“All I need is a piano, a house, and a toaster oven.” Denny

Photography by Brenton Gieser

In my early twenties, I had lived in New York for two years when a friend of mine invited me to go to San Francisco. We would just be there for a couple of weeks, but when we got there, I was so broke that I didn’t have enough money to go back with him. But really, I stayed because San Francisco is such a fascinating place. It’s like a small New York anyway.

Life in San Francisco was easy in the seventies, because things were very affordable. I found a circle of friends that I could live with, and I got really involved in labor politics and gay liberation. I acquired a lot of good friends that way, and went through several long-term relationships.

I started going to San Francisco State University to study music. I had always wanted to get a degree in music theory. I thought I would end up being a professor on some little, quiet campus in Iowa or so. But my life went in a completely different direction. The AIDS epidemic happened, and many of my friends got infected with HIV. Some of them died.


“I thought I would end up being a professor on some little, quiet campus in Iowa or so. But my life went in a completely different direction.”


I left school before I graduated, because the editor of the AIDS Treatment News asked me if I wanted to work for them. I ended up doing that for almost thirty years. I got to learn a lot on the job, and after ten years I started working at St. Mary’s Hospital as a clinical trials coordinator for new HIV treatments. From there, I went to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, where I interviewed eye surgeons about their work. I was lucky I got bosses who were willing to teach me, because I should have had a degree in medical journalism to do all that.

Although I feel fortunate that I got to have these experiences, I also regret that I didn’t do what I really wanted to. I wasn’t in New York, I didn’t get my music degree, I never became a professor. But there was one big thing that I was very much in control of, which was having kids. I always knew that I wanted to have kids, so I joined a group called “Perspective Queer Parents”. I met a lesbian couple and we had two kids. They’re 14 and 16 now.


“I always knew that I wanted to have kids. I met a lesbian couple and we had two kids. They’re 14 and 16 now.”

I lived in Oakland with the kids for a long time. They’re great kids, I was really lucky. I’m glad my parents got to know my kids before they died. I think they were kind of surprised that I ended up having kids. It took them years to get used to the fact that I was gay, and then I came home one day and said: “Mom, I got a girl pregnant!” It was worth it just to see the look on her face. But they did get used to it.

All was well, but then I stupidly quit this great job, because I thought I could start a website with my own stories on eye surgery. And right then the recession hit, and all the advertising money dried up. It was really bad timing. I had to start paying my health care premiums through Cobra and I was plowing through all my retirement money from my old job, so I got evicted from this great place in Oakland. My mom was really sick at that time, so I went back to Denver and took care of her for a while. And when I came back to the Bay Area, the housing market was ridiculously overheated and I couldn’t get a job.


“I got evicted from this great place in Oakland. So I ended up homeless. Never in a million years had I expected to be in that situation.”

Photography by Brenton Gieser

So I ended up homeless. Never in a million years had I expected to be in that situation. Kind of ironically, my friend Kenny was already homeless then, so he became my partner in crime. Thanks to him, it wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been. He kind of mentored me, and I like to think that I was helping him too, because I got him back in medical care and helped him get on SSI. And then, in a tragic turn of events, I went back to Denver for my mom’s funeral, and while I was gone, Kenny died because he wasn’t taking his seizure medication. That was very traumatic. I lost a wonderful friend, and I was homeless and alone.

There are so many things that become difficult when you’re homeless. You smell because you can’t just take a shower, so you can’t go on a job interview. It’s a domino effect. Being homeless is like a job. Just to get a shower through Lava Mae, which is actually a great resource, you have to wait for a few hours, because they have a lot of clients. And then the food stamps… Everything is just ten times more time consuming than you think it will be. And everything is humiliating. People act like you don’t exist, like you’re an inanimate object.


“I was always under the false impression that gay people would never become homeless, because we have a strong community.”


I was always under the false impression that gay people would never become homeless, because we have a strong community. It was true for me, but only up to a certain point, because you can’t expect people to take care of you as an adult forever. I do think that there are more community resources for gay people, because we didn’t have access to resources for many years, so we had to build our own networks. It was just us taking care of ourselves.

When I was on the streets alone, my friends just couldn’t tolerate it and forced me to stay with them. But they all have lives of their own, so I couldn’t just couch surf with them for the rest of my life. And that’s how I ended up in the garage I’m staying in now. I actually lived in the house of which the garage is part for four years, when I was in a relationship with the owner. He and his partner are traveling now, and when they come back I want to move out to give them space.


“I stay in this garage now. I actually lived in this house for four years, when I was in a relationship with the owner.”

Photography by Brenton Gieser

The Curry Senior Center and Episcopal Community Services helped me with housing. The Curry Senior Center has supported me a lot with their lunches, the clinic, the housing resources. I can’t thank them enough. I’m moving to an SRO [single room occupancy] in the Tenderloin soon thanks to ECS, but I’ll miss the quietness of this neighborhood.


“My kids don’t know that I’m homeless. I’m just worried that if their friends find out, kids will make fun of them in class.”


My kids don’t know that I’m homeless. I think it would bother them if they knew I was sleeping in a garage. But I’m prepared for them to read my story on Stories Behind The Fog. I’m just worried that if their friends find out, kids will make fun of them in class. I know they’ll find out eventually, but it would be great if they first get out of high school.

Once I move to the SRO, I can have the kids over. It’s not a great place, but at least I can fix lunch for them, and maybe they can even spend the night if they want. I used to have them two nights a week, you know? But that’s another part of being homeless. As soon as I lost my place, I couldn’t have my kids over. Everything falls apart when you don’t have a home.

I would like to get back to what I was going to do before I became homeless. I’d like to start my own website. But my long-term goal is writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, so I need to go to Armenia and interview people. I’ve always been interested in the events that preceded World War I, and it makes me sad that the Turkish people can’t come to grips with what happened to the Armenian people. I really want to finish that book. It’s about a quarter of the way through now. If the book is successful, I would like to turn it into a narratorial and add music to it. I’ve got big ambitions, yeah. All I need now is a piano, a house, and a toaster oven.

Shared weekly on Medium, and soon to be published in a book, ‘Stories Behind The Fog’ is a compendium of 100 stories of people affected by homelessness in San Francisco. The project was triggered by one man’s story that will be released next year in the form of a feature-length documentary: www.moses.movie

The story has been written by @Arjanna Van der Plas and photographed by Brenton Gieser in collaboration with our partner organizations Curry Senior Center, Episcopal Community Services and Project Open Hand.