From Peru to San Francisco
In September 2013, Santiago moved to San Francisco at the age of twenty to take care of his grandma after his grandpa died. His grandma, Camila, is an undocumented immigrant and cannot travel back home to Peru. She worked at a minimum wage job in and was not able afford rent. Camila eventually lost her home, and lived in homeless shelters when she called her family for help. Santiago then made the bold decision to move to America and support his grandma, despite his parents wishes. He moved to San Francisco with one duffle bag and he and his grandma bounced around different homeless shelters for the next two years. For my primary research, I interviewed Santiago about living as a homeless student by choice in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in America.
Santiago says his lifestyle in Peru was the biggest reason he moved to San Francisco. Santiago was born in San Francisco and grew up in Peru since he was six months old. His family lives in the small city of Chinchero, where they all work in the local market every day. Santiago and his five siblings own two businesses in the market, where their aunts, uncles, cousins and parents work as well. One business sells handmade jewelry and accessories while the other business sells handmade clothing and basic fabric. All the members in his family rotate in working at the two businesses so they are always together and like Santiago says, “having a lot of family time.” He claims the business does well for their big family considering Peru is a small and poor country. Santiago says Chinchero is a city of “tradition, family and happiness” and that living in a place like Chinchero made him the man he is today. With his lifestyle in Peru, Santiago was able to appreciate the relationships he had with his family and that motivated him to do the same his grandma.
With San Francisco’s high population of homeless people, there are plenty of resources like homeless shelters, dining halls and job programs. Santiago and Camila eat their meals everyday at Glide for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which is how we met. Whenever I see them, they are always so cheerful and optimistic. Camila constantly tells me, “As long as you’re breathing and have someone to love, you’re okay.” During the day they would go along their whereabouts and find a shelter to sleep after dinner. When Santiago first moved to the city, he spent most of his time looking for shelters and tried being one of the first people in line so he and Camila can have a place to sleep. The places they usually stayed at were the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, Glide Memorial Centers and the MSC South center. When Santiago and Camila were denied access to a shelter, they would sleep in the tunnels at Powell Bart Station and clean up in the Westfield Mall. He says that whenever they slept on the streets, he and his grandma prayed and the next day they would find a place at the shelter. Santiago and Camila’s faith and usage of San Francisco’s resources helped them stay positive and up on their feet instead of feeling unmotivated and depressed.
Santiago’s biggest step in his journey was applying to City College of San Francisco. He said, “I wanted an education because I never went to school but it was the worst time to do it. Going to school helped me forget that we were homeless.” Since Santiago did not have a high school diploma and was from another country, he had to take a lot of basic math and ESL classes. Fortunately, City College was aware of his living circumstances and gave him a lot of financial aid for his classes and books. Santiago claims it was fun going in school because he was able to learn and make new friends. But at the same time it was extremely difficult because he was always worried about where he was going to sleep for the night. He spent a lot of time in the library whenever he did not want to think of his homelessness. Reading books and doing homework helped him escape his reality and explored his mined through learning. Education for homeless students is important because they want to have knowledge about what’s going on in the world. Homelessness should never be a setback for education, and Santiago’s story proved it was possible to go to school no matter what.
Today, Santiago and Camila are living in a one bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin after they both got jobs at Costco. He says living in the Tenderloin is not the safest place, but as long as they have a roof on their head they are thankful. Santiago hopes to move into a bigger home so his family can visit them. He does not plan to move back to Peru any time soon and says he will consider it once he graduates college. For now, he is happy living with his grandma, making new friends and getting an education.