Under the Gun

Daphne Gottlieb
Aug 7, 2015 · 8 min read

The hospital social worker called to ask what I’d done with the gun.

The gun, I said flatly, like a cement echo.

The social worker explained that my client had been admitted to the locked psychiatric ward over the weekend with paranoid schizophrenia, possibly activated by stimulants. He told her that he had been in a hotel room, about to kill himself. He had told me how his case manager — me — had come to him and demanded the gun at a critical moment. This was right before, she told me, I had taken him to the door of the emergency department. So where, she wanted to know, was the gun?

I have spent a lot of time with clients at the emergency department, but not as much as some of my clients have spent with guns.

*

My clients are a noun, a verb. They are linguistically constructed like “the enemy”: They are “the homeless”. They can also be used as an adjective: When “the homeless” is written, it is often directly followed by “problem”. Less often, the word “homeless” is followed by “people”. Usually that means that the sentence has statistics in it. It doesn’t confer human status.

*

On the front page of the paper today, it read, “Forming battle lines against SF Grime”. Underneath, there was a photo of a woman packing up her tent. Behind her, a crew from the Department of Public Works was taking almost everything she owned and throwing it away. They were telling her she couldn’t be there. You can’t tell the last part from the photo. I’m just guessing. I’ve been to encampments like hers when the DPW truck drives up.

In the paper, outdoor residents aren’t referred to as “people” until the third paragraph, after human tourists, DPW workers, and (indoor) SF residents. The supervisor of DPW says, “There is more trash and homeless people and encampments everywhere you go.”

*

Once, I got a call around ten at night from Psychiatric Emergency Services. The social worker wanted me to know that my husband was there. He had been put into isolation because he was escalated, then sedated because he was throwing his body against the door.

“I’m not married,” I told the social worker, because I’m not. My supervisor had accidentally given my personal cell phone number to psych emergency. When they saw my name in the file, they asked my client who I was. His wife. Of course.

In sickness and in health.

*

He threatened to cut off my head once, but he never had a gun. Not that I know of.

*

A long time ago, my eighty-year-old client had a rifle. The rifle must have been as tall as she was. She weighed about one pound for every year. She told me about her rifle on the day that I was waiting for her in radiology. The x-ray tech came out wiping her eyes, struggling a little for composure. “She’s been through it,” the tech said. She had decades-old fractures in her shoulder, hip, ribs, from domestic abuse.

Later, in the car, my client said, “yeah, he knocked me around some.” Then she was quiet. Then she said, suddenly cheerful, “but, you know, I shot my rapist”. “What?” I asked. She didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Her lips pushed hard against each other. “Did he live?” I asked. She closed her eyes.

*

Things people say to me: “I could never do what you do.” “You’re doing God’s work.” “God Bless You.” “That must be really rewarding.”

What they mean is: “I’m pleading that I am emotionally ill-equipped so that I don’t have to engage with people at the bottom of the social hierarchy.”

*

Most of my clients have experience with guns in one form or another. But guns are not such a big deal when the entire world has you in its crosshairs.

*

Here is a problem I’m having: I’m writing about people I know, people I work for and with, people who are defined by their lack of housing, and what I want to do is have you meet these people in their peopleness, look at their family photos, eat French fries in the sun with them. I want you to hear Mr. K talk about hanging out with Sly Stone in the 60s or Mr. W talk about falling 500 feet out of a helicopter in Vietnam. I want you to see what it’s like for Ms. M, who believes that people are coming into her supportive housing apartment and stealing things daily. I want you to see that no one believes her because you have mental health issues. I want you to see that it might be really happening. I want you to see what it’s like to live on $800 a month in a very expensive city. I want you to see what it’s like to have a terminal disease and no one by your side except someone who is paid to be there.

In order to do this, though, I have to commodify my clients, quantify them in words, present them as objects, offer them up to you. How do you write about people — people who are our most vulnerable, people who almost everyone has exploited — without exploiting them? How do you take a photograph (1,000 words) that isn’t an act of theft? What is the difference between a camera and a gun?

*

There is a $3 million allotment in the proposed city budget for increased street cleaning, focusing on areas with new residential and business buildings. The places where the recent marauding transplants live and work.

*

Live and work: “Them” and “us” is only by degree.

Two weeks ago, someone I love very much had a psychotic break. He is likely out of work for a year. He has no savings. He has nowhere to live.
A close friend of mine has had a friend sleeping in their living room for more than 6 months. The guest lost her housing after she came down with a debilitating illness. She was self-employed so is not eligible for state disability, and it’s at least a 2-year wait for Social Security. My friend wants their living room back but can’t bear to put the guest out.

