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Homeless in San Francisco

Flickr user Sterneck

Joseph Luna woke up this morning in a sleeping bag under the Harrison Street on-ramp to Highway 101. He sleeps here when he needs to get out of the rain.

Luna does not sleep past eight because he'll get rousted by police. His sleeping spot is near a five-way intersection, in back of a city tow lot. In his morning routine, he will get up, stack the cardboard and shove his stuff into a big black duffel bag, the only bag he owns.

Luna is 38-years-old. He is sleeping on the street because shelters remind him too much of his time in prison. He has not showered in a couple of weeks.

Losing a job is the biggest cause of homelessness in San Francisco. The main reason the homeless stay unemployed is lack of job training. There are other reasons, too. One of them seems obvious: No permanent address. No address, no ID. No ID, no job.

Luna needs an ID, but he also needs job training. He has a degree in hotel and restaurant management, but that career did not pan out. He says it is hard to see how much his life will actually change, "I'm a felon without a driver's license, and so even if I did have an address, that would put a pretty big damper on a lot of jobs."

Luna used to be addicted to heroin, but now he is in treatment. He has a caseworker, but no housing. A disability put Luna in the hospital ten years ago, nerve damage from a construction job. When he could not work, he started selling drugs. He has been in and out of prison since he was 13-years-old. But he says he is never going back to jail because of his son, who lives with his mom. The 10-year-old boy does not know his dad is homeless.

"He has no idea that I have to sleep on the street sometimes," Luna says. "Very purposely I make him think that I'm just fine, even if I'm not."

David LaFleur also spent years on the street after losing his job, waiting for something to happen. LaFleur used to reside in an alley off Sixth Street in San Francisco, a place you wouldn't really want to walk through, at least not at night.

"This was my reality at one time, you know, it was this alleyway," LaFleur says. "A lot has happened to me in this alleyway right here."

This is where LaFleur slept and did drugs, on and off, for six years. He does not really like to come here now that he does not have a reason to. For him, a walk down memory lane is not bittersweet. It is just bitter.

A few homeless folks sit in the alley today, next to some garbage bags. They would probably find it hard to believe this tall, well-groomed man used to live here. The truth is, LaFleur is still technically homeless. He lives in a clean and sober program house and has been out of work for half a decade.

Today, LaFleur is focused on finding work. His launch pad is the San Francisco Public Library, main branch, just two blocks from the alleyway. He is here at the library every day, surfing job sites and faxing his resume.

LaFleur is 51 years old. He has not had regular work since he was laid off six years ago from a job installing metal roll-up doors. His backpack is stuffed with notes and copies of his resume, and he has answered more than 350 job ads in the past year. LaFleur struggles with computer skills and he has trouble getting interviews.

"That's a job that I'm applying for, this one right here, which is a spa service technician." LaFleur adds, "That's what I normally do. I'm also an ironworker by trade."

LaFleur grew up in San Francisco and went to community college. He was paying rent on a nice house where he lived with his girlfriend at the time of losing his job. Even when that happened, he never thought he would end up homeless. He started using drugs and went to prison for a while. When he got out, he found out he was manic-depressive.

"It was a step-by-step process,” says LeFleur. “You lose your job. You lose your relationship. Then your cars, and the only thing you're really holding on to is the roof over your head."

Today, things are looking up. LaFleur just found out that he was approved to move into a residential hotel. It has been a long time since he had four walls that belonged just to him.

San Francisco spends $38 million per year on supportive housing. Subsidized housing in San Francisco is not all its cracked up to be, though. Just ask Kathleen Leigh. She and her partner, Susan Hanson, live in the Tenderloin, San Francisco's seediest neighborhood.

"This is where I live. This is the Wynton," says Leigh."It's four floors. I live on the fourth floor."The Wynton is one of hundreds of residential hotels subsidized by the city and, officially, it is temporary housing. But some people have lived here for a decade, even raised children, in a hotel room that is only 150 square feet.

2008 was the year Leigh and Hanson became homeless. The couple was painting high-end homes when the market collapse took most of their clients' disposable income.

The couple had a secret: they were addicted to heroin. They lost their house in Sacramento when they could no longer pay the rent. They packed their stuff into their car with Molly the hound dog, and drove in to San Francisco.

Leigh remembers their first night on the street: "We had been broke down and living in the car, kind of just waiting for them to tow it. We'd go back every night and, if the car was still there, we'd sleep in it. The day that it wasn't there, we wouldn't sleep in it anymore. Kind of doing it like that. And the car was gone."

The women were in their late fifties. They got sores from sleeping on the sidewalk. They collected bottles for money, but Leigh got sick from putting her head in trashcans while scavenging for recyclables.

One day, someone from San Francisco's Homeless Outreach Team asked them if they needed any help. They went through a detoxification program and got placed in a room.

Their rent is $650 per month, cheap by San Francisco standards. And they're grateful, even if the communal bathroom is filthy and the building is infested with bedbugs. Their housing is subsidized by welfare.

When asked if they ever saw themselves with this kind of a life, Hanson says: "No. We're white girls from the suburbs, and it just... it's different. You're in everybody's business, whether you want to be or not. Sometimes I hate it, sometimes it makes me laugh, and sometimes it pisses me off and makes me sad. So, we are rebuilding our lives."

Today, Leigh works 20 hours per week at the public library. Her job is to reach out to homeless library users on behalf of a social worker. She likes helping people facing the same situation she was in.

Inside their apartment, Leigh and Hanson have proof that they are likely to leave homelessness behind. There's a rolled-up rug in their closet, wrapped in plastic, that is too big for their current room. They cannot wait to unroll it in their next apartment.

This story originally aired on Marketplace.

Crosscurrents San Francisco