| February 2011
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By Nancy Evans
Sharon often earns her daily bread by selling the Street Sheet outside the Walgreen’s at Castro and 24th streets. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Without her worn paper cup, Sharon might be any middle-aged woman waiting for a friend outside Walgreen’s near 24th Street. Her clean casual clothes show no evidence that her days begin and end in a homeless shelter at Eighth and Howard streets. Her smile masks the stress of sleeping in a room with 74 other women, many high on alcohol or other drugs. Talk with her for a moment or read her poem “I Know a Place” and you wonder how such an intelligent, articulate woman became homeless. But listen to her story and you wonder how she has survived at all.
The only girl in a family with six children, headed by an alcoholic mother, Sharon (who prefers to go by her first name only) grew up in the Western Addition and the Fillmore. “I was mostly raised by an aunt with strong religious faith,” she explains, “and connection to the church has helped me stay grounded.” Her aunt also taught her how to clean house, starting when Sharon was 5 years old. “I still enjoy housework—I like seeing the results—like seeing my face in a mirror I’ve just polished.”
Despite dropping out of high school, Sharon passed the civil service exam and gained 16 years of clerical experience with Caltrans, first in San Francisco, then in Sacramento. A brief marriage marked by abuse produced one daughter, whom she raised as a single parent. A call from her older brother who had terminal cancer brought Sharon back to San Francisco in 1988, where she cared for him until his death. With no home of her own, she and her daughter stayed with a relative. She turned to housekeeping jobs, caring for elderly women who could no longer do their own housework, supplemented by occasional temporary jobs with Manpower.
Along the way, Sharon met a jazz musician 25 years her senior and fell in love. Between musical gigs her man drove a cab, but there was never enough money for them to live together until he became eligible for senior housing. “We had a nice one-bedroom apartment near the Federal Building,” she recalls. “We had nice furniture, too. He put my name on the lease so if he died first, I would have a place to live. We were planning to get married, but before that happened he died. That was 2002. The agency found a loophole in the lease, so I was evicted and had to sell all the furniture. That’s when I became truly homeless.”
Depressed and discouraged, Sharon struggled in and out of drug abuse. “I was in and out of programs—got stuck in the cycle. My aunt died and my relationship with my daughter deteriorated.” A friend suggested she contact the Coalition on Homelessness and sell the Street Sheet in Noe Valley. That proved a turning point. The kindness of Noe Valley residents pays her daily expenses. She has health care through the Healthy San Francisco Program, which includes primary care and medications for hypertension and depression. But still no job.
In a perfect world, Sharon would like to work and have a home of her own, “where I could see a sunset, where I could meditate.”
I Know a Place
Homeless I am, but I know a place where
I feel safe. I can put on my happy face, yes
I see this place as lilies in the valley ...Blooming
buds of people, pets and kids, this place I know
is sweet like cookie dough ...A community with
unity, these lilies lend a hand wherever I stand...
not just money, food and clothes ...A scent in
the air gives a feeling of care.
I know a place, a smile is all it takes to grow
flowers every hour. It lets me know every day
I’d rather go, when I’m down I rush to the other
side of town, whatever it takes to get to this place...
Let me mention I embrace the attention, a hello,
a nod of the head, a laugh or giggle from the tots
coming and going near parking lots.
This place has elegant taste, not giving a sad
face. I thank god for the beauty it brings, listening
to the birds as they sing, I don’t worry about a
thing because this valley keeps me away from a
filthy alley ...What I feel is real, I don’t
have to steal because I’m not broke or down and
out ...This, I will shout without a doubt
I do know this place.
Sharon’s “I Know a Place” was first published in the Jan. 1-14, 2011, Street Sheet, a monthly tabloid published by the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco.