Drugs, Homelessness and Recovery
Stories from the Glide community
| Video by Jennifer Glenfield |
| By Tony Taylor |
It’s really hard to live on the street. It’s a level of difficulty one cannot imagine, being viewed as a non-person. The temptation to feel better quickly intensifies with a few dollars in one’s pocket. Drug addiction in relation to homelessness is a case of the chicken or the egg and homeless people often get scapegoated as having done this to themselves.
Many people who lose their job and deplete their savings account go live with family, but not everyone has that option. That’s the difference between them and the people who go to Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin for free meals, temporary housing and health services. Being homeless puts one in such a pit that, once there, it is hard to get out.
Shawn Pride works for Glide and sometimes sleeps in his car to avoid his tiresome 80-mile commute from Stockton, where he stays temporarily with family or friends. From his minimum wage paying job, he spends an entire $400 paycheck on his monthly commute. He is on housing wait-lists, but he feels the process is taking too long.
“It feels like I just can’t catch a break,” Pride says.
Historically, homelessness is not the problem it is today. After the Great Depression and World War II, there were 35 years where it was a different experience. The term “homeless” was not used, but instead those who lived an alternative, transient lifestyle were called hobos or tramps. Some worked seasonally, hopping on boxed cars as a means of transportation to find new work in new towns.
“Homeless” became a more common term in the 1980s by advocates who wanted people to realize what was happening. It was not that suddenly 1.5 million people started making bad choices and decided just not to participate. There were real issues like the HIV/AIDS epidemic and changes in the economy. The drug epidemic and its subsequent jailing of dealers left many unable to vote, get loans for housing or secure decent jobs.
At age 27 Pride went to federal prison for selling drugs, and for the 10 years he spent there, he felt like he was in a hole. “Sometimes conditions play a major factor in stymying someone’s growth,” he says. “I learned that selling drugs wasn’t for me.”
A chilling fear for Pride is the thought of someone putting drugs into the hands of his daughter, who lives in Stockton with her mother. “I was the one selling drugs to their children and it’s crushing how many families it affects,” he says. “I’ll never do that again because I’m a better person than that.”
A fellow prison inmate of Pride’s — “the type of gangbanger with tattoos on his face that you wouldn’t walk up to on the streets” — taught him algebra. This mathematically astute inmate told him “as long as you put in the time, I’ll help you.” It was in that moment that Pride realized his own potential.
The standout moment for Pride came after his prison release. At 37 years old, he heard someone calling his name as he walked through the Tenderloin. The call was from his maternal aunt, who had been living on the streets for 30 years. He felt devastated.
His aunt, who pushed a shopping cart and had a dog, sometimes stayed with people who were barely hanging on themselves. She was also in an abusive relationship. He tried to schedule appointments for her to get help, but she would not go into any building if her belongings had to remain outside. She told him “I’m not going to this appointment if I have to leave my dog outside.”
Pride, now 40, says he has recently learned the value of being open to new possibilities and opportunities. “I would never try to show weakness before, but now I know that crying is not weak,” he says. “If you’re not connecting, you’re reverting and I’m trying to find a stable place for myself emotionally.”
When Yolanda Morrissette first started going to Glide eight years ago for food and services, she was a substance abuser.
“Addiction is real and homelessness is real,” she says. “I knew I needed support if I wanted to pull myself out of my addiction, and the women at Glide never judged me.”
Morrissette grew up a military brat to an abusive father who ran the house like a boot camp. Her addictions began with alcohol as her family had a bar where a girlfriend would mix their cocktails. Soon after she started dabbling in marijuana, which lead to crank before she tried cocaine.
“If you name it, I’ve done it, from snorting heroin to shooting crystal meth,” she says. “I’ve been homeless on the street because I refused to stay in a place where I’d wake up with man’s hands touching me.”
For many, homelessness lasts less than a year while chronic homelessness lasts for three or more years. Many of those who use Glide’s services are chronically homeless. But much of homelessness is invisibly sleeping in a motel, a car or couch surfing. The streets are brutal and nothing is ever really safe, says Morrissette, who has seen people set on fire, robbed, and stabbed. There are a lot of predators who smile and say, “You can stay with me.” She was once attacked and raped by a man whom she had known for three years.