My home of almost a decade is being sold. For the third time in two weeks, I came home to a notice on my door that there will be a walk-through by prospective buyers tomorrow. Again. If I am evicted, I don’t know where I will go, where I can afford to go. I have watched my friends get evicted or priced out and leave for Oakland or farther away. I have been holding my breath, feeling like I’m in a game of Russian roulette, for years now. I hold my breath against the click: I still have a roof. For this month.

*

One of my clients wears trauma like it’s perfume. She is prone to histrionic behavior. She hints at suicidal ideation, but backs off on disclosing anything that might get close to getting her involuntarily committed. Last week, she told me that she plays Russian roulette with two bullets in the chambers, making the odds 1 in 3, not 1 in 6. “Are you saying that you have a gun?” I ask. She rolls her eyes at me. “Come on,” she says. And then, almost to herself, she says, “What if I did?”

*

The new buildings rise and rise in this city. New offices, new apartments, new “microapartments”, which as far as I can tell, are single rooms with shared bathrooms for people making a lot of money. Single Room Occupancy hotels for rich people.

I want to pretend that what I do is borne out of a social charter, that it’s fostered by a deep need for a city to take care of its own.

But I am not stupid. I know that I’m helping the gentrifiers do their work. About two years ago, my then-agency was charged with doing a study about a plaza. There were complaints that the plaza was being used for drinking, drug dealing, prostitution, and sleeping. The study was part of a push by new residents in the area to “clean up the plaza”.

I gave away my overtime shifts on the project.

My supervisor suggested that I must love the criminal activity, the stolen goods fencers and drug dealers and public urinators. “Everyone should be able to use the plaza,” she said. “What about families?” She told me there were plans to put up an open-air market. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I wanted to say no, it wouldn’t be nice. This plaza is in a neighborhood with a lot of SRO hotels, places that provide no shared communal space. This plaza functions as a community living room. No, I wanted to say, it wouldn’t be nice to take away a space that works to unite an entire population across strata randomly, a contact zone in which people accidentally come together. No, I wanted to say. It is not appropriate for this plaza to be “cleaned up” because people with money are suddenly moving in and complaining. No, it would not be good to sell things to rich people in a place where poor people currently congregate. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to draw fire. The gun was in the house.

*

And the gun is still loaded.

There was a neighborhood meeting by my work today about the building going up across the street. There are 6 below-market rate units in a building with more than 50 units. The smiling rep for the developer explained to the senior vet in the back of the room that the city only required them to have 12% affordable housing.

At that moment, buyers were likely walking through my apartment, looking at my things, thinking how good it would look with me gone, since they could get double the rent.

One of my tenants in this supportive housing building complained about the homeless people camping in front of the building next door. The smell. The mess. They were scared to walk down that alley at night, another said.
From the back, I was quiet, shocked. Some of them had been on the streets as recently as 5 years prior. Then the reason for the vehemence was clear: they wanted it to be known that they were not like Those people. They wanted it to be known that they never were. In order to live, they have to eradicate the “homeless” before the “people” now that they are inside.
A tenant asked about why the new, six-story building would have to blot out their view, their sun.

I walked out before the developer’s rep answered.

*

I follow clients through the Emergency Department to wherever they go next. Frequently, it’s inpatient. For psych patients, the next stop is frequently an ADU, an Acute Diversion Unit, sort of a voluntary option for people who don’t want to be inpatient. That’s where my client with the gun went. After 2 weeks, that’s where he went missing from. My phone didn’t ring. I didn’t see him on the streets despite the fact that I was in perpetual motion in the areas he frequented.

And it was a year or two later. I was right by City Hall. I turned a corner and there was a shopping cart and there he was, behind it. He was thinner than he had been, and he was missing a tooth. It was easy to see: He was smiling ear-to-ear. His hands did not move from his cart. Mine crossed over my chest. I wanted to hug him but he was so dirty.

“Are you okay?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m okay.”

“Good,” I said.

We stood there for a minute before he said, “Hey, thank you for taking the gun away.” He buried his hand in his cart, rummaging around, and his eyes followed it.

“But there wasn’t –“.

His eyes locked on mine, and his smile was tight.

“Yes,” he said. “I know. I threw it in the bay.” He took a deep breath. His eyes locked on mine, and he spoke very slowly, his words made of lead.

“Thank you for taking the gun away.”

“Anytime,” I said, under the bullet-gray sky. “Anytime.”

Daphne Gottlieb

Written by

Like this piece? You’ll love the book of short stories, “Pretty Much Dead.” It is a fun romp through homelessness, gentrification, and mental illness. Buy now!

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade