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Old, Female and Homeless

Life on San Francisco’s streets for women over 50 is filled with hardships, small and large.

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You’d have no idea Zulema was a homeless woman who slept in a chair each night if you saw her on the street. She has flawless golden brown skin and a shiny gray bob. She often wears burgundy lipstick, khaki pants, a white button-down sweater and a jean jacket. She rides her bike for exercise and earns $400 a month selling flowers she buys from a wholesaler. She often drinks tea and reads the Bible at Starbucks. Advocates describe her as one of the few Oshun regulars who haven’t had the spirit beaten out of them.

A case in point is the older woman I spoke with who had served in the military and said she’d been homeless for several decades. She warned me that every person I was talking to was lying. “Why would you believe any of them?” she screamed. “Not a damn thing has changed since 1931. It never will. You’re wasting your time.”  

Then there’s the physical toll the streets take. “Most homeless women in their 40s or 50s look like they are 70 or 80 because homelessness takes such a toll,” said O’Connor. “I no longer know if a homeless person is 50 or 80.”

Marcia, the homeless woman I met in front of the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, is 56 and looks her age. Maybe that’s because she only became homeless at 50. She’s a black woman who walks with a cane. She throws a large backpack over her thick green jacket and often wears jeans and a black bandanna. She learned the hard way about navigating the chaotic and stressful world of homelessness in 2005, when her mother died. She and her sister were supposed to share the money from the sale of their family home, but Marcia had a stroke that left her visually impaired, and her sister took the money and left the state. Talking about her life since that time, she paused, shook her head and admitted that she’s still shocked to find herself living on the streets.

“I didn’t even know this world existed before I became part of it,” she said. “When you’re homeless, you lose control of your environment. Most of the people I meet have mental illnesses. You never know when they’re going to snap. A quiet room can turn into chaos within minutes. I don’t sleep much.” Last year, Marcia testified in front of the city’s Shelter Monitoring Committee and offered a lengthy prescription for improvements, including an end to co-ed shelters so women feel safe. She also argued that the mentally ill should be kept separate from everyone else. But nothing changed. “Right now, we’re all lumped together,” she said. “It makes no sense.”

Marcia lived in a single-room occupancy hotel for six months. But the rent ate up half of her $900 Social Security check, and because SROs generally don’t have kitchens, she spent much of the rest on prepared meals. By the third week of the month, she often had less than $10 left on her debit card. “I’ve never been that poor,” she said. “I couldn’t deal with it. I also didn’t feel safe on the same floor as men. The walls were thin and it wasn’t clean, so I left.” Life got much worse when she was hit by a car and injured in 2009. She reached out to relatives and friends but never got a response.

“When you need something, everyone disappears,” Marcia said. She told me her goal at that point was to muster enough cash to buy a bus ticket to Reno, where she hoped to find an affordable place. Meanwhile, she tried not to think about suicide. “You get so depressed,” she said. “I’ve been able to maintain my sanity because I know how to withdraw. Like most homeless women I’ve met, I was molested as a child, so I know how to go inside of myself.” According to the National Center on Family Homelessness and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a staggeringly high percentage of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives.

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