“It happens to the best of us,” she says. “A year later when he passed me on the street I pulled down my sunglasses to make sure that we made eye contact. I wanted him to know that he no longer had power over me.”
To protect herself, Morrissette would carry mace and was notorious with the police for knife possession. Her turning point to sobriety was being kicked out of her boyfriend’s place and into the rain. She ended up at a party where someone possibly put drugs in her drink. She says she “went ballistic” and ended up back out on the street that same night. When she awoke from her blackout, she decided enough was enough.
The 51-year-old poet is now in her fifth year of recovery and is an active member of Glide’s women’s group. Morrissette says without Glide she would have never known about a place where there are women who help one another without judgment.
“Certain people came into my life at the right time. I can’t say that for the rest of my people,” she says. “It all happened for a reason. It was meant for me to get off the streets and get clean. I was clean for a year before my mother died of cancer in November 2012 and I never looked back. I continue getting stronger.”
There are a lot of stories Morrisette wants to share, and she plans to publish those stories about pain, empowerment, and finally learning to love herself. “I write poems,” she says. “It helps if you can just save one person by sharing about how good life is now and how powerful people can be. I do outreach when I can and I lend an ear to sisters who really want to talk to me and ask me how I continue to do what I do.”
Benjamin Lintschinger, Glide’s advocacy program manager, believes that the public learning the diverse stories of people who are homeless has intrinsic human value.
“I think it’s true to say the homeless population is just as diverse as any other group,” Lintschinger says. “I find that my conversations, rather than being about the difficulties of being homeless, are about people’s friends and children and what really matters to them. Homelessness does come up, but it is just another part of their life.”
During the economic downturn of the ’80s, employment for someone with a high school education that could support a family was no longer available. Affordable housing and mental health care were defunded by millions of dollars, causing homelessness to disproportionately affect people of color and low-income families.
Lintschinger, a social worker by profession, suggests that more people should consider homelessness separate from the issue of addiction. “How many people use drugs who are not homeless?” he says. “It’s hard because in our society we are inundated with certain images of homelessness and it doesn’t give us the opportunity to look past that.”
Morrissette says it takes a long time to clean up from drug addiction. “It’s not going to be butterflies and glitter,” she says. “That’s not the reality of it. Some people are very angry at me because I got clean, but I just wanted my life back.
“Everyone has an issue, some just cover it up better,” she continues. “From the corporations to the Tenderloin, everybody is dealing with something. You can’t come to the city and turn your head because homelessness is all over the place. It’s even in the suburbs. I started getting high in the suburbs.”
She suggests that the city should convert old warehouses into shelters as well as offer shelters that welcome homeless people in with their dogs. She also wants to see more transgender-friendly shelters.
“I would love to see a shelter where women could arrive at any time of the night because a lot of stuff happens at night and people need a safe place where they can go,” she says. “If something happens you can run to that place somehow. Uber can even give one free ride. One free ride can save a life.”
Morrissette says she has stayed in every San Francisco shelter and in order for an addict to get their life together, they have to play by the rules.
“Do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll get all the help you need, then you can get into your own place like I did,” she says. “There’s going to be rules everywhere.
She says shelters are safer than the streets where people often resort to drastic measures protect themselves.
“I’ve heard of homeless women rubbing feces and pee on them just to keep attackers away, but I don’t think that matters. An attacker is an attacker and they only care about themselves. I’ve heard of women carrying Tasers, knives, concealed weapons, all kind of crazy stories,” she says. “Anything is possible in the Tenderloin. This is a jungle.”
Morrissette currently has a poem hanging in Glide’s Creative Space. Participants of Glide’s programs have also shared their spirit animals. Hers? The black panther. “I chose the black panther because she is a sassy, fiery, powerful woman who speaks her mind, yet is also vulnerable and hides in the darkness.”
Pride no longer has to drug test for work because Glide sees the change in him and he can breathe a little bit, which he says is a blessing. He is attending City College of San Francisco and has signed on to begin attending San Francisco State University.
“I used to be a gorilla, but I’ve evolved,” he says. “I no longer walk on my knuckles, but instead I walk upright on my two feet like a man. And I know this good energy I’m putting out will come back to me, I’m not worried about that.”