Homeless in San Francisco: Day Fourteen

14 Sep

The image submitted here two days ago was actually drawn in 2009.  I have always been interested in homelessness but from a particular distance.  I can remember drawn near life-size portraits of homeless individuals by a Los Angeles artist that were riveting.  This was around 1980 and my first encounter with the subject in art.  I first came to the subject myself in 1983 while living in New York City.  I drew memory portraits in oil pastel on Bristol paper of individuals I noticed in subway cars.  My memory depended upon a few minutes of available observation.  Of these portraits, at least two people were homeless, both women.  I also drew a ball-point pen portrait from memory of a woman stuffing newspaper into her coat sleeves on a subway platform during a winter in the city.  The pen-and-ink drawing of an old man sitting in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) posted two days ago was inspired by two different and unlikely sources.  The man is bearded and resembles the figure of my grandfather on my mother’s side, Ray “Duke” Moore, a man who was reknown as a martial artist and martial arts instructor in San Francisco.  He ran his own school for thirty years or so before retiring to San Jose with my grandmother Vera.  He survived her death and eventually lived in a trailer with a common-law wife in the Sacramento/Folsom region.  The figure in the drawing closely resembles his figure in a photograph during his last years in California.  In the photograph he is seated in a rocking chair looking directly at the camera, a flowing white beard and sunglasses accentuating his appearance.  The second instance of inspiration for the drawing came from a local New York newspaper article, perhaps the Guardian, about the deceased writer Quentin Crisp’s then life in the Hotel Chelsea during his final years.  The article was extremely unflattering, painting a portrait of Crisp as a man who lived in complete dishevelment.  I had seen Crisp sitting primly at an art reception at Leslie-Lohman, when the gallery was still located basement level on the edge of SoHo near Broadway.  He never seemed to move from his seat, nor flinch a muscle, as if he were either embalmed or an effigy in wax for display.  He looked nearly regal, yet fragile and vulnerable, as if his composure was his only protection from what life would have said to him.

Both my grandfather and Crisp were men waiting, in a sense, for the finality of their life.  I cannot imagine that home had any particular value in their circumstances.  My grandfather stares out from the photograph as if his surroundings were superfluous.  Crisp’s littered apartment space was probably not of concern.  The mind must be the most central component of home.  I am reminded of director Hirokazu Koreeda’s film After Life (1998).  In this story, the dead arrive at a rest stop where they are assisted in manufacturing a final memory of life.  It is a modest hotel with a big production budget for the final chosen memorial scene, created in a large studio.  My grandfather was homeless in the end as was Crisp.

The Hotel Kinney has been quite comfortable.  But this morning I was surprised by a disposal unit attached to the hallway wall outside of the common shower room.  Marked Biohazard, this box is used for disposing of needles and syringes.  I have yet to meet a neighbor in the building, although I have said hello to two strangers here.  Before obtaining the room, I spent different nights at a facility at 1001 Polk Street, at the corner of Geary.  I was referred to that facility by Glide [Memorial United Methodist Church] at Ellis and  Taylor Streets.  I knew of Glide’s radical orientation towards community when I was active with The Riverside Church in New York.  Once in San Francisco, I was invited to a Sunday service by an acquaintance from New York’s Gotham Volleyball League, a gay, lesbian and straight-friendly sports organization.  Monday through Friday at Glide, one can stand in line to request housing.  In a first-floor office, a placement administrator searches for available units throughout the city using a computerized database.  The first question asked is for the last four digits of your Social Security number, or “soch.”   The Polk Street facility is actually run by Episcopal Community Services.  I was only issued single-night referrals, but knew that 90-day housing was somehow available to others.  I suspect that the same was not available to me because a tuberculosis test result was not yet in their computerized system.  There is a deadline for reporting TB status to Glide.  Once past the deadline, assistance is not available for housing placement.

The facility on Polk is huge.  I can remember walking by or passing by on the 19 bus and looking at the residents standing outside.  There are always people hanging out, probably most on cigarette breaks.  I tried to avoid walking through the small crowds that would gather there.  I was nervous entering my first night.  But the feeling dissipated once I made myself comfortable on one of the metal frame beds.  There are single beds and bunks, all with numbers.  The bed is furnished with a plastic-enclosed mattress.  A white sheet and woolen blanket are issued at the reception desk within the lobby of the facility.  White terry cloth towels are issued by request.  The bed is located in a ward that contains roughly 25 or more units.  Each floor has several wards partitioned by walls which do not reach the ceiling.  A common toilet area, which includes a metal bin filled with hotel-style wrapped bars of soap, and a common shower area are located on each floor.  The beds are arranged in rows with walking space between.  One is entirely in the open and able to observe neighbors.  Lights out occurs at 9:30 PM and lights on at 5:30 AM.  Dinner and breakfast are served in a basement level eating area.  The line forms quickly at the service counter after breakfast call at 6:00 AM.

I expect that my stay at Hotel Kinney will be followed by more nights at shelters like the Polk Street facility.  I do not look forward to that.  But I also do not grant too great a degree of comfort to where I am housed because of impending displacement.  It is as if I am the portrait of my grandfather or Crisp.  I am, though, not imagining a home in the mind.  It eludes me entirely.

Two Women, 1983. Oil pastel on Bristol paper, 14 x 18 in. Collection of Naomi Sager.

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One Response to “Homeless in San Francisco: Day Fourteen”

  1. Lisa Kaye September 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    I am without comment… just know that you are loved. Lisa

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