The June 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Court Upholds Legal Rights of Homeless People

Hunger Rises, Food Stamps Cut

National Hunger Survey

Union Busting in El Salvador

CEO Pay Rises, Worker Pay Shrinks

CEOs Scheme to Privatize Social Security

Dee's Story: The Stigma of Being Homeless

Bush's Chronic Homeless Plan

Pepperspray and Torture

How Earth Day Was Co-opted

St. Mary's Center

Life Stories of Homeless Seniors

Hodges Jones

Jose Querdo

Jeannette Hundley

James Jermany

Ken Minor

Lynn Hoberg

Social Justice in the East Bay

100 Teachings of Gandhi

June Poetry of the Streets

Students Poetry


May 2005

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.

Dee's Story: The Stigma of Being a Homeless Woman in America

by Lydia Gans

"Once my car was towed, I wasn't living out of that any more. I really was out of luck. It's hard being homeless; it really is hard. Some people think it's a choice."

Dee Cornelius sells Street Spirit in Oakland. Despite her positive attitude, she constantly has to deal with the prejudice directed at homeless people. Photo by Lydia Gans

Dannette Cornelius sells the Street Spirit in front of Ace Hardware store on Grand Avenue in Oakland. She has been homeless since last November, though this is not her first bout of homelessness. She is 48 years old and has numerous health problems, but she manages to stay upbeat.

As we stand and talk, she greets familiar passers-by by name, including their children and even their dogs; and, in turn, everyone calls her Dee. She is on good terms with the policemen on the beat. They are Piedmont police, she explains. The Oakland boundary is just down the street and the Oakland police, she says, routinely harass Street Spirit vendors.

The employees of the hardware store come out and chat with her. Last Christmas, the store owner surprised Dee with a gift of $50. She has been selling the Street Spirit here for a year and a half, and encourages people not just to support her by buying it, but to seriously read it.

Dee was homeless for the first time back in 1997. She had been working at various temp jobs and acquired a variety of skills, but then she had a stroke. "Once I had that stroke, that kind of threw me for a loop," she explains.

Dee describes how becoming homeless changed her life. "What a lot of people don't realize is that homelessness is getting a stigma. Everybody thinks that they can't get there. You just don't know. Some people are one or two paychecks away. When illness happens, especially if you (don't have) medical coverage, the rent man, your landlord, does not want to hear about (why) you can't pay rent."

Dee recovered from the stroke and eventually found another job; but adversity struck again. She developed more serious health problems and was homeless and jobless on and off for varying periods of time. She went to stay with her mother who had been living in a downtown Berkeley apartment for 15 years.

Dee's brother had had that apartment for some years before that and Dee, too, had stayed there from time to time. So she moved back in and lived there for a year and a half; and then her mother died. The landlord promptly raised the rent from $665 a month to $1340, far more than Dee could afford.

She protested the exorbitant rent hike by going to court, but the legal system let her down. Because the mother was the tenant of record, her death enabled the landlord to double the rent, even though Dee still was living in the apartment. Dee explains, "Even though I might have lived there, she was the primary tenant so it didn't matter whether I was there or not. Which I think is wrong, and it's rotten."

On November 30, 2004, Dee became homeless once again.

Once you are homeless, it becomes nearly impossible to live a normal life. Just getting enough sleep is a struggle. For Dee, it has meant "sleeping here, sleeping there." Getting into a shelter is hard given the shortage of shelter beds, and doesn't really offer much relief.

"The shelters, they're more or less geared for 30-day stays," Dee says. "Everybody's got their rules and regulations. You have to be out by 7:00 in the morning in most of them. So what do you do at 7 o'clock in the morning? What's open, where is there anywhere to look for employment?"

Even with a bed and a roof over your head, it's still hard to sleep in a shelter, she observes. "You know, if you're not used to being in them, around a whole bunch of people snoring, different attitudes, the lying down with lights out when you're not sleepy, things like that. And then you're there with people with all different kinds of problems, some mental -- not that everyone doesn't have their idiosyncrasies, because everyone does."

Dee is not staying in a shelter now. Asked how she manages, she replies, "I stay here and there with friends. I stay on the street when it's warm; sometimes when it's not warm, I'm out on the street. I've slept in cars, benches. I've ridden on BART, and I've ridden the buses all night."
Of course, riding the buses means coming up with the money to buy a bus pass, more and more of a problem for very low-income people as fares keep going up.

Some bus drivers are compassionate, but she has had some bad experiences too. Dee describes "my bus ride from hell. There's a particular driver that drives the 82 line." According to Dee, he is openly insulting to people who are homeless and manages to make their ride miserable.

"It's the way he wants to ride," she says. "The jerking of the bus because he thinks people are sleeping and he's watching everyone. So he starts jerking and he'll drive fast. All the drivers know where the bumps are. If it's your regular route, you know where everything is. You know the bumps and the dips and the curves, and when he gets to those big bumps he just flies over. And you can see him looking in the mirror -- looking with a sadistic grin."

Not being able to get proper nutrition is another obvious problem that homeless people face every day. Not having a place to cook limits her options; but thanks to the money she earns by selling Street Spirit, Dee is able to buy a certain amount of nourishing, hot food. Otherwise she goes to places that provide free meals, but it's hard to find healthy food, she says. "Me being a diabetic with high blood pressure, with vascular problems, it's hard to get the nutrition that I need."

Dee's health problems and the miserable state of the health care system present a real horror story. All over the country, there are reports of lack of coverage, inadequate facilities, insufficient personnel, and, particularly, the closing of hospitals and clinics that serve poor people. Dee's experiences reflect all of these flaws in the health care system.

She describes being seriously misdiagnosed by an inattentive doctor at Alta Bates. "I find that at Alta Bates, if you're homeless, they don't want to really do anything for you -- they want to tell you about Highland."

But it is at Highland where the problems with the system really hit home. Dee recites a list of ills, including delayed or botched surgeries, symptoms ignored, few signs of caring or compassion, and waiting for hours to be seen. "You're there anywhere up to 12 hours," she charges.

She needs more surgery to avoid having to have a foot amputated. But, she says, "you can't get into the clinic. Every time you go, it's a year wait. It took me three years to get into the dental clinic."

"And then they never have your records. Every time I go up there -- it doesn't matter when I go -- I always end up having to go to the patient advocate's office because they never have my records where I'm supposed to be. So if I have a 12:30 appointment, I'm not getting out till five. It happens all the time. Every single time."

The abysmal record keeping has caused her problems with getting MediCal, and she is still waiting to get on SSI. Her MediCal application was pending for "almost a year," Dee says. "Pending so long, always pending, always pending, always waiting. When you're homeless, you're always waiting on this, waiting on that. It's a stigma."

In spite of her poor health, Dee would like to have a regular job. She has experience and marketable skills. But, as she points out, "when you have nowhere to stay, it's hard to get a job because, first of all, you have to find somewhere that you're able to have hygiene, and a telephone, and somewhere to stay and somewhere to be able to iron your clothes."

She had a car at one time but it blew a head gasket so she couldn't move it and eventually it was towed. "Once my car was towed, I wasn't living out of that any more," she says. "I really was out of luck. It's hard. It's hard being homeless, it really is hard. Some people think it's a choice.

"When I first started selling Street Spirit, I would only do it at night because I was embarrassed. I didn't want anyone that I used to work with to see me doing it. But then, eventually I got to the point: Well, it's honest. I'm trying to sell something. I believe in the paper. I think it's a good newspaper and I'm not just standing out there with a cup asking for money."

But there is always the stigma of homelessness. "Even standing here," she says, "I find a lot of people are nice to me, but then you're going to have some people that act like it's going to rub off. You don't have to give me money. Not everybody is able to give. But, you know, the acknowledgement, the smile, the speaking, being courteous, doesn't hurt anyone.

"Because whether you give to me or not, I'm always going to tell you, 'Have a nice day.' And they're not even listening to you. You're telling them, 'Have a nice day,' and they're telling you, 'No, not today.' That's because they've already preconceived that you're about to ask for something so they're not listening to what you're actually saying. Or even saying hello, or good morning."

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