Julia Scott

Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’

Detour: La Mission

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

NOTE: You can download the Detour app for iPhone or Android, for free, by clicking here. Detours are experiential: you can’t “do” them from home. This one starts at 24th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. More details here.

Listen to a preview of the Mission Detour:


Roberto Hernandez, the “Mayor of The Mission,” takes you deep into the Mission with people who intimately love the neighborhood, but in very different ways. Roberto introduces you to all kinds of ‘locals’: from tech-worker newcomers drawn to the neighborhood’s buzz to Latinos who treasure the neighborhood’s traditions. And as we travel, they all meet each other to ask: What does it mean to belong in a place in the midst of unprecedented change?

Along the way, you’ll make an illegal left-hand turn with the coolest low-riders rolling 24th Street. You’ll visit a controversial new restaurant and eat hot hand-pressed tortillas at the neighborhood’s staple Mexicatessen. You’ll see a million dollar condo and a house for sale for $9,000. You’ll hear the conga drums of Carnaval, decode neighborhood murals, and stop into a backyard patio full of tech workers writing code for start-ups they hope will be the next Uber or Airbnb.

By the end of this Detour, you’ll understand why change agents and preservationists alike celebrate the Mission’s sense of place and want to belong there — and that a statement like “I belong” can mean two different things. As Roberto will tell you, “If you’re saying it to yourself, it’s empowering. But if you’re saying it to someone else, it can mean: You don’t belong. And who gets to belong, that is a real emotional topic around here.”

Listen to Julia Scott and Detour founder Andrew Mason discuss the impetus for creating a Detour that focuses on the sensitive issue of gentrification on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny.

Detour-takers “may find themselves surprised by details that go unnoticed, even by natives,” writes Mission Local.

Taking the Mission Detour in Balmy Alley, the Mission's iconic mural alley. (Julia Scott)

Taking the Mission Detour in Balmy Alley, the Mission’s iconic mural alley. (Julia Scott)

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My Bed Runneth Over

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

“So are you guys in an equilateral triangle, or are you more of a V?”

A dark-haired woman leans over to an eager-looking young couple seated next to her and holds up her thumb and forefinger. Each of the V signifies a person; the fleshy connective tissue between them stands for the partner to whom they’re both sexually connected. Her hand gesture is intended as an icebreaker, but the couple pause awkwardly, as if they don’t know exactly how to answer.

Courtesy San Francisco Magazine

In polyamorous relationships, knowing where you stand is crucial, but often hard to figure out. Whether you have 2 partners or 10, managing multiple liaisons can feel like walking a tightrope—which is perhaps why the perplexed couple have come to this unmarked warehouse on Mission Street that houses the Center for Sex and Culture. Tonight’s Open Relationship Discussion Group is exploring “Threesomes and Moresomes.” The attendees—a total of 22 men and women, a commendable turnout for a Monday night in November—sit in a neat circle, jittering with the same blend of excitement and anxiety that you might find in a roomful of people training for their first parachute jump.

Coats still on against the chill of the unheated room, the gathered polyamorists try not to stare too obviously at the painted nudes on the wall, rendered in various poses of masturbation and frottage. It’s a hip-looking crowd, mostly in their 30s and 40s, white, and flying solo, though there are a few couples and one triad: two women and a man who stroke each other’s hands and listen, but never speak.

When Marcia Baczynski, a relationship coach and tonight’s discussion leader, asks how many people are new to the group, nearly half raise their hands. Some of them are new to poly altogether, including one smartly dressed woman who met the love of her life—a married man—on OkCupid six months ago. With his wife’s consent, she and the man started a passionate affair. Little by little, the two women grew to care for each other as well, to the point that the three of them now sleep in the same bed.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love with him,” the woman says, “I wouldn’t have been able to develop feelings for her. They’ve been together 17 years, and sometimes I see them as the same person.” She gestures toward the man on her left, who smiles and takes her hand. Then her face falls: The wife, who is not present tonight, is pregnant. “There’s this other large need that I have,” the woman confesses, “to get married and have kids. There’s a huge guilt in me for wanting to date other men. I’m afraid I’ll hurt him if I do.” She starts to cry. The room is silent until the man speaks up: “I’ve told her that the last time I loved someone this much, I married her. I don’t know what to do with this.”

Someone asks whether the two of them have talked about having a child together. They have, and they may. “But that’s the hard part for me,” the woman says. “It’s so not what my parents wanted for me. It’s not the social norm.” Everyone nods.


“Jealousy, time management, and lack of clarity around what you’re doing.” Baczynski ticks off the three most common pitfalls that beset practitioners of poly. We’re seated close together on a lipstick-red velvet chaise at Wicked Grounds, a kink-friendly café on Eighth Street where you can purchasee hand-carved rosewood butt paddles with your peppermint tea. Curly-headed and bright-eyed, Baczynski exudes friendliness that inspires a tangible intimacy. A decade ago, she gained fame in the alt-sex community as the coinventor of cuddle parties, which began in 2004 with clothed strangers caressing each other in her Manhattan apartment and have spread to thousands of living rooms across the United States and Canada. Now she’s one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after relationship coaches in the poly sphere, thanks in part to the prominence of her online curriculum, Successful Nonmonogamy, which helps couples open up their relationships without imploding them.

Twenty-four years after Sonoma County pagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart conceived the word “polyamory” (meaning “many loves”), the Bay Area poly scene is still the biggest in the country and very much in the vanguard of a movement to disrupt monogamy. Many of its members are more aptly described as “monogamish,” Dan Savage’s term for couples who stay committed to each other while having sex on the side. (Polyamory also extends to couples who date each other and single people who date around a lot—although poly types tend to dismiss cruisers and commitment-phobes as not part of their tribe.) But the variations only spin out from there. The aforementioned V becomes an equilateral triangle when a threesome commits to sharing sex, love, and face time among all three partners. Two couples, or a couple and two singles, make a quad. If a fivesome is connected via a common partner, that’s a W. Partners may be primary, secondary, or tertiary, though some polys reject those terms as too determinative. A distinction is made between lovers and metamours (a partner’s partner), the latter often a close friend who steps in to resolve conflicts, cook dinner for everyone, and help raise the kids.

The concepts behind these words are constantly being hashed out in homes throughout the Bay Area, long known as polyamory’s petri dish. New additions to the vocabulary often bubble up here before filtering out to polyamorists in the rest of the country. “Compersion,” for example, defined as taking pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with another person (the opposite of jealousy), emerged in the Kerista Commune, a Haight-Ashbury “polyfidelitous” social experiment that used a rotating schedule to assign bed partners.

William Winters, Anna Hirsch and their partners. Copyright San Francisco Magazine.

Dossie Easton, a Bay Area therapist who wrote the landmark poly bible, The Ethical Slut, in 1997, gets emotional when she talks about how far the poly world has come since her arrival here as a sexual revolutionary in 1967. “I see people who start out where I fought for years and years to get to. They think that they should be able to come out to their families, that their parents should accept them and welcome all their various partners and their various partners’ children for Thanksgiving.”

This isn’t the polyamory of your imagination, filled with ’70s swinger parties and spouse swapping in the hot tub. In fact, the reality of polyamory is much more muted, cerebral, and, well, unsexy. Generally speaking, self-identified poly types aren’t looking for free love; they’re in search of the expensive kind, paid for with generous allotments of time and emotional energy invested in their various partners—and their partners’ children and families. All of that entails a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of time-consuming sharing. “There’s a joke,” Baczynski says, laughing: “Swingers have sex, and poly people talk about having sex.”

If it all sounds inordinately complicated, that’s because it is. What do you do when your partner vetoes a potential lover? How do you handle it when your spouse starts dating your ex? To cope with jealousy and the thorny subject of sexual boundaries, the poly community relies on an excess of communication—hence, discussion groups like tonight’s. The community calendar offers nonstop opportunities for support, conversation, and debate, including potlucks, workshops, coffeehouse socials, political discussions, and book readings. As one woman tells me, people here like to geek out on relationship philosophy as much as they like to geek out on software (and, in fact, the polyamory world has considerable overlap with the tech community).

In the poly world, uncoupling monogamy and sex leads not only to casual sex but also to uncasual sex and, sometimes, uncasual unsex (that is, ritualized cuddling). “I have the freedom to do whatever I want—and what I want includes taking on a lot of responsibility,” says Baczynski, who is in long-term relationships with one woman and two men. Polyamory isn’t about destroying a beloved institution, she argues. Instead, it’s about casting people in the roles that they actually want to play. “There’s an assumption in our dominant culture that the person you’re having sex with is the person who has all the status and has the mortgage with you, too,” she says. “Why do sex and mortgages go together? I’m not sure.”

But freedom comes with a multitude of challenges, many of which were voiced by the following sampling of local poly practitioners. Collectively they provide a glimpse of what it’s really like to be “open.”


Gloria and Alex and Luna and Joe

Gloria Schoenfeldt wasn’t particularly drawn to polyamory, just to people who happened to be polyamorous. First the 31-year-old school-teacher got used to having a polyamorous best friend in Luna Murray, a 25-year-old event planner. Hearing of Luna’s sexual adventures may have made it easier for Gloria to open her heart to a man named Alex, a 45-year-old photographer and relationship coach who identifies as not only poly but also pansexual.

At first, Gloria didn’t want to know about Alex’s other liaisons, other than their names—she couldn’t take the details creeping into her imagination. But that changed when she realized that she wanted to be a part of his “joys and sadnesses,” even if they weren’t with her. “It’s always worse in my head than it is in real life. It’s always bigger and scarier and more intense and more likely to cause the end of our relationship,” Gloria says. Now she comforts Alex through breakups and heartaches—and enjoys dating other men as well.

When Gloria introduced Alex to Luna, she was happy to see that they hit it off. The couple also got along well with Luna’s boyfriend Joe. So well, in fact, that eventually they all became lovers. Last February, the two couples decided to cohabitate, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. For the first time in her 31 years, Gloria tried on the poly lifestyle in earnest, taking care to schedule her dates at the same time as Alex’s so as not to feel abandoned. She shares an occasional sexual four-way with her husband and housemates (they call their state of emotional intimacy a “quasi-quad”). Most of the time, though, they’re plain old housemates, two linked couples who pool money for groceries and get into tiffs over keeping the house tidy. “We live together, we have this loving family connection, and I don’t know what to call that,” says Alex.

Does it work? It does for now—one year in is too soon to declare it a permanent success, although the couples are talking about having children of their own. And both couples married last July, in jubilant back-to-back weddings in Orinda and Berkeley (they served as each others’ witnesses). What keep things stable are the poly-relationship standbys: limits and communication. While they sometimes couple off or have collective sex in the same room, it’s not an orgiastic free-for-all. There are boundaries. Gloria’s never had one-on-one sex with either Luna or Joe. When dating outside their marriage, Alex and Gloria only have protected sex. Luna and Joe won’t bring home a date who hasn’t been vetted by their respective spouse, as well as by Alex and Gloria. Everyone keeps a lid on when Alex’s 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay, although she knows that her dad is poly and has seen him kissing his housemates in a non-housemate-like way.

Still, the arrangement has its challenges. Joe, a 25-year-old server at an upscale Berkeley restaurant, used to get so jealous of his wife’s lovers that they developed a system: Before she left on a date, she would sit him down and tell him all the things that she loved about him and promise him that she was coming home. Over time, “it got easier and easier,” says Joe. Now the tables have turned. Joe has several lovers, while Luna’s sex drive has plummeted. It’s made her insecure and sad. “I used to be this sexual beast, and I’m feeling very fragile about my sexuality and my body…. He’ll talk about how much he loves his partner’s body, and I’ll start crying,” she says.

But as far as Gloria’s personal plunge into poly goes, she considers it a success. She was skeptical of monogamy prior to meeting Alex (“It doesn’t provide the security it claims to, because it can’t”), but had questioned whether she had the emotional capacity for an open marriage. Seven months in, the answer is yes, this is a good life. So far.

“The abandonment stuff still comes up,” Gloria says. “When that happens, I cry. And we talk. And he holds me and he reassures me.”



Ian Baker became a practicing polyamorist the hard way: He fell in love with a girl who told him that she didn’t want to be monogamous—and then slept with his housemate. “I freaked out,” recalls Baker, but he wanted to be with her nevertheless. “I had to do a lot of work for it to be OK,” he says, “for my particular psyche to be OK with it.”

That he faced such a difficult adjustment was surprising to Baker, for whom polyamory was hardly a new concept: He’d grown up in a poly family with three parents—his dad, his mom, and his dad’s girlfriend—who bedded down together every night. They were poor, living in a small cottage in the woods in Sonoma County. Baker, who believes that the arrangement helped keep them all housed and fed, likes to use his story to counter the perception of poly as the domain of oversexed, affluent people with way too much time on their hands. “When I was a kid, my parents’ relationship made perfect sense,” he says. “Whatever situation you grow up in is the situation that makes sense.”

