Of Homelessness and Luxury

Two months to the day from my eviction, housesitting has become a heavy lark

So close and yet —

After a year and a half of fighting to keep the rent-controlled flat I shared in the Mission with a ragtag band of misfits — fighting by way of reminding our new, mercenary landlord over and over again of our rights — the fight ended decisively when the speculator-owner made it clear that he would get us out one way or another, and we understood that to mean that he was not above using means one would hear about in broadsheets from the 1940s about tenement blocks and their disposal.

Executive summary: We turned over the keys to the landlord on May 22, and I’ve been technically homeless ever since.

I’ve documented my peregrinations in a newsletter and a tumblr called Displacement Blues. Some highlights: Getting Voldemort’s permits revoked, thus forestalling our eviction; being held in a tractor beam of lawyers waiting for a contract that seemed would never arrive; finding myself shell-shocked on the sidewalk when I remembered my apartment was gone.

Recently I ran into Diamond Dave Whitaker, poet laureate of close-to-the-edge San Francisco, and when I mentioned my predicament, he said, “But you’re not on the street. You’re not homeless,” but I know for a fact he knows homelessness is relative.

Diamond Dave making art about housing at the June MAPP

People I know in the circles he runs in — itinerant poets and the activists of Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails — have a range of housing history that includes renting and owning, sure, but also squatting and sleeping out, as well as imposing on exes, sleeping on whatever sofa is available at the end of the party, nodding out in all-night laundromats, checking in to a detox just for the bed, drinking bad coffee all night in a diner, hooking up at a bar to have a place to rest one’s head.

Saying you’re homeless makes people uncomfortable.

If this is you, just fucking say it. Your friends, acquaintances, cashiers, taxi drivers, the guy on the next bar stool or standing in line at Rainbow — they need to know that the face of this housing crisis isn’t just a photo of a senior citizen in the Chronicle. You will not be making them as uncomfortable as the city has made you.

“Between places” is the polite way for a relatively privileged person to say they don’t have a place to live. In my travels that phrase has meant “recently evicted” or “gave notice before I found a place and now what” or “broke up and temporarily at sea,” or perhaps “haven’t settled on a new place because I’m not sure I want to stay in this stinking town,” whatever the town in question might be.

The other common term of art for homeless-but-not-on-the-streets is “couchsurfing,” which might connote “too transient to have a room of one’s own,” but can also mean “traveling around and staying with friends instead of in hotels.” Before the advent of airbnb, couchsurfing.com was the predominant method of sleeping in strangers’ homes, and in 1998, poet Juliette Torrez wrote a guide to being a conscientious mooching houseguest called the Sofa Surfing Handbook.

As for me? So far, I’m privileged or lucky or skilled enough to not have had to sleep on a single couch, much less in a shelter or a doorway. For someone without a fixed address, I’m doing pretty damn well.

Since I moved out, I’ve slept in 8 different residences, a cabin and a tent — the latter two being on a camping trip that gave me a week of reassurance that I wasn’t imposing on anyone.

Several of these were paid gigs to watch cats, meaning my hosts were also clients. It’s like the antimatter of rent. And these are nice places.

I enjoy the temporarily vacant laps of luxury while I feed their cats & stir-fry vegetables on their industrial stoves & use their hi-fi & wi-fi. It’s more than okay — but it’s also not mine.

Up until this week, all the houses and apartments I occupied were in my preferred ZIP Code, 94110, and today’s glorious cat-sit is only up the hill from the Mission by a few steep blocks. Next week, I’m on to a ninth place, back to Bernal, back to 94110.

Several weeks ago, a group of either intrepid independent producers or cynical performance artists posted an ad seeking actors for a show called 94110 — not about bodegas and underground theatres, but about VCs for tech companies “living, loving, and working” in the Mission. The auditions wanted people to come on down to an art gallery to audition for roles as evictors and gentrifiers. I was livid, and posted a couple twitter essays, first about what 94110 had meant to me over the 20 years I’d lived there, and then mock treatments for the first season of the “94110” that would cement the ZIP Code as the home of the privileged instead of the home of families and activists. I storified the 94110 tweets for you.

94110 has been my home for 20 years, since I moved here with $300 and a notebook, looking for poetry readings and waitressing jobs.

And now, it’s the home of my imagination, and my storage locker and my PO Box, but the fact that I have friends all over the Mission and Bernal doesn’t mean I have a home here anymore.

