Part 1: Down and Out
It’s been weeks since Kevin Quintero saw a decent paycheck. Money is running out, but it’s a bright November afternoon in the Mission District and Dolores Park beckons. He spends most of his remaining funds on sandwiches for he and his boyfriend, Carlos Bandera, and the couple walks to the park to eat lunch and play a game of Magic the Gathering.
Quintero is 22 years old — 18 years younger than Bandera. He’s boyish and cool with olive skin, a black Mohawk and a ring through his septum. Bandera is wearing a black leather jacket and trucker hat cocked to the left side. Tattoos crawl up his collar. His face is hard with bony cheekbones, his brown beard fading gray. They look like any other hip, gay couple in the park, except, unlike most, they are homeless.
Like many without a place to live, homelessness sometimes drops down the list of immediate concerns. Today, Bandera’s withdrawal from methamphetamine tops the list.
They find a park bench and begin setting up the Magic board, and Bandera explains his plans to register for a rehab program run by the AIDS Foundation, called the Stonewall Project. If he passes three drug tests a week for 12 weeks, they will give him a $330 gift card. “It’s a way to stay off,” he says.
The story catches the ear of a man walking his bike through the park, who lingers conspicuously within earshot. Bandera stops his story cold. His eyes roll back toward the voyeur. Without taking his gaze off the cards he’s dealing, Quintero tries to diffuse the confrontation.
“It’s just a little awkward,” he says.
“For someone to stop and listen to what is going on in a park?” the man retorts. “No. It’s not awkward.”
“You want to start?” Bandera snaps with the sharpness of a man five days into withdrawal. “You want to start this right now?”
“Words are not hands,” says the stranger, now curiously overstaying his welcome. “Hands start things. Words are easily ignored.”
But Bandera isn’t ignoring them so easily. “I am so ready to beat the fuck out of you right now,” he says.
“Hey Carlos, Carlos,” Quintero says. “Honestly, it’s not worth it.”
Bandera restrains himself until the stranger finally leaves. They play a round of Magic, and, like any other denizens of Dolores Park, walk down to Bi-Rite to buy ice cream cones and lemonade.
This is the modern face of homelessness in San Francisco. Quintero and Bandera became vagrants for the first time in either of their lives last year. They both work part-time jobs, but don’t collectively earn enough money to afford rent in even San Francisco’s most reasonable studios. They have spent recent months crashing on the couches of friends and acquaintances while searching for a place to live. As of late, they have been staying in a small studio in Potrero Hill with two other men and three pitbulls. When there is no couch, they stay up all night walking the streets of San Francisco waiting for the sun to rise.
“It’s extremely stressful,” Bandera says. “I have a breakdown at least every couple days right now.”
Long known as a mecca of acceptance for all sexual and gender identities, San Francisco is earning a new reputation as one of the nation’s least affordable cities. According to Trulia, the median rental rate for a two-bedroom hit $3,250 in 2013 — the highest in the country — and eviction notices are up 40 percent from 2010.
In 2013, for the first time ever in its annual homelessness count, the city asked responders to identify their sexual orientation, and the results were staggering — even to some who have worked with the homeless for many years: 29 percent of homeless in San Francisco identified as LGBT, more than 2,100 people.
“You look at these numbers and you take a sense that a large portion of LGBT San Franciscans are a job loss or an eviction away from homelessness,” says Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s homeless czar. “That’s very tough.”
In the lives of Quintero and Bandera, tough is the operative word.
It’s cold and damp on an early weekday morning in downtown San Francisco, still more than an hour before the sun will rise. On a block of Mission Street near the Civic Center, shopping carts and makeshift cardboard homes litter the sidewalk. A man wearing a spelunking light on his head peers into a garbage can.
Bandera sits on the pavement in front of a government building listening to Joy Divison through white earbuds and waiting for the General Assistance office to open. A half-dozen strangers have lined up behind him, all hoping to take a little something home today to help them get by.
“Worst case scenario, they give you $75,” Bandera says.
Bandera doesn’t have an appointment, so he and Quintero arrived at 5:45 a.m. hoping that someone who does have one won’t show. There’s no guarantee, but they need the money. Bandera spent the earnings from his last go-go dancing gig on food over the weekend, and now he’s flat broke.
Quintero, who is not quite flat broke, has gone to drop off a key at a house where he was previously squatting. The line grows deeper as the sun begins to rise. No one says much. One man spins a folder around on the tips of his fingers. Another plays with a yo-yo.
“Time?” asks a woman in line.
“6:42,” a man replies.
Quintero’s been gone for more than the 20 minutes he’d estimated, and Bandera is annoyed. I knew this would happen, he says. “He doesn’t listen.”
Bandera sighs. “I don’t mean to talk bad about Kevin,” he says. “I’m just tired and hungry and cold.”
He thinks about it. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d still be shooting up.”
Fifteen minutes later, Quintero returns. They kiss as Bandera’s partner hands him coffee and a donut. Quintero is limping, and he shows Bandera his bandaged-up knee — a mishap jumping a fence, he explains.
They wait in line for another two hours and fill out some paperwork. Around 9, an employee announces they are not taking any walk-in appointments today.
It turns out that worst case is leaving empty-handed.
“Every day is a shot in the dark,” Quintero says.
Part 2: An Unaffordable Mecca
Bandera and Quintero don’t fit the common stereotype of homeless men, but their attraction to San Francisco does fit a profile of those ostracized elsewhere wanting to live openly gay here.
