In San Francisco, a nearly mile-long stretch of sidewalk along Division Street was given over to a tent city. While the highway above provided added shelter from the elements, rain sporadically cascaded down, the Bay's fickle weather pattern caused conversations to be halted mid-sentence as people ducked for cover and awaited the sun's next breakthrough. Some tent dwellers wheeled possessions along the street, some tidied up the sidewalk, others caught moments of rest inside their tents. Possessions spilled out onto the pavement, creating a clutter most pedestrians did their best to avoid.
“I was a tree-hugger in Oregon,” said Cheryl, who whitheld her last name. “But I litter now. I leave it. I don't have the energy to clean it up, and I feel horribly. That's what happens to homeless people. It's not that we don't care, it's that we don't have the energy.”
This scene was from several weeks ago, before the city of San Francisco declared the homeless encampment along Division Street a health hazard and gave people 72 hours to move. An order many of the residents have ignored.
Division Street, San Francisco
The following is a composite, drawn from a variety of sources, including interviews with Lisa “Tiny” Grey-Garcia from POOR magazine, Hoyt Walker, Cheryl, Shannon, Nathan and other parties who wished to remain anonymous as they continue to live on the streets of San Francisco, of what it's really like to sleep unsheltered every night. The interviews were conducted throughout January and February of 2016.
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You found a place to sleep an hour ago, but state law prohibits you from standing, sitting or sleeping in a public space until the clock strikes nine, so you wait. You've been ticketed before for “loitering” violations, twice for “blocking the sidewalk” and once for a “sit-lie,” but those are on the record of whichever alias you gave that night.
The spot isn't bad—it's half a block from the main drag, which will hopefully give you some privacy. And the extended gutter overhead offers added protection from the elements. And, as always, you checked for sprinklers hidden in the lawn, the ones that tend to “accidentally” turn on whenever a tent's pitched nearby. With that out of the way, you began setting up.
You sift through your belongings. You were hoping to find a buddy to keep watch on your stuff—you'd have returned the favor later—but ran out of time. Tonight, you're on your own, so everything had to come in with you. With your flashlight as an aid, you pile up cardboard and create a makeshift ramp behind your back using clothes. You can't sleep lying down anymore because of the asthma. You close your eyes and try to sleep. You consider how you ended here. Budget cuts, job losses, being unable to afford rent, evictions, cold nights spent in the car, parking violations, traffic stops, unpaid tickets and having your car confiscated.
The patter of the night's first rain against the canvas wakes you, not exactly from sleep, but whatever murky state of partial rest you were in. It quickens, sounds like you're in the middle of a popcorn machine. You think about your old dog, a boxer mutt you found roaming near downtown. You'd make sure he was fed before you. You try not to think about that time a few months back when the city took possession of him during one of their “sweeps,” trying to dampen your screams of protest with claims you could get him at the shelter. They never said which, or how. When you fail not to think about it, you focus on the rain.
You consider tomorrow's schedule. During your break, you'll call 3-1-1 to check if the randomizer showed mercy and found you a shelter bed for the next 90 days. A break from the sweeps and elements would be nice, but not a perfect situation. Theft is rampant. So are drugs. One shelter had such loud night conversations you only got a few hours of sleep, another had snores powerful enough to rattle water. But on rainy nights like these it'd make the difference between getting a few bits of shut-eye and getting none. The wind picks up and whips its way through a rip in the canvas floor, so you tuck your blanket underneath.
You wake up, out of breath. Must have shifted into a prone position. As you wheeze, you reach behind you and push your belongings back up into that ramp. You cough and close your eyes.
You hear drunks staggering down the street, towards their homes. You tried drinking as a sleep aid, a bunch of other things too, nothing's really effective. Maybe you pass out for a few hours, but you don't feel rested. Anyway, you can't afford to be passed out with drunks roaming. They're the ones you have to watch out for, the ones that see your “free shit” on the street and take it, the ones that let themselves into your tent. Protecting the homeless from rapes and assaults aren't high on cops' list of priorities. You wait for their voices to fade and close your eyes.
You hear the rumble of a truck and your eyes pop open. You calculate what you can pack away before the Department of Public Works unleashes the hoses for their nocturnal “street wash.” You've already lost a blanket and pair of socks last week, so your remaining clothes make the cut, but what about the rest? The rumble disappears into the city. Your fourteenth sweep of the month won't be tonight.
You worry about a lot, but what's keeping you up now is your job. You've been working in a restaurant for the past few months, but lack of sleep's already caused you to skip a few days. Not finding anyone to watch your stuff cost another few. One afternoon, you skipped to check out an apartments to rent, but they needed references. You can't afford to miss any more work.
The sky begins to lighten with the approaching sun. The morning's first cars drive past. You wipe your eyes, crack your neck, begin considering where you'll put your stuff while you work. You hope to find someone you can trust. You cough, part of that lingering cold you can't shake. And then you unzip your tent and start your day.
There are 6,686 people who live on the San Francisco streets, according to the 2015 San Francisco Homeless Count survey; the actual number is, most certainly, higher. A national survey in 2013 found that 610,042 Americans spent at least one day homeless, one-third of which was unsheltered. There are many dangers to living unprotected on the streets. But what's often overlooked is the impact that not having a safe place to sleep has on an already vulnerable population.