Displacement Blues: Home Away From Homeless

By Tarin Towers

MOOP is a term coined by hikers and other ecology-minded people who use phrases like “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace.” It stands for Matter Out of Place. In a state park, it might refer to a bottle cap on a forest floor, a cigarette butt on a footpath, a tent peg neglected when the tent got packed up. In a house, it might be a wet towel on a bedroom floor, a coffee mug on top of the TV. In one’s life, it might be one’s heart or jaw that one finds on the floor.
MOOP: Could be anything, in the forest, or your house, or your life. Maybe a person, maybe a mismatched sock.

In San Francisco, I’m out of place.

Maybe, I find myself wondering, I am a ballpoint pen sitting on a windowsill. 

Maybe I'm a barn in a city, or a canoe in the middle of a forest. Maybe I'm a raven on a grave.

I've been in the right place at the right time for almost 20 years now, but now there are forces who would like me to believe that I've had a good run, but San Francisco now belongs to people who have raised the prices to suit themselves. I'm not buying it. I can't afford to.

I had to move because I got evicted. I got evicted because a real estate speculator bought my building. A real estate speculator bought my building because my neighborhood is gentrifying. My neighborhood is gentrifying because the Mission District is hip and desirable. The Mission District is hip and desirable because it is populated with "culture," like bike shops and bookstores and restaurants and art galleries. The Mission District is populated with "culture" because it is sunny and warm and flat and friendly and right on the BART line and closer to the Bay than the ocean, and because it has been slowly filling in with richer and richer people over the last 25 years. I'm going through all of this shit because I was a gentrifier 20 years ago. This neighborhood is multicultural. Am i a multi? Do I have culture. Did I do this to someone else then? These are not helpful thoughts.

I’ve been out of (a) place for more six months. I live on Social Security, and the last place, with rent so low it made libertarians call us parasites for living in our own apartment, took up the third of my income state agencies recommend you spend on rent. People pay more, but those people are probably not on fixed incomes. 

If you’re not familiar, rent control in San Francisco does not mean vacancy control; that is, a rent-controlled apartment can only have its rent raised by a small percentage each year, but once that apartment is vacated, the landlord can charge whatever he wants to the next tenant.
In our building, once the apartments were vacated and remodeled, our landlord, Voldemort, began charging $10,000 a month for each unit.
That’s the fate of our old apartment. It’s in the building you may have seen on TV, where young, rich itinerants have the option of paying $1800 to sleep in a bunk bed in a room they share with strangers. 

All the “victories” we earned in the year-plus we fought for our apartment—defeating two illegal eviction attempts, holding out in the face of all Voldemort’s various means of harassment—just got us a year of putting up with eviction attempts and harassment. 

How uncharacteristically negative of me! Our fight also got us another year in our apartment, at our basement-level rent. It also got me an education. I know a great deal about property law now, and tenant law, and what constitutes harassment. A lot of people don’t know their rights, but a lot of what people hear about how to deal with evictions is predicated on landlords not having gone to trial yet. Some tenant rights in San Francisco may end up being found unconstitutional under California law, because our constitution is heavily weighted toward property owners being able to dispose of their assets however they see fit. 

This whole experience radicalized me. Nothing teaches you how many wings there are to the left and right of you as an existential assault does; you may not know exactly how class rage feels until you find your home, your body, being thrown between the gears of capitalism so a mercenary prick who has never suffered a consequence in his life can make more money every two months on your apartment than you make in a year. 

So, I’ve spent the last six months moving from place to place, housesitting mostly, sometimes crashing in guest rooms. It’s not couch surfing, because I’ve been lucky enough to have spent only one night on a couch so far. 

I’ve been looking for permanent housing, but the search has been demoralizing, to say the least. It seems easier to keep lining up housesitting gigs, one at a time, moving every week or two, than it does to find a room I can afford in a house that’s interested in taking in a middle-aged woman who isn’t 420-friendly. Most of the ads want someone who’s “chill,” which is code for “young.” One Facebook ad I saw recently actually said they were looking for a young person. I didn’t feel like bothering, but specifying that you won’t take old people is actually illegal. 

Gleaner’s Index: My Life in Numbers

Places I stayed in November: 2 apartments, a house, and two hotel rooms (for a wedding)
In December: 4
Cats sat this fall: 7
Months it’s been since my eviction: 7
Homes I’ve stayed in since then, not counting repeats: 15
Cabins: 4
Hotel Rooms: 2
Tents: 1

Perhaps my story isn’t remarkable; perhaps it’s remarkable because I’m not desperate; perhaps I’m not desperate because my story isn’t remarkable. 

I’m writing you from a smallish, largish studio in Bernal Heights, on a dead-end block that backs up against Bernal Hill, one of the peaks of San Francisco that, at its topmost, is parkland with hiking trails and little cliffs, covered in green where moisture can cling to it, where moisture is available these days. 