Am I looking? Sure, I’m looking, and the vacancy rate of approximately zero percent does yield the occasional room-for-rent ad in the Mission or at least in SF.

Why haven’t I just settled on a place, just snapped up an almost-liveable room? I interviewed at a commune in the Haight and a self-described palace in Oakland; the former was $1,000 for a tiny room in a dilapidated building with a rat problem, and the latter was more affordable but was far enough from BART (a 30-minute bus ride) and from the nearest grocery store (a 20-minute walk) that it could be considered the suburbs and would probably wear me down until I had to buy a car.

As I told a friend, living that far from every piece of routine I have, but that close to where I want to be, would have the excruciating feel of living next door to a house I lost in a divorce and which my spouse still occupied.

Some built and found homes from the June MAPP project at the Red Poppy Art House

The listings I’ve encountered have one thing in common: The rooms are very small. Some of them are quite expensive, some of them are not rent-controlled, and some are all three, the trifecta of Nope: An uncomfortable, unstable, slow bankruptcy. I’ve found a few that could do but either applied a day late or found their list of conditions (no scents, no meat, must submit to a schedule of cooking shared dinner twice a week, must give up your space to massage clients twice a week) off-putting.

One could pay to share a room for $1,200 per person; there are living rooms to be shared for not much less.

I am considering a position as a home-care worker, which would itself entail many, many compromises, but the post isn’t open for a month or two, by which time I’ll have weighed the pros and cons on the scale of Osiris, calibrating them as light or heavy as my soul has become.

Perhaps one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, I’ll decide that compromise is more important than comfort. Perhaps you did a double-take there: How is moving from place to place every week or two more comfortable than living in a tiny room with no light? It’s luxury in motion. I’ve been a housesitter for a long time. People trust me with their cats and cars and kitchens. I get to cuddle spoiled felines and watch Netflix on movie screens.

Roving so far has suited me, but I don’t want my resources to be depleted. So one day soon, I might say “enough is enough” and take on rent just to take on rent.

I might move into a tiny room in a single-family home and take my chances the landlord won’t sell the building or double the rent as soon as I move in. I might spend three-quarters of my income on a nice room near BART and eat out of food pantries and hope I don’t have any contingencies.

Or I might decide that the miasma of wealth and apathy rolling into San Francisco and obscuring like July fog the parts of it I used to love is too much to bear, too taxing to breathe in the crushing humidity of hoarded cash any longer.

If I leave San Francisco, I’ll probably leave California. If I leave California, I’ll probably leave the West Coast. If I leave the West Coast, I might as well leave the country. I don’t have any of the usual obligations that keep one rooted to a spot: No partners, no kids, no pets, no job that finds me indispensable — no mortgage; no home at all.

What this relatively responsibility-free lifestyle affords me is a sort of transfixed freedom — a luxury and a burden both. I could go anywhere. I’ve fought to stay here, here exactly, my beloved 94110, for over a year and a half, and I’m starting to question my commitment to Sparkle Motion. Why not move to Sweden, or Spain, or Bali? Alternately, why not all three? Why not a van? Why live anywhere at all?

The fight is over, at least for that apartment, so is my allegiance discharged? “San Francisco needs you!” or so my Facebook and Twitter friends keep telling me.

Lost: Sweet Bohemia, From the paste-up wall at the old Mission police station on Valencia Street

The San Francisco of freaks and dreamers and poets and witches and the rest of us on the margin might need me. But how many of those folks are left? A not inconsiderable number bought houses here, in the 1980s when the Mission was falling down, or in the 1990s when their fortunes boomed before the bust.

I try not to hold their property against them, especially when I get to sleep in it. I love my friends who happen to be landlords, but nothing radicalizes you like having your home swept away by the steamroller of capitalism. “Property is theft” sounds less like communism and more like a fact when you’ve had your home stolen away.

And so, two months in, I’m doing a lot of meditation on home, and class, and capital, and where or how I’m going to land.

Wish me luck.

So glad you’ve borne witness to my predicament. Help me get the word out? Click the Recommend button! You can follow my travels through eviction and displacement here on Medium, on Twitter, on tumblr, and on tinyletter. All my places.

NOTES: Many thanks to Brock Winstead for his help on this and other essays. Thanks indeed to everyone whose house I’ve lived in. The phrase “heavy lark” to describe housesitting as a state of being came out of a conversation with @sorryeveryone on Twitter; thanks to him for that. I like thanking people.