SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Phoenix got his shoes stolen last night. And his tent. So, today he is going to a store to find and steal a new pair and then he and his boyfriend are going to start up a new camp.
“You can’t really trust anybody these days. But you know, it is what it is”, he told me, when I talked to him in 2016.
Phoenix is one of more than 7500 homeless people in San Francisco. He is 23 years old and addicted to heroin. When I took the picture above, he damned his yellow teeth and tried to rub them off with his index finger. This is the only time I saw him smile.
I met Phoenix when he was waiting for a shower provided by the mobile shower bus (run by the privately funded Lava Mae). His eyelids hung low and he looked down on his phone most of the time, only giving me short answers. Our talk never really got a direction.
He told me he grew up in Reno, Nevada, which is a little less than four hours east in a car. When he was 14 years old, he moved to San Francisco to live with some extended family members but slowly began doing drugs. More and more, until two years ago when he went down on the path that many addicts describe as the last: the injection of heroin.
“I want to stop and as soon as I get into a program (rehab) I’m also eligible for a place to stay. Because of my age and my health”.
Phoenix boyfriend is also doing heroin, which can make his own path to a clean life harder.
“I’m not sure he is ready to stop yet. Let’s see. I’m not sure.”
One thing that baffles me every time I’m on the west coast in the United States, is the number of homeless people.
In Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and smaller towns, people are camping out on the streets, sleeping on the sidewalk, doing drugs in the open, tripping, yelling, selling dope, talking to themselves and, most of the time, having a really bad day.
Social workers say that they come from all over the country. Some are runaway kids, some are searching for a community of homeless, some try to find more tolerant local governments with better welfare programs, and some just want to be in a place with less rough winter than, say, Chicago or New York.
Most people I talked to on the street were either high, extremely confused, threatening, paranoid or mentally ill in some (other) way.
They told me different and often contradicting stories about why they came to the west coast. Like one guy, who called himself Frolic and first told me that he came over from Wisconsin to grow organic weed in Northern California but then later told me that he was actually protecting the redwoods.
“Yeah, we’d build like a small house in the freakin’ top of a tree and have stoves and shit up there. And freakin’, freakin’ cooked food and shit. We were hitting gravity bongs up there!”
(I just googled gravity bong and I think it’s well-advised to stay away from that stuff when climbing trees).
Frolic, who sat on the sidewalk and played the flute facing a parked car, told me that he is just passing through.
“I’m actually trying to catch the bus up to Santa Rosa. It’s eleven dollars. Just trying to collect money for the bus. I came here, eh, last fall so … oh, last fall? I’ve been here for a year. I just realize that now. Didn’t even think it was that long.”
Frolic didn’t want his picture taken because he is sure that the government is building a case against him.
“A lot of people act like tourists when they take pictures but in reality, they work for the government.”
So here is a picture of the wall that led me to him. I was photographing, he was yelling and threatening me. And so we talked. Or he did.
In San Francisco, the neighbourhood with the biggest concentration of homeless people and dope sellers seems to be Tenderloin, Downtown.
In the same area, one block away from the mobile shower, you can find Hilton Hotel with rooms beginning at $255, and two blocks in the other direction you can get a pour-over coffee made ‘con amore’ by a tattooed guy, who has a long red beard and long blonde hair, wears what looks like a hand-knit beanie and has a sepia-toned picture of himself half-naked hanging on the wall.
Also, in Tenderloin, an organization called Glide, run by the Reverend Cecil Williams provides free meals to the homeless and others in need. Three times a day hungry citizens stand in line to get a meal, and each time 3-4-5-600 come by. The numbers double during the holidays.
Phoenix rarely goes for free meals. He is more interested in getting a shower, so every time the bus comes by, he shows up and gets in line.
This Sunday, though, Phoenix didn’t have to wait: he got a text from a friend who offered him a shower at his place. So Phoenix got up and said goodbye while scratching his blistered arms and looking at me with an expression that can best be described as no expression at all.
“Hey, before you go: I didn’t get your last name?”, I said.
“My last name? …What did I say my first name was?”
“Oh, okay. It’s Rumpf. R-U-M-P-F”.
And then he rushed off. I never felt like asking him about the election.
This story was first published on adanepassedby.com in September 16, 2016.