“It has been a rollercoaster ride,” began Darnell Boyd, as he stood in front of more than 100 people in the basement of the San Francisco Library. “When you get in the middle of the storm of homelessness, it’s hard to get out.”
On a Wednesday evening in March, Boyd, Patricia Mendoza, TJ Johnston, and Tina Collins told their stories of living with homelessness. “Speak On It! Voices from the Streets” offers an opportunity for people interested in homelessness to learn more about it from the mouths of experts: people who’ve experienced living on the streets themselves. It was the first event of its kind, and it drew a crowd. Behind the project is the Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy nonprofit that highlights the voices and causes of people living without a home in San Francisco. “The Homeless Speakers Bureau began as a discussion and ended up being an initiative,” says Bilal Ali, one of the organizers of the event. “When policies are made that have an impact on homeless people’s lives, homeless people are usually absent at the table.”
Ali’s hope is that, through the Homeless Speakers Bureau, people who’ve experienced homelessness will learn the skills and gain the confidence needed to communicate their thoughts and insights effectively in a larger citywide discussion. With this goal in mind, each person at Speak On It! talked a little bit about why they ended up on the streets and about ways the local community and government could do better.
“I came to San Francisco to try to get a job in construction, to get me on my feet,” said Boyd, a kind-looking man with gold teeth and a stellar sense of humor. “My grandma always told me to save up enough money for three months, because it’s never going to take you more than three months to get a job. But then 2007 and the recession hit, and it was rough. Three months went by, and I didn’t have a job.”
Boyd didn’t give up: He worked hard to find employment, but the economy just wasn’t on his side. And once he became homeless, it was even harder to convince people that he was worthy of a job.
“I tried and tried. I remember putting in an application at Carl’s Jr., and before I could walk out the door, the lady threw my application in the garbage can,” he said. “She didn’t even give me a chance to get out the door. Those little things put you in a really depressed mood. I applied for General Assistance, and I was doing like 20 interviews a day, but everybody kept saying, ‘No no no.’ I was so depressed I turned to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain,” he said.
Patricia Mendoza blended in with the crowd while Boyd was speaking. Petite with stylish wavy hair, colorful scarves, and comfy shoes, she looked more like someone’s well-to-do mother than the stereotype of a homeless senior. But she took the stand and stared straight into the crowd before she spoke.
“I’m recently homeless,” she announced.
Mendoza’s story is different from Boyd’s, but they ended up in the same place: on the streets and in the shelters of San Francisco. She was enjoying life as a residential property manager when she fell ill. After ending up in the emergency room, doctors diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful condition that requires medication and treatment. Unable to work, she lost her job — and the home that came with it.
“You put what you can in storage, and you stay with relatives or friends for as long as they can stand you, and as long as you can remember that you’re in somebody else’s house and it isn’t yours,” she said. “When you realize what you face going into the shelter … well, we get what we get, and you just have to make do. If I had somewhere else to be, trust me, I would not be in a shelter.”
(Speaker Tina Collins gives a presentation during Speak On It! Voices from the Streets(Jessica Christian/S.F. Weekly)
Tina Collins, wearing colorful blue workout leggings and a puffy black jacket, spoke about her experience struggling with mental illness from a young age, and how that affected her ability to stay sober and out of trouble.
“I’ve been suffering from mental health issues since I was a child, when I experienced sexual abuse in the San Francisco Unified School District,” she told the crowd. “In my culture, it was taboo to go see therapists. By the time I was 14, I knew I had some issues going on, but there was no way to address it. I turned to alcohol and drugs. I was looking for help, but didn’t know where to find it.
“I went to jail twice before I got a great probation officer, who led me the right way,” Collins said. “After that, I started seeing a therapist for 15 years. Fourteen of those years, I remained clean and sober, so it really helped me out a lot.”
But Collins lost her therapist when the center she worked at shut down. With that lack of support, she found herself using again and homeless. She was hospitalized three times before having to leave San Francisco to find a residential substance abuse program that would take her. She’s still homeless, but doing better, and sees her kids on the weekends.
While personal stories were by far the most powerful experience of Speak on It!, there was also a lot of education built into the program. TJ Johnston, a reporter for Street Sheet, led a presentation busting myths about homelessness.
“You’ve probably heard the misconception that homeless people are in San Francisco because the city and county offer such wonderful, generous benefits that they just want to move here. Well, that’s a lie,” he said. “Seventy-one percent of homeless people in San Francisco became homeless as city residents, so that pretty much blows that theory out of the water.”
Johnston also touched on the criminalization of homelessness, again citing statistics to back up his claims. “Over a seven-year period, the city issued more than 51,000 quality-of-life citations, which include sitting, sleeping, and lying down in public … budget and legislative analysts found in 2015 that the City of San Francisco spent $20.6 million just on policing homelessness alone.”
Speak On It! was the first public appearance of the Homeless Speakers Bureau, and it could not be viewed as anything other than a raging success. All 100 seats in the room were filled, and on Facebook, 712 people had listed themselves as “interested” in attending. But the room’s size dictated how many could attend, and in the hours before the event started, frantic people flooded social media with requests for tickets from those who might not make it. It resembled a sold-out rock show more than an educational panel — an odd reaction, as rock stars are not lining the sidewalks like our homeless populations are. If people so badly wanted to hear their stories, why not just ask?
But the positive response was a good sign for the future of the Homeless Speakers Bureau, and for its attendees. “I had no idea so many people were going to come,” Boyd told SF Weekly afterward. “I wanted to hide behind the podium when I got up there.”
But instead, he gathered up his courage and spoke. And everyone in the room, who took time out of their evenings to attend, listened.
According to the Coalition on Homelessness, the next will be on Thursday, May 11. Stay tuned on their Facebook page.