The Invisible Homeless

In an epicenter of America’s homeless
crisis, the streets are “swept” of living
humans each morning—where homeless women go, and how they got here.

By Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor

There’s no sign yet of sunrise as Mrs. P. finishes brewing a pot of coffee.

She has a detailed routine that must never run late.

“You have to pour the water in slowly so that the grounds get fully saturated,” she says, pointing to the machine. “I think it’s on the principle of the French press.”

There are books on the shelves above her; puzzles below. A large sculpture sits palm on cheek while Mrs. P. brews pot after pot of coffee. She’s deliberate with every step in the process, and equally articulate in narrating it. By 7 a.m., she’ll have a complete coffee and tea station ready for the women waiting in line outside of Rachel’s Women’s Center in downtown San Diego.

Like those who will soon file through the doors, Mrs. P. is homeless.

She spends the nights on the sidewalk directly across F Street from Rachel’s. It takes two trips and two signal cycles to bring her belongings.

“Hey, how come you look all right?”

“I get criticized for not looking so homeless. I guess we should all be dirty and smelly. People ask me all the time, ‘Hey, how come you look all right?’”

She fondly recalls her fixer-upper home in El Cajon where she raised her three children.

“You cook, clean, pray, go to church, take care of your kids…”

She pauses.

“I came to work every day to do my job, pay the mortgage, buy groceries…I didn’t think anything of it. I figured that’s just what you do.”

Mrs. P. explains how, as a budding professional, she worked with officials in Washington, D.C., to develop a national tutoring program based off of a pilot project she started at her alma mater, where she was on the dean’s list. At the height of her career, she was one of the only female oil executives in the world. She got married and had children. She would later get divorced and purchase her home as a single mother of three—certainly a hardship, but a far cry from being on the streets. She got a job working for the state.

“How did you lose your last job?”

Her response is elaborate. Slowly, it boils down to a disconcerting incident—one that left her severely injured.

“I tore muscles, ligaments, tendons,” she says, running the back of her hand along her flank. “I asked for two weeks off to recover, thinking I would be able to go back to work once my back got better—and then I received a mimeographed letter saying I was dismissed.”

She didn’t get to talk to a supervisor. She couldn’t start an appeal, because she hadn’t technically been fired. Meanwhile, the pain became unbearable, leaving her unable to walk or talk, much less fight a legal battle. Mrs. P. had no income and no work.

When her home was foreclosed on, she had nowhere to go.

The Problem with
‘Solving’ for
Homelessness

San Diego had the nation’s fourth-highest homeless population in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The official count of 8,576 homeless residents across San Diego County comes from a Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which takes place over a three-hour span during a single night in January. This exercise is perennially skewed for many reasons. County officials and homeless advocates told KPBS that they believed the actual homeless population could be as high as 9,220.

Measurement and margin of error aside, the PIT number-crunches humans into statistics. In turn, the proposed solutions—such as San Diego’s morning police sweeps—only address the homeless population as a whole, further stigmatizing what it means to be “unsheltered.”

“I was ignorant to this until it happened to me,” one participant at Rachel’s says.

She did not want to be named or photographed. “Even friends will treat you as if you have a disease called homelessness and if they get too close, they’ll get it, too. It’s humiliating. Hu-mil-i-a-ting.”

The woman, much like Mrs. P., doesn’t fit the homeless stereotype. She is well-dressed and well-spoken. She says California has roughly half of the country’s homeless—and she’s right. A recent report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates 47 percent of all homeless people sleeping in areas not intended for human habitation are in California.

She suggests that many people are potentially just one paycheck away from being on the streets. Again, she’s right. A study by NORC at the University of Chicago found that 51 percent of working adults in the U.S. would need to access savings to cover necessities if they missed more than one paycheck.

“And just because you’re homeless, doesn’t mean you’re a drug addict or alcoholic,” she adds. Correct again. Most research suggests that just 25 to 40 percent of homeless individuals have a drug or alcohol addiction. For every homeless person you see on the street suffering from addiction, there are one, two, maybe even three others who are sober.

More than any statistic or rhetoric could ever convey, this woman’s circumstances are a reminder that every homeless person has a story. She came to Rachel’s after losing her mother, her job and her home, all within one month. She had an additional setback when a man attacked her on the street, ramming into her leg with his wheelchair and leaving a large gash affecting her ability to walk.