Baker, a developer and CEO of the Y Combinator–backed startup Threadable, describes his younger self as an insecure fellow who looked to his girlfriends for validation. He started reading books about jealousy, and slowly it dawned on him that polyamory could help him outgrow his core anxiety. And so he tapped into the poly community for emotional support. “The only reason that I ever wanted monogamy,” he says now, “was because I was insecure.”

Baker is in love with Lydia (not her real name), his partner of four years. He doesn’t date much outside the relationship, he says, because he’s basically fulfilled. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be monogamous,” he quickly adds. “I like the connections that exploring sexuality brings to my life.”

Lydia, on the other hand, does have other lovers. “She wants to see other people, and I want her to have what she wants,” Baker says. But every time she takes a new lover, he admits, “I have some anxiety. So when that’s the case, I have to do a little work. I’ll call someone and chat with them about it for a few minutes, and then I’ll feel better. It’s not a big deal.”

For poly practitioners like Baker, self-improvement and sexual exploration are overlapping preoccupations. It’s well-nigh impossible to handle the emotional agitation of concurrent relationships without facing one’s own self-relationship, they say—your resilience must be equal to the task. “There’s a bunch of different ways that you can learn to be emotionally self-sufficient, and it happens that I learned those lessons by having my girlfriend sleep with my friends,” says Baker, chuckling. “But since then, it’s been wonderful.”



Bespectacled and wearing pink yoga pants, her hair wet after a shower, Sherry Froman leads me up the rainbow staircase to her bedroom and stretches out on her cozy sheepskin rug like a cat in the sun. She has hosted play parties—featuring touching and, sometimes, sex—for years on these sensuous carpets, beneath tapestry-draped ceilings that evoke four-poster beds. Some of the parties begin with an opening ceremony that resembles a personal-growth workshop: Participants practice communicating boundaries and desires, gaze into each other’s eyes, reveal the body part that they want to be touched, practice saying yes and no, explore the mattresses laid out on the floor. But, Froman hastens to add, “not everything is like that—New Age, woo-woo spirituality. The poly scene is very diverse.”

When Froman falls for someone new, someone she wants to date for a while, she skips the elaborate lingerie and whips out her calendar—not because she wants to keep her multiple suitors from colliding, but because she wants them to meet. If they form a copacetic bond, she believes, someday they all might cohabitate in the big house that, for now, resides solely in her imagination. That dream was a reality once, 20 years ago at Harbin Hot Springs, just north of Napa Valley—Froman would walk from house to house visiting friends and lovers who were studying tantric techniques and the full-body orgasm. “I was 23, and all these older men wanted to pleasure me and were fine with me not giving anything back,” she says. “I thought, that’s different from college boys.”

Since then, Froman has dated her share of supposed polys who hypocritically wanted their women to be monogamous with them. “I think a lot of men have a difficult time with polyamory, because the fantasy looks nothing like the reality,” she says. “Because if a man has several female lovers in his life, chances are that the women are going to talk about him to each other. And they’re all going to want him to be comfortable talking about his feelings.”

In the two decades since her time at the hot springs, Froman has learned to resist the pull of NRE—that’s “new relationship energy,” a poly term for the fizzy bubble of endorphins that envelops the newly besotted. While NRE feels great, she says, the high highs usually lead to the opposite. “You’ve got to think sustainably,” she says. “How is this person going to work for you over a period of time?”

Froman describes herself as having been a “very” sexual person since puberty. (When she decided to lose her virginity at age 16, her mother reserved a honeymoon suite with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi for the occasion and took her lingerie shopping.) After years of casual encounters, she stumbled onto the poly world and started choosing partners for different reasons—love, friendship, community. But lately she has again been hankering for more male partners in addition to the long-term beau with whom she shares this four-bedroom in Glen Park—it’s called “adding on.”

Froman, who met her live-in boyfriend on OkCupid (where users can self-identify as nonmonogamous) more than five years ago, believes that her schedule could support three other live-in men. But how to find them? She used to make promising friends by hosting Open Relationship Community potlucks at her house, but now she’s trying to explore new social venues to unearth men. “Once I find them,” she says, “then all of us being in the same bubble with each other is going to be a lot easier. It’s like having a family.”


