Last night, Amir and I were staying late at the office. Amid planning for outreach and fundraising campaigns, and a mountain of grant proposals, we’ve often found it difficult to finish the day’s work satisfactorily in a nine-to-five framework. At around 8:30, we finally began packing our bags for a return home. Just then, Amir’s phone started ringing – he jokingly wondered if it was his mother, calling to see if he would be back for dinner. Instead, the phone’s display read a strange number. Without hesitation, Amir answered it anyway.
The call was from an incredibly distressed Miss Kay, who explained that she had been kicked out of her shelter. She had been staying there for months, and she kept getting extensions on her stay (we believed due to her cuteness), but for some reason her time was now up. But why this late? Why would they kick out a tenant when it was just beginning to get cold, and when it would be least likely she would be able to find transportation or a place to stay?
Amir told her not to panic – we would be on our way to pick her up, and that we would figure something out.
For me, this was the first time I truly understood what Miss Kay had to go through even to maintain her recycling routes. Her shelter is in Richmond – a good 15 miles from our office in Berkeley, and roughly 20 miles from the recycling center in West Oakland. It was quite a maze for us to even drive there, let alone for a small woman like Miss Kay to navigate by using public transportation or by walking.
We arrived to see Miss Kay sitting on a waiting room couch – not at her shelter, but at a neighboring one which allowed her to stay and use their phone. She had with her a backpack, a trash bag filled with a sleeping bag and other materials, and the clothes on her back. She was forced to leave many of her other items – including her prized drawings – back at the other shelter. In Miss Kay’s world, something as overlooked as securing one’s earthly possessions becomes a battle; a battle which comes with a huge cost of time and energy; a battle many ultimately lose.
We sat down with her and she explained what happened. She said that she had stayed too long at the shelter and simply couldn't handle living there anymore. She complained of the noise. Noise from screaming children, suffering families, and fighting couples and tenants. Like noisy neighbors, she didn’t want to deal with them anymore. She had been feeling ill the whole week and could scarcely get any rest. She was so overwhelmed by all that was going on, she began to hit her head against the wall.
The marks were still visible when we visited her – sharp red gashes on her head and blackening eyes. She had beaten herself up. When the staff at the shelter restrained her and asked her why she was hurting herself, she told them that she didn’t want to be alive anymore. With this statement the staff, likewise overwhelmed, told her they couldn’t keep her there if she was suicidal, so she was asked to carry what she could and leave. She protested that there was a difference between not wanting to live and being suicidal, but they had had enough.
As she told us this, she periodically buried her head in her hands. She looked exhausted. Too overcome by pain and sadness even to cry.
At around 10:30pm, she finished her story, and we resolved to find her a place to stay, at least for the night. Miss Kay’s only plan was to visit her sister who lived near downtown San Francisco. We packed her things into the car, and began the long drive.
We arrived in San Francisco around eleven, and pulled up to Miss Kay’s sister’s house. There were a couple of lights on upstairs – flickering lights as from a television. Miss Kay walked to the door and she knocked. And knocked. And knocked. No answer. She shouted her sister’s name. Still no answer.
To my knowledge, this was her second such trip to her sister’s home, each time with the same result. She also calls whenever she has the chance, but still gets no reply. What could have happened between them, I wondered, to have made such a rift in their relationship, and their respective positions in life? Here was Miss Kay, a former punk drummer now living in poverty, knocking on the door of her sister’s home: a multi-story building in the heart of San Francisco.
Though she didn’t get an answer, Miss Kay contemplated camping out in front of the house for the night. But due to the cold, and her exhaustion, she decided to come with us back to Oakland.
As we began the drive back to Oakland, Miss Kay suggested she stay back at her “old place” – a reference to the spot we first found her, behind a dumpster in Emeryville’s commercial district. But we weren’t about to leave her out in the cold. Instead, Amir and I suggested we talk to Ros. A few weeks ago, Amir had asked Ros if Miss Kay could stay with her if she were ever in a bind. He asked because he knew that Miss Kay might not be able to stay at the shelter much longer, though none of us could have expected it would be so sudden.
We arrived at Ros’s place just past midnight. For the past several months, Ros has been staying in a foreclosed house near the MacArthur BART with a number of other individuals. The house is fenced in with a makeshift gate, both to keep out potential robbers, but also the police. For two years, people had been occupying this home, in spite of the clashes and legal battles.
But the people at Ros’s house are a lot more than just squatters. The home boasts a large community garden (complete with chicken coops), multiple open tents and couches for passers-by to sleep in or on, and a “free store”, where anyone can take what they want and leave something if they would like. The residents of Ros’s home, known as the “Hot Mess” house, are also actively involved in making their community a better place. Recently, the residents spent a day installing flowers along the long-neglected sidewalks in their neighborhood. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a place where we at least knew Ros had found some stability. Perhaps Miss Kay could find it there as well.
We were lucky to find some friends of Ros’s at the gate, who went into the house to see if she was around. Fortunately, she was, and minutes later a tired but happy Ros came down the stairs to greet Miss Kay. Like Miss Kay, Ros is a person generous of spirit, and kindly invited Miss Kay to stay with her, at least for a few days.
Miss Kay pulled her bags from the car, and we followed her into Ros’s room – a tiny bedroom, packed with her whimsical belongings, and a small mattress sprawled out on the floor. Miss Kay tucked her bags into the corner and slumped down onto Ros’s mattress. Ros, already weary herself, lay down next to her on the other side of the bed. They talked for a few minutes, but were quickly overcome by fatigue, and slipped into a deep sleep.
Above, the room was lit by a creation I hadn’t seen on my last visit: a chandelier Ros had built, made of an old bike wheel adorned with gold-colored chains. Hanging from it was the room’s solitary light bulb, attached to a long extension cord plugged in outside of the room.
Amir and I got in the car and began our drive home – thirty minutes past midnight. Back at home before I went to sleep, I couldn’t help but think of Ros’s wheel. The wheel and its light were a testament to both of these women – a testament to a ceaseless resourcefulness and creativity that somehow keeps them both alive. That spirit is their light, and the light within us all. It is the light that keeps us going, in spite of all the challenges, and shows us that even in all that we’ve abandoned there lies the opportunity for redemption.