“If I wasn’t at Rachel’s, I don’t know where I’d be. Not that it’s easy being in a room with so many other homeless women, but it’s a place where I can rest, think and plan my next steps.”

She envisions a career in mental health, although she knows it’s not as easy as simply dusting off her resume, especially with her mailing address pulling up a homeless shelter on Google.

“Your self-esteem takes a hit. You don’t feel connected to the community. You have no support. It’s just what happens.”

One of her friends recently told her he had the answer to fix homelessness. “Just stop helping them. Stop feeding them, stop trying to take care of them, and they’ll go away.”

It’s as if he’s talking about pigeons.

Any Day, Any One

The homeless are not “a problem.”

They’re humans who need help.

“Once you get out here, you’re like a Jeep that’s stuck in the mud,” Mrs. P. says. “You have the capability to be unstuck, but you just can’t quite do it. You need something to help get you out.”

If you think it’s not possible for you to become homeless, consider, then, others who are close to you.

Mrs. P. is a mother. So is Martha, who unfolds the chairs and sets out the day’s donated bread products in the mornings while Mrs. P. makes the coffee. Martha’s children are in their 40s with well-paying jobs on the East Coast.

“For a lot of people, it’s just age and running out of money,” Martha says. “I was a waitress for a long time.”

Rachel’s Night Shelter gave Martha a bed after another shelter had closed. When her morning chores are complete, she’ll doodle for a few hours before volunteering at the library, attending Bible study, or running other errands. She’s working on becoming a live-in helper.

Martha has no contact with her family. There was no fall out, no cutoff. Perhaps her homelessness might have freaked them out, she says. Rachel’s is her support system.

Overcoming
the Extreme

As a housing and resource specialist at Rachel’s, Kelley meets separately with as many as 10 participants a day to help them apply for various services offered through Catholic Charities. She has been working here for 13 years, but when she first came to Rachel’s, she wasn’t a job applicant. She was a victim of domestic violence fighting addiction, cancer and severe trauma, all at once.

“I had one breast, a bald head and one day clean,” Kelley says. “I couldn’t do my life anymore.”

Kelley was homeless because the college she was attending had asked her to leave; at the time, there was no protocol in place there to deal with domestic violence. When someone on the streets offered Kelley drugs, they momentarily solved her problems. Eased her bitterness. Numbed her mind. That’s the thing about trauma, particularly domestic violence. It impacts every decision thereafter.

“When you start piling trauma on top of trauma, you’re not just adding; you’re multiplying,” says Antoinette Fallon, director of homeless services at Catholic Charities. “Trauma is the common thread in women’s homelessness. In order to truly assist these women, we have to understand what they’ve been through. It’s fundamental.”

Kelley spent four months at Rachel’s Night Shelter. During that time, she underwent 25 radiation treatments for breast cancer and attended two, sometimes three meetings a day to stay clean. It took her 20 years in total—through homelessness, hopelessness, and wrecked relationships—to regain stability. Who better to help the women at Rachel’s today?

“I am able to share my story because Catholic Charities did not judge me,” Kelley says. “They took me as I was—a broken, beaten-down woman. When I walked in here, a stranger saved my life. I want to be that stranger for someone else each and every day.”

What Can We Do Together?

It’s 6:45 a.m. and Mrs. P. is putting the finishing touches on the coffee station—cups, cinnamon, stirrers…

“Vino, will you be serving our legacy coffee today?” Kelley asks. “Mrs. P. is a fabulous representation of a ‘Rachelette.’”

Mrs. P. approves of the newly coined term. Soon, the women enter single file. Roughly 100 will visit or stay throughout the day. Thirty-five will get a bed for the night. If or when Mrs. P. is able to get housing, she’ll gladly move into another fixer-upper, perhaps a studio. Until then, she’ll keep doing her best to remain safe, healthy, positive and productive—just like any of us.

“Being homeless teaches you to be patient,” she says. “And compassionate. We have to look out for each other.”

Rachel’s Women’s Center is many things to many participants: a day respite, night shelter, bathroom, shower, laundromat, meal service, clothing provider and mailing address. It’s also one thing to every participant: a place to be heard and helped. Learn more and volunteer.