The May 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Someone's Sister: Homeless in the East Bay

A Young Mother Dreams of a Brighter Future

Legal Rights of Homeless People

Exposing Wal-Mart Empire

HUD Pulls a Disappearing Act

Devastating Cuts to Section 8

Civil Rights Gets on the Bus

UC Students Brutalized by Police

Activism for Economic Justice

Night of Humanity and Courage

Nonviolent Vigil for San Diego's Poorest

The Faithful Fools

Medical Pot in Santa Cruz

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

A Homeless Woman Struggles for Survival

by Lydia Gans

Looking at her gaunt figure and listening to her raspy voice, it is obvious that being on the street has taken a toll on her health. Soon she will be 60 years old. She has worked, raised a daughter and helped other people. And still society denies her a place of her own.

Photo of Jenifer Beckmann by Lydia Gans

Jenifer Beckmann is 58 years old, and has been homeless for the last eight years. She gave a sarcastic little laugh when I asked her why she is forced to live on the streets of Berkeley. "I'm homeless because a whole lot of other people are homeless right now," she said.

She explained, "Housing is simply not available for people on a low, fixed income." With the federal government continuing to slash funding for Section 8 housing and other programs to help the poor, life these days is "terrible," Jenifer said. She added, "The political environment, the money environment, the housing environment - all of it is just abysmal."

I asked her what her life is like now. "Very, very bad," she said. " I've never had a worse two years in my life. I sleep on the pavement. And I have been assaulted several times. Theft is a constant problem. Fears, nasty verbal contests."

Looking at her gaunt figure and listening to her raspy voice, it is obvious that being on the street has taken a toll on her health. In little more than a year she will be 60 years old. She has worked, she has raised a daughter, she has helped other people, she has paid her dues. And still society denies her a place of her own.

Being homeless doesn't just mean not having a roof over your head each night. It also means not having a place to wash, brush your teeth and use the toilet. It means not having a place to keep clean clothes, or a kitchen to store, prepare and eat the foods your body requires.

Being homeless means having no place for solitude and privacy when you need it and, at other times, feeling deprived of the company of friends and family. Maybe more than anything else, it means being unable to feel safe and secure. All of these hardships add up to an especially heavy burden on women who are homeless.

Jenifer grew up as one of six children in a poor family almost constantly on the move. She ticks off the many places where they lived, mostly small towns in northern California. She recalls that she was in 10th grade and living in Santa Rosa when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

She graduated from high school when President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was in full swing; and she got a job through the Neighborhood Youth Corps, ironically enough, with the Berkeley Police Department. At one point she enrolled in Merritt College hoping to get a teaching job, but it was a time when California had a huge surplus of teachers.

Jenifer continued to work for many years in spite of periodic nervous breakdowns; but she eventually had to go on permanent disability. She raised a daughter who now lives in Georgia. They keep in touch.

Her disability income, which is from SSA, is somewhat higher than SSI because she worked, but it is not sufficient to pay the exorbitant Bay Area rents. She has tried to apply for a Section 8 housing voucher but is having some bureaucratic difficulties. At one point, she moved to Boston where she thought that homeless people were better treated than they are here, but she soon came back.

For a while, Jenifer lived in subsidized housing at the California Hotel in Oakland, but she was very unhappy there. She explained, "I did not like being situated in housing that was predominantly dedicated, or given over, to people that were addicted to substances. The atmosphere there was not the kind of atmosphere you would want to be placed in if you were hoping to develop friendly relationships, or relationships that develop into friendships." Her only addiction, she insists, is to cigarettes.

Although her income is not sufficient to pay rent on an apartment of her own, she can manage to stay indoors occasionally for a few weeks at a time. She mentioned the Jefferson Hotel in Oakland where she can have cooking facilities, although that makes it more expensive.

"I want to do my own cooking," she said. "It's very important to me because I'm nutritionally conscious. I don't want to have to subsist on fast food. I don't want to eat junk foods that are loaded with sugar. I don't want the popular-brand peanut butter that's also loaded with sugar. I'm a very educated, nutritionally sound person."

Being alone, and not having any kind of support group to trust and depend on, is another consequence of homelessness, something that Jenifer feels very keenly.

We've all heard that old wisecrack, "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get me." Living on the street certainly can cause a person to feel paranoid since it makes it very hard to maintain a circle of friends.

"There's this myth," Jenifer declared, "that street people are one big happy family, one big happy community. This is simply not so. (Especially) for women." She said the subculture fueled by drugs and alcohol can lead to "abusive behavior."

"So you run into all those problems," she said. "They're all antagonistic. Even in the normal culture, you run into antagonistic people who are opposite you in your achieving success at certain levels. At street level, it's tremendously concentrated and focused and you have all these competing, conflicting, antagonistic elements one against the other for survival!"

Jenifer called it a "matter of sheer survival. You have all these people fiercely competing in the matter of survival. So it gets just gruesome. Just absolutely gruesome at times. It isn't the friendly living, patting each other on the back, helping each other out."

In spite of that, she tries to reach out to others, sharing what little she has. "There is not a day goes by without me giving something that I have from my own spare change or from my own supply of accumulated goods," she said. "I have given away bedding, clothing, money, cigarettes, food. Not a single day goes by that I don't give away some item to other street people. That is the truth."

Although street people don't hang together, society insists on putting them all into one bag.
She observed, "You become stigmatized. The whole thing with street people is that you are systematically stigmatized over and over again. And the authorities then look down on you and say you are obviously someone not competent with your affairs. Therefore this person and that person and the other person will all be able to stand in judgment of you at various points. And pass judgment on you and make your life difficult, if they choose to do so. And that does happen."

While every homeless person is engaged in a constant struggle just to survive from day to day, society turns away. "I just want to say this," Jenifer declared. "The homeless problem is not intractable; it is not insoluble. They could have solved it a long time ago. They don't want to."

Asked who could solve it, she replied, "The government. They could have solved it a long time ago. They don't want to, because there are special interest groups all over the place. If they do not solve the homeless problem, they have this very convenient scapegoat situated there that looks absolutely guilty. They can point at them and say, 'See, it's them that's destroying the neighborhood; it's them that's creating all these terrible things.' That's a very convenient scapegoat. Anyone can point at them and they seem guilty."

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