill draft.
I fear there'll be coughing and delirium tremens outbursts all night, but
instead, I'm the only fidgety one, constantly seeking a warm, somnolent
position.

Other sleep-jarring obstacles exist -- the no.1 problem is the LOUD LOBBY
STAFF: three bellowing women gossip and bray sadistically every moment of
their shift.

Three of the lobby's bright lights remain on all night, as well.  I felt
like a laying hen trapped in one of Wisconsin's eternally incandescent
factories.  And the cold, the teeth-chattering chill -- how does anyone
survive in December?

Hours pass... Eventually, I lose consciousness for what seems like a second...

"Get up!  Fold your blankets!"  voices shriek harshly.  "Can't you hear us?
GET UP!"

 The three evil staffers roust us at 5:30 a.m.

"Fold your blankets!  Fold your cots!  Move it!  Don't you understand
English?!"

"No, no comprende Ingles," smile the Hispanics.

There's coffee served at 5:45, but I've received enough hospitality.
Stiff-legged, I wobble out of the shelter to my Toyota parked a half block
away.  I depart the world of the homeless...

Mission Rock exists due to civic funding provided by the Department of
Public Health, and its services are deeply appreciated.  But in my opinion,
the homeless here are treated worse than the dogs at
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/eguide/archive/1998/05/12/h
yena.dtl>Maddy's Pet Adoption Center or the prisoners at
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/eguide/archive/1998/11/24/h
yena.dtl>San Quentin Prison.  Insomniacs and low self-esteem sufferers
certainly aren't going
to perk up and feel positive after time spent at Mission Rock.

What can be done?  Clean sheets would be a cordial consideration, plus
towels in the bathroom, laundry facilities, quiet and courteous staffers,
longer sleeping hours and extensive employment encouragement.

Why can't we do this?  I don't know, recent mayors don't know, nobody seems
to have a clue.  Herb Caen described San Francisco as a "beautiful woman
with bad teeth."  Today, the symbolic rotten gnashers are grinning sadly in
our City's lack of vision regarding its homeless.


For more info on Mission Rock Homeless Shelter, call (415) 597-7739 or
(415) 357-3901.

[Hank Hyena teaches "Subversive Humor" at New College and "Comic
Monologues" at UC Berkeley Extension.  He's also a frequent contributor to
Salon.]

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