William and Anna

Anna Hirsch thought that William Winters was going to be her first one-night stand. She ended up marrying him. When they met in Baton Rouge, their relationship styles—his casual connections, her commitment to monogamy—seemed as mismatched as their temperaments. Then they discovered poly, which squared their deep, if idiosyncratic, love with their desire to avoid the mistakes of relationships past. They agreed to experiment, and when Hirsch left town for several weeks, Winters slept with someone else. He didn’t tell Hirsch until she got back.

“She cried for two consecutive weeks,” recalls Winters. “It was totally fucking horrible. I remember saying, ‘Anna, if it is this hard, we do not have to do this.’ It was she who said, ‘No. There is something in this for me. I’m choosing this. But we cannot do it your way.’”

Eight years later, Hirsch, a writer and editor, and Winters, a progressive activist and organizer, are one of the most socially conspicuous poly couples in the Bay Area. In honor of the poly potlucks that they organized for a time, the Chronicle went so far as to dub Winters the “de facto king of the East Bay poly scene”—if you ask, he’ll show you a playing card, designed by his friends as a joke, that depicts him as the king of hearts.

Hirsch and Winters live in the Oakland Hills, in a studio apartment attached to a house occupied by several other poly couples. These days, Winters hosts private play parties and enjoys mingling with women. Hirsch is in a four-year relationship with a married couple (she’s more serious with the husband than with the wife) and has a boyfriend as well. Doing things Hirsch’s way means that Winters has the freedom he needs to play, while she puts down roots with the people she loves. Although she’s legally married to Winters, she likes to “propose” to her partners as a way of acknowledging their importance to her. When she mock-married a platonic friend back in Baton Rouge, Winters was her date to the wedding. “I have this whimsical image of myself old on a porch somewhere, someday,” Hirsch says. “And I would like William to be on that porch. And I think it would be amazing if there were other people on that porch, too.” This process—fitting together relationships without elevating them or putting them in special categories—is described by the couple as “integrating.”

So why did they marry at all? Winters frowns. “I feel like that question itself comes from a scarcity model that says we only have time for one major relationship. That kind of underlies the dominance of monogamy.” Hirsch has a more practical answer: They were in love, and she needed health insurance. “But what do I care about what marriage means?” she says. “It’s not a promise. It’s a celebration of what’s possible.” On their wedding day, she and Winters nixed vows and simply made a toast.

On the poly success scale, Winters rates their relationship as a 9.8 out of 10. Jealousy? Never a problem. Boundaries? The couple’s only rules concern safe sex and date disclosures (each a must). Even so, their marriage has been shaken this past year by the same temperament and communication problems that have plagued them since they got together—at one point, they put their chances of splitting up at 50-50. For all its laboriousness, polyamory is a deeply gratifying lifestyle for Winters and Hirsch, and the effort that it requires—the sometimes Augean task of maintaining multiple messy arrangements all at once—is more than paid off by the emotional rewards. Still, the day-to-day upkeep of a relationship can test anyone’s fortitude. “The poly stuff? So easy,” Winters says. “And the rest of it is like, sometimes, why does it have to be so fucking hard?”

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The downward spiral — homeless in San Francisco

Friday, July 6th, 2012


HOST: What if you didn’t have any financial security at all? That’s true for most homeless people in this country. Reporter Julia Scott spent some time with three homeless people in San Francisco to find out how they got there and how they survive day to day. And as Scott discovered, losing a job often triggers that downward spiral onto the streets.


JULIA SCOTT: 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. I arrive at 7:30. He’s still asleep, curled up on a bed of cardboard and wood chips.

SCOTT: Morning, Joseph.
JOSEPH LUNA: Morning. I need some coffee bad, now.
SCOTT: How did you sleep?
LUNA: Not too bad, this redwood mulch stuff, it’s soft. Compared to the cement, it’s a lot better than cement. Went to bed like 9:30, 10 o’clock.

Luna doesn’t 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. Not exactly camouflaged. He gets up, stacks the cardboard and starts shoving his stuff into a big black duffel bag, the only bag he owns.

LUNA: I got baby wipes and shaving cream and Purell, a little bit of soap and some flip flops.

He holds up a blanket.

LUNA: It looks like a little kids’ blanket, kind of a nonny blanket, you know. It’s like some kind of security blanket. At my age that’s a joke, but you take what you can get.

