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Seniors on the streets of San Francisco

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Photo by Jim Forest on Flikr

If you really want to know how our local economy is doing, look no further than the nearest homeless shelter. Former Supervisor Bevan Dufty oversees homelessness in the city, and he says these days, San Francisco’s roughly 1,150 beds are nearly full each night. Advocates say there’s been a sharp increase in homeless seniors, especially women. It was rare to see this population on the streets a few decades ago, but now service providers say it seems to be the norm.

Finding a place in for homeless women in San Francisco

It’s lunchtime at Canon Kip Senior Center in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Most of the ten or so tables are full. People greet one another – this is a crowd of regulars. Canon Kip serves lunch Monday through Friday to low-income and homeless seniors, as well as younger adults with disabilities.

One woman postponed her lunch to talk with me. Zulema Íniguez is 63 years old and has been homeless for eight years, ever since her mobile home was stolen. At the senior center, Íniguez finds a quiet place to be alone in the daytime.

“The reason that I look for my own is I am a Christian. I read Bible,” says Íniguez. “I like very much the word of God, and I think this is the thing that keep for me to live in the midst of everything.”

At night, Íniguez sleeps sitting up in a chair at a drop-in center for women, which she prefers to a co-ed shelter. Neither is an ideal place to sleep.

“Different argument, people coming in the middle of the night with angry, and so they have to call the police, ambulance,” Íniguez explains. “Some people also they are sick, they call the ambulance, and when ambulance is coming, everyone is wake up.”

Restful or not, shelter beds around the city are in high demand. Next Door Shelter is in the Tenderloin and houses both men and women. I meet Mary there, a 60-year-old resident who asked that we not use her last name. She says she stood in line for two days to get a bed.

“You’re on a very dangerous street, waiting at two o’clock in the morning to get a bed, around people drinking and smoking crack, and there are knife fights, and you never know what’s going to happen,” Mary says.

Mary had another option: one of the many SROs, or single-room occupancy hotels, in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and the Mission – but Mary says she doesn’t feel safe there.

“I tried this. This is not for women, believe me. Any woman that wants to stay clean or off drugs or keep a normal life, this is not the answer,” Mary says. “It didn’t take me too long; I just walked out and left everything I have there, because of bedbugs, because of drugs, and it seems like, if you’re my age, you’re prey.”

The women here and at Canon Kip Senior Center wound up homeless for a variety of reasons. For Mary, it was the sudden death of her husband. The insurance money ran out quickly. Still grieving, Mary resorted to drugs and relying on her family.

“Living from relative to relative, and you find out that doesn’t work because they have their own families they’re raising, their own problems,” says Mary.

James Powell from Canon Kip Senior Center, describes another factor driving elders onto the street: “A lot of the social service agencies and services that were available in the 70s and 80s are dried up, and that has left those who are most vulnerable the ones who are displaced,” Powell says.”

Family disputes can also play a role. Barbara Coleman, a 72-year-old retired nurse, now advocates for homeless seniors, after being homeless herself for eleven months. Her son’s drug habit made it impossible for her to stay at home.

“In my home, he started using drugs. I didn’t know this, because I’m working every day,” Coleman says. “He got belligerent, is when I really found out about it.  It just came to a head one Saturday morning, and that’s when I knew that I had to leave the situation. I didn’t know that I was going into homelessness.”

Then Coleman found she had to figure out a lot of things on her own. “I had to learn how to connect to my job; connect to different organizations that’ll help me, and I did,” she says.

Now Coleman works to guide other homeless seniors through the maze of public and private social service agencies out there. The government, she says, has made it hard for people to handle the paperwork.

“You go here, you go there; everybody telling you something different,” Coleman says. “How do you know what to do? Who to go to? They direct you to this supervisor; they might direct you to that social worker, but that social worker can just go so far. But she has the information. Why don’t they simplify it for our older Americans, and also for our youth and children?”

Later, I meet Veronica Turner at the Next Door Shelter in the Tenderloin. She’s 59, and it’s unclear how she ended up here. She was in a mental ward and in one other shelter, where her things were stolen. Then she found a bed at Next Door Shelter.

“It was like angel gifts,” Turner says. “It’s just a lifesaver; they just saved me.”

Turner has asthma and walks with a cane. She needs hip surgery, something she can’t afford anytime soon. Sharing a room here with four other women appeals to her.

“You know, we laugh and talk before we go to sleep, joke and stuff at the end of the day; that’s the best time – just joke around, you know,” says Turner.

Turner worked as an early childhood educator for thirty years and dreams of running her own preschool.

“I don’t want to be homeless no more,” says Turner. “Uh uh. That’s scary, scary, scary.”

Unlike most of the women I interview, Donna Williams, now 60 years old, says she chose to be homeless when she left her home in Oakland. She was 14.

“Because I wanted to explore; I wanted to travel, I wanted to see what was outside, instead of inside. I don’t have to be homeless, ma’am,” says Williams.

But she has been homeless on and off through the years. She’s in the shelter now to treat some medical problems. Williams says they saved her life by taking her off the streets. I asked whether she’d ever felt in danger in all that time.

“No, no, because there’s always been somebody watching over me,” Williams replies. “Knowing who it is, I don’t know, but I’ve been blessed.”

For a variety of reasons, these women have at one time or another depended on a shelter – it boils down to how difficult it is to find a home they can afford.

Over at the Canon Kip Senior Center, case manager James Powell says the solution to this problem is straightforward.

“We need more shelter space, that’s the bottom line, we need more shelter space, and we need more housing,” says Powell.

Despite the large scope of the issue, Powell feels new hope, as he sees City Hall paying more attention to problems such as elderly people standing in long lines for shelter space.

“I believe that there is a new awareness, and I don’t think that everyone now is trying to sweep it under the carpet,” says Powell. “I’m optimistic; I haven’t been optimistic in the past.”

Powell says the key to his optimism is seeing compassionate leadership at the top because, as he puts it, they’ve been fighting from the bottom for a long time.