Ever since she was a little girl, Luisa always felt different. Growing up in Tempe, Arizona, she felt like she didn’t belong. She felt out of place. That feeling only increased when she became a teenager. While her friends would talk about male celebrities and boys that they had a crush on, she never felt the same way.
Luisa was 16 when she came out to her parents. She remembers the gnawing feeling of dread as she sat in the living room. She remembers how her mom just cried and cried, while her dad looked out the window, not making eye contact.
Shortly after, her parents kicked her out. Her parents were strict religious people, and wouldn’t let her stay. The last thing she heard her dad say was, “as long as you choose to be a lesbian, you’re not welcome here”.
Luisa didn’t know where to turn. She reached out to her friends to find a place to stay, but none of them would respond to her. She felt like an outcast.
She had heard about San Francisco from a few friends. They said that San Francisco was a place that accepted everyone, where everyone would feel welcome, even people like her. She thought to herself, “it can’t be worse than Tempe” and set out.
After a few days of hitchhiking, she finally made it. San Francisco! But why was it so cold? And why were there so many homeless people?
Luisa had an older friend from high school, Cheryl, who had moved to SF for college, who agreed to put her up for a couple weeks. “You can stay on my couch until you get on your feet”, Cheryl said. Luisa felt grateful to Cheryl and her boyfriend, Norman, for letting her stay. But every so often, she would catch Norman looking at her in a strange way, and she would feel uncomfortable.
One night, Luisa woke up to find Norman on top of her, his pants down. She fought back against him, and after a brief struggle, punched him right in the face. Norman yelled “you bitch!” and, clutching his face, ran into the bedroom. Luisa stayed awake, afraid that he would come back.
In the morning, as Luisa was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, she heard a furious pounding on the door. It was Cheryl. She wanted Luisa out. Luisa tried to explain how Norman had tried to rape her the night before, but Cheryl wouldn’t listen. “You broke his nose, you psycho!” So Luisa got her things and was out on the street.
She tried to find a shelter bed, but all the shelter waitlists were full, or had long lines out the door. People would tell her “Sorry, we’re prioritizing veterans” or “This shelter is only for families” or “This is only for domestic violence victims”. With nowhere else to stay, Luisa started sleeping on the street and in doorways.
One night, she woke up to find a man with a flashlight shining in her face. “Get up!” the man said. Confused, Luisa sat up. It was a police officer. “Move along! You can’t sleep here!” the officer barked. Luisa slowly got up (her body ached from sleeping on the concrete) and started collecting her blankets and other items. The officer, visibly frustrated by how slowly Luisa was moving, grabbed her and said, “I told you to move, damn it! What, are you a retard?!”, then shoved her against the wall. Scared, Luisa silently picked up her things and started walking away.
The experience with the police officer shook Luisa. She decided that the best thing would be to try to stay awake during the night to avoid the same thing happening again. Through some folks that she met on the street, she was able to score some meth, which helped her to stay awake.
A week later, she was passing by a church when she heard music inside. She realized that it was Sunday. She had been involved with church back home in Tempe, and even though it had been hard for her in some ways, she remembered hearing messages about love and acceptance. She walked into the church, and saw two young, happy, well-dressed women standing near the door. They looked at her, then quickly turned away. Luisa stood there for a minute, eyes closed, enjoying the music. Then she heard a voice say “Can I help you?” She opened her eyes to see a large man standing right in front of her. “Oh, uh, I was just enjoying the music” Luisa said. The man replied, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t a place for people like you. You need to leave.” Luisa signed, turned around, and walked out the door, the sound of worship music ringing in her ears.
One day, while she was standing in line for a free meals program, a young man standing next to her started chatting with her. He said that his name was Max, and that he had moved to SF from Seattle a few months ago. He was witty, charming, and funny. They sat together at the free meal. He said that she was beautiful. It had been a long time since anyone had called her that. Soon, she became his girlfriend, and lived with him in his tent behind the grocery store. Even though Luisa still considered herself a lesbian, she liked hanging out with Max. But as witty and charming and funny as Max was, he was also an alcoholic. And when he would get drunk, he would get mean. He would hit her. He would hit her hard. Every time, after he sobered up, he would say that he was sorry, say that he loved her, say that he wouldn’t do it again. As much as Luisa wanted to leave, she knew that she didn’t have anywhere else to go, so she tried to stick it out.
It was a cold Friday morning at 6 AM when the grocery store janitor found Luisa’s lifeless body near the dumpster. She had bruises on her face and neck. The police arrived and ruled her death homicide by strangling. Max was nowhere to be found. The police filled out the appropriate paperwork, put the paperwork in a file, and moved out to more important matters. The Medical Examiner tried contacting her family, but no one answered. Luisa was 18.
Luisa’s story is not one unified story, but is a composite of the different kinds of stories that I have heard, both from my clients and from advocates for the homeless. So while Luisa’s story is fictional, the individual events (or variants thereof) are a reality for many homeless people in San Francisco.
You could say that Luisa’s story, while tragic, was her own doing. She could have chosen to not come out to her parents. She could have chosen to stay in Tempe. She could have chosen to stay with Cheryl and put up with Norman’s wretched behavior. She could have chosen to leave Max. You could say that she had it coming. You could say that.
You could also say that Luisa’s parents failed her by kicking her out, or that her friends failed her by not welcoming her to stay with them, or that Cheryl failed her by not protecting her from Norman, or that the church failed her by forcing her to leave, or that Max failed her when he abused her, or that San Francisco failed her by not having more shelters and services available. You could say that too.
Luisa’s story is a tragedy. Unfortunately, it’s become the sort of tragedy that we’re becoming more and more accepting as normal. I don’t know what the answer to our homelessness problem is. The answer is probably more than just one solution. But I do know that no person should ever have to feel that there is no place for them. No one should ever feel that they are worthless and unloved.