Luna’s 38. He’s sleeping on the street because shelters remind him too much of his time in prison. He hasn’t showered in a couple of weeks. He’s medium build, scruffy, with black wavy hair. He fell asleep last night reading a historical novel. Breakfast is the same as dinner last night: A bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

LUNA: I’m going to go see if I can get my hands on some coffee, and then I’m going to go to my clinic. After that, I usually go back up to the U.N. Plaza to see if I can meet up with people that I know. See if people are OK, if everyone’s still alive.

Here in San Francisco, I spent time with three people who lost their homes and everything else. Everyone you’ll hear in this story went to college. They’re sober; they’re smart — yet they’re still homeless. Luna comes to the public library to regroup. He spends a lot of time sitting and waiting and reading.

LUNA to librarian: This book was on hold for me. I want to try to check it out?
Librarian: OK, sure. There you go.

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 didn’t pan out. He says it’s hard to see how much his life will actually change.

LUNA: 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’s in treatment. He has a caseworker, but no housing. A disability put LUNA in the hospital 10 years ago, nerve damage from a construction job. He couldn’t work, so he started selling drugs. He’s been in and out of prison since he was 13. But he says he’s never going back to jail because of his son, who lives with his mom. The 10-year-old boy doesn’t know his dad is homeless.

LUNA: He has no idea that I have to sleep on the street sometimes. 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. I meet LaFleur in an alley off Sixth Street in San Francisco. It’s a place you wouldn’t really want to walk through, at least not at night. It’s full of trash. There’s some empty, fenced-in parking lots.

DAVID LAFLEUR: This was my reality at one time, you know, it was this alleyway. 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 doesn’t really like to come here now that he doesn’t have a reason to. For him, a walk down memory lane isn’t bittersweet. It’s just bitter.

LAFLEUR: And I built a cardboard condo, if you will, it was made out of plywood and cardboard and stuff like that. It was pretty cozy.

A few homeless folks sit in the alley today, next to some garbage bags. They’d 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. He’s 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’s here at the library every day, surfing job sites and faxing his resume.

LAFLEUR: I’m looking for this website that a friend of mine gave me, it has jobs on it.

LaFleur is 51. He hasn’t 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. He’s answered more than 350 job ads in the past year. LaFleur struggles with computer skills and he has trouble getting interviews.

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

LaFleur went to community college. He grew up near San Francisco. He was paying rent on a nice house where he lived with his girlfriend. Even when he lost his job, he never thought he’d 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.

LAFLEUR: It was a step-by-step process. 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’s been a long time since he had four walls that belonged just to him.

LAFLEUR: I’m not going to be homeless anymore, that’s what I’m saying.

San Francisco spends $38 million a year on supportive housing. But subsidized housing isn’t all its cracked up to be. Just ask Kathleen Leigh. She and her partner, Susan Hanson, live in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood.

KATHLEEN LEIGH: This is where I live. This is the Wynton. 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’s temporary housing. But some people have lived here for a decade, even raised children, in a hotel room that’s 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.

LEIGH: It was like, the light switch — somebody flipped it off and there was no more work. It just stopped.

The couple had a secret: They were addicted to heroin. They lost their house in Sacramento when they couldn’t 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.

LEIGH: 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 50s. They got sores from sleeping on the sidewalk. They collected bottles for money, but LEIGH got sick from putting her head in trash cans to scavenge for recyclables.

LEIGH: It is so raw and desperate and freaked out. And we knew a little, we knew that the Tenderloin was here, we knew this is where you would go to get assistance of some sort. We had not a clue what we were asking for.

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

LEIGH to Molly: How you been hound dog? How you been today? (Molly howls)

Their rent is $650 a 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.

LEIGH: Over here is our little sink. This is where we wash our hands, wash our dishes, wash our faces, drain our spaghetti.

Leigh just got home from work. Hanson has made her special “kitchen sink” vegetable barley soup on a camp stove they keep under the bed. She buys the ingredients at the farmer’s market with food stamps. While we eat, I ask if they ever saw themselves with this kind of a life. Hanson says no.

SUSAN HANSON: 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 a 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.

LEIGH: I’m just living proof, look, here I am. And look, there I was, right where you were, and now I’m here, and you too can do this if you want to, or whatever part you want to do.

Of the three people I spent time with, Leigh and Hanson are most likely to leave homelessness behind. There’s a rolled-up rug in their closet, wrapped in plastic, that’s too big for their room. They can’t wait to unroll it in their next apartment.

In San Francisco, I’m Julia Scott for Marketplace.

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Julia Scott

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