Tonight I have the French doors thrown open to the night air, and it’s raining, and the apple tree inside the gate is tall and old enough that it keeps the rain at bay, and I stand outside in near-pitch black as it rains all around but not on me, feeling surrounded by nature and ensconced in luxury both. 

The house, little downstairs and large above, is built into the hill on a block that’s quiet enough that when neighbors make conversation with one another in their driveways, their voices have the manner of events. And yet, apparently the bushes at the edge of the hill are a homeless encampment, something I haven’t spotted evidence of from the movement of people; they must come over and around the hill with few possessions, as the block is steep enough to prevent pushing a cart or hauling bags up it; when I’m carrying groceries, I can barely make it up the hill from without stopping.

I sat outside for a smoke a little before 11 one night this week, and I could hear cries—a woman in ecstasy or a curious cat? I decided it was a woman, wondered if she was indoors or out. A neighbor in a house or in the bushes? Hard to know. 

The yard here, behind a gate and climbing the back of the hill, is park-like and luscious, landscaped with all sorts of drought-resistant plants and sand and mulch and paving stones. Last night I heard actual wildlife—raccoons, probably—moving down the hill and around the house, two or three creatures grunting and snuffling like wild pigs, little yips in between, like a giant kitten would make when barking at a fly. 

My fairy godmothers are taking care of me this week, until I housesit over Christmas.

I’m used to housesitting; I’m good at it. 

What’s to be good at? You’re just sleeping in someone else’s bed; they’re not even there to tell you you’re doing it wrong. 

If you’ve never housesat, or done it once, it might not seem like a job that requires much skill, but it’s not quite like being a houseguest, especially when you’re being paid. Part of the skill is living up to the house you’re occupying, living in that home as if you deserve to.

Becoming at home in other people’s homes takes tenacity and gratitude, a willingness to clean commensurate with one’s eagerness to be asked back, and the nimbleness to solve unusual problems as they arise—along with the ability to pack and unpack over and over again for small trips. Why is it important that one feel at home as one housesits? Why is it also important to remember that this station is above one’s own?

I started housesitting when I shared a room in a halfway house, years ago, so I could inhabit others’ lives while achieving my own space. I continued housesitting when I lived in the place I just lost, because each week or weekend of solitude in an empty, quiet home with an expansive kitchen and a cuddly cat provided the opposite of what I got in that apartment. I had three roommates, and each was loud at a different time of the day. Nobody had any urgency around washing dishes, and I had to buy my own cutting boards so I didn’t have to clean the entire kitchen every time I wanted to cook. Everyone got along, for the most part, except the two cats; each kept to their own clearly defined territory. Guests were frequent and at all hours. Everyone had different taste in music. It was nice to take breaks. 

Most of the housesitting I did was within a mile of home or even less, so I’d fit my laundry and an overnight bag and my coffee supplies into a wire buggy and head for the oasis. I’d often stop back at my place to use my computer, to grab more coffee or a different pair of shoes, or to check in with the housemates. 

Time passes, things change, you lose your home, you lose your bearings. I found myself grateful that I had developed the peculiar skill of being able to feel at home in others’ spaces, because others’ spaces are all I have until I figure out what compromises I’m willing to make. Do I want to share a room? Move to the suburbs? Live in an SRO? None of that. Not yet. 

Recently a friend of mine, in town for just a day, asked if I could deliver a present to some other friends he hadn’t managed to reach. Sure, I said. He drove by in an Uber and presented me with a thick wool blanket, a treasure he’d brought back from Africa that would be welcome in any chilly San Francisco apartment. My friends would love it, but in the meantime, I had to drag a wool blanket around. 

I plopped it into a clean brown grocery bag, finished up what I was doing, and went outside to sit on the sidewalk in the sunshine by the library while I killed some time before therapy. Beside me on the pavement were my beat-up backpack and said brown bag containing said brown blanket. 

I didn’t think much about my presentation, but a guy hopped off his bike and swore at me, dropped off his video or whatever, came back out, and muttered at me again as he got on his bike. I didn’t see his face, but I could have sworn he said, “Jesus Christ, Tarin,” as he rode away. 

Was this an acquaintance, embarrassed (for me?) to see me sitting on the sidewalk with a blanket in a bag like I was preparing to sleep out? That was an odd thought. 

Whenever I consider my plight, I remind myself how lucky I am. I am not going to have to sleep outside, aside from any camping-type situation I might embark on. 

Not that I can foresee, anyway. Sometimes I see a homeless person, encamped in a tent on Shotwell Street, or coming out of a drop-in center; something familiar about them registers, and I collect myself and think, “There but for the grace of God.” I hope not to run out of grace any time soon.