Homeless In San Francisco

I was 18 and it was my third trip to the US, on my own. It was so exciting to travel, be abroad and meet people from all over the world. This time I wanted to stay away as long as possible. Since I didn't have a lot of money, it meant I would have to work my way around.

My latest job was to sell discounted magazine subscriptions from door to door. We traveled in teams between San Francisco and San Diego. Most of us were young, so we had quite a bit of fun in our free time.

As we crisscrossed southern California, we stayed at motels. The work hours were long and there were hardly any days off. After a month or so, I was ready to move on.

I made my way back to San Francisco, where I had found the job and checked into the same hostel I had stayed before. I started to look for work right away, but the newspaper ads didn't lead to anything.

I was about to run out of money and decided to check out of the guest house before I was totally broke. San Francisco was full of homeless people, so I wasn't especially worried about finding a place to sleep.

The Night At McDonald's

The first night I ended up at McDonald's. There were plenty of down and out people at the tables. The security guards left you alone, as long as you ordered something every hour or so. The tea was the cheapest item on the menu, so late at night the place turned into a tea house.

That's where I met Charles and Robert, two African American painters in their late thirties. They told me about a homeless shelter which was just outside of town, where anyone could stay for free.

The painters said they would cash their paychecks in the morning, and invited me to stay with them in the hotel room they were going to rent.

It was a long sleepless night at McDonald's, but it was much better than staying out in the chilly October air.

The Turk Street Hotel

The morning came and Charles and Robert had their checks cashed and checked into a sleazy hotel on Turk Street.

Charles went out for a while and came back with a woman, dressed like a prostitute. She had a little pebble in her palm. I asked her what it was. She handed it to me and said, "It's a crack rock."

Having grown up in Sweden, it was the first time I ever saw drugs. I didn't want to get into trouble, so I quickly gave it back to her.

In the meantime, Robert was injecting speed in his left arm. It was time to leave, I said, "See you later," and got out of the joint as fast as I could. What a relief to be out in the street, even though I was seeing nothing but prostitutes and winos.

I made my way to a nicer part of town and asked some homeless guys for directions to the shelter. It was housed in a gymnasium at a school and was only open from the evening until the morning.

I started to talk to an African American who had worked as a librarian until he lost his job and found himself homeless. Edgar was quite familiar with Swedish literature, which made for some unexpected conversation.

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The Homeless Shelter

Later on, the librarian and I walked to the shelter. The gymnasium floor was covered with cot-field beds and each one had a food pack in a paper bag. I clearly remember the reaction, when I flossed my teeth in the changing room.

In the early morning, we were offered another food pack and a guy called Michael came up to me with a red apple. He was Caucasian with Native American facial features.

The Daily Routine

The two of us left the suburb and walked into town. I noticed he had a slight limp. Michael talked a lot about being gay among other things. We went to eat at a soup kitchen where all the volunteers were really friendly. It was the first time I tried pumpkin pie.

Some of the homeless guys were rough, as in criminals. So, it was helpful to have someone that showed me the ropes.

Michael was 48 and worked part-time for a wealthy guy. He also received a small veteran's pension. I was told Michael had been stationed in Germany during the Vietnam war, where he had injured his leg somehow.

While I stayed at the guest house, I went on a few job interviews. One of them was a family that needed a babysitter from time to time. Michael and I stopped by a pay phone in the street, and I dialed the number. I was lucky, they offered me work one evening later in the week.

The days went by and it became a daily routine to go between the shelter and the soup kitchen. One day it rained, so the canteen handed out black trash bags. After having made holes for the head and arms, we looked like two penguins. It was a good laugh.

I babysat the 4-year old boy for a few hours while his parents were out with their friends. Walking back to the shelter in the dark, I got lost. It took me a couple of hours to find my way back.

Mugged By The Shelter

I was right outside the shelter when two African American guys approached me from behind. They grabbed me and asked for my money. I told them I didn't have any and that I stayed at the shelter.

One of them shook his head and said, "You got your white teeth and curly blond hair. Man, you look like you got a thousand dollars in your pocket!"

I showed them the plane ticket that I carried in my small backpack. I told them it was all I had. Eventually, they left me alone.

Another day, Michael and I went to Saint Anthony's to pick up some warm second-hand clothes. After having lined up for a while, I got a jacket and a pair of jeans.

We also paid a visit to the Golden Gate Metropolitan Church, which was a gay-friendly congregation that offered free coffee and cookies after the service.

Leaving San Francisco

After about two weeks at the shelter, I spotted an interesting job opening in a newspaper. A California-based agent offered a live-in nanny position, in Boston. I contacted the agent and also talked to the mother of the family. Once she had called my reference in New York, I was given the job. I told her I would get back to her as soon as I had enough money for the bus ticket.

A few days passed before Michael received his pension check at the post office. Then, he paid for my Greyhound ticket.

Ahead of me, was a 3-day journey to the east coast...

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