Three years ago, Bandera worked for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office just outside of Seattle, Washington. He thought he’d landed his dream job, but instead found the law enforcement environment unwelcoming to a gay man, he says. He lived mostly in the closet, and didn’t tell anyone he’d contracted HIV two decades earlier in fear of being the butt of jokes around the station. In 2011, he got fed up, quit his job and moved to San Francisco to become a porn star.
He starred in a few movies, but it wasn’t the glamorous life he’d hoped for.
“I’m not very good, to be honest with you,” he says laughing.
He got a job as a personal trainer at a gym, but was eventually fired for not making his sales quota, he says. He found some work at bars, but nothing lasted. He and his live-in boyfriend broke up last year, and when Bandera had to move out in August, he couldn’t afford a place of his own. He’s been homeless ever since. He makes money by sporadic shifts of go-go dancing at bars, but those gigs have been scarce lately. He believes it’s because he’s been dancing too long, and the bar managers like to rotate talent.
“I haven’t had to sleep in a shelter yet, although if I don’t get more work by the end of this month I’m fucked,” he says.
Quintero, who recently graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California, works freelance as a sound and lighting technician for clubs, theaters and various other events. A good gig can bring in $250, but the work is inconsistent, and he sometimes goes weeks with little income. Up until October, he was in a relationship with two other men — a “triad” — and lived with them in San Francisco. The relationship ended, and Quintero, too, became homeless.
He’d met Bandera earlier in the year while Bandera worked at Truck, a bar on Folsom Street. They reconnected through the social networking app Scruff after Bandera’s breakup. At first they hung out as friends, but within a few weeks they had fallen in love.
“We clicked so, so much that this relationship kind of started before we even realized it,” Quintero says. “And by the time we did realize it, it was just like ‘yeah, we’re together.’”
For his first month without a home, Quintero squatted and crashed anywhere he could. In November, he began staying in the studio with Bandera — a temporary arrangement while they look for a home they can afford together.
They have considered leaving San Francisco for the much cheaper East Bay, but feel stuck. They both work nights, and normally finish long after BART stops running. Quintero also dreams of making a career as a lighting and sound technician, and believes he’s well on his way, but must be persistent. For now, work mostly comes by way of recommendations, so moving to a new city would mean starting over again.
“Long term, I wouldn’t mind leaving if I had a reason to leave,” Quintero says. “But I do love the city. It’s San Francisco. It’s kind of like the gay Mecca.”
San Francisco attracts a high volume of LGBT transplants who come here looking for a safe refuge. Many escape to the city from a hostile living environment, some from another country, only to find San Francisco isn’t so welcoming for those without the money and resources to make rent, says Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition for Homelessness.
“It’s not quite the Mecca they imagined,” she says.
Still, says Bobby Spencer, a newcomer, moving to San Francisco is “something that every queer thinks about.”
While working as an executive assistant at a drug regulatory company in Georgia, he daydreamed about romance and life in the Golden Gate city. In May, he left his job, packed up and moved.
Within weeks of arriving, his plans unraveled. His job working as a nanny for his former boss in Pacifica didn’t pan out, and he spent his savings on hostels in San Francisco while he searched for an apartment. Without insurance, he stopped taking medication for HIV and got so sick he ended up in San Francisco County’s Catastrophic Illness Program. Counselors found him a bed in a shelter — Multi-Service Center South — where he still resides.
His first night at the shelter, Spencer says, his bunkmate asked him how he got such a good bed. Spencer told him it was because he’s HIV positive, and the man immediately turned cold and stopped talking to him. He often endures threats, and is subject to menacing glares and homophobic epithets like “faggot” from others in the shelter. He’s still looking for an apartment, but has found it so far impossible to navigate San Francisco’s channels for affordable housing.
“I moved here to be queer,” he says. “It turns out in very many ways that my own community — the gay community — is very ostracizing, very intimidating and unwelcoming if they find out you’re homeless.”
Quintero and Bandera have also been discouraged in their efforts to get back on their feet. They recently got a lead on a small studio that rents for $1,300, but the landlord wanted bank statements verifying their annual income was three times the annual rent of the apartment, which they could not do. Neither makes steady, verifiable income. Bandera no longer even has a checking account.
“I don’t have an identity, basically,” he says.
Part 3: Breaking Points
Tommi Avicolli Mecca’s breaking point came about three years ago. A young Spanish-speaking man walked into his office at the Housing Rights Committee with fresh bruises all over face, and told Mecca he’d been brutally beaten at one of the shelters by a group of men shouting gay slurs. He was too afraid to go back, and wanted a safe place to stay.
“The reality was, at that moment, I had nowhere to send him,” says Mecca, a 62-year-old with long curly black hair.
The housing advocate could see the city changing. When he moved here in 1991, Mecca made enough money working for minimum wage at a bookstore to live with a roommate, and he still found time to be an activist. But as tech companies moved in and rent went up, those days slipped away. Gay men who could have once afforded a simple lifestyle in San Francisco were now living on the streets.
Brian Basinger was seeing much of the same. As director of the AIDS Housing Alliance, Basinger heard horror stories about abuse in the shelters all the time.
“There is bullying,” he says. “There is demeaning behavior. There is ganging up on folks. It’s everything we experience in high school, but take it to a prison level, and that’s what you got.”
At first, Basinger wondered why nothing was being done about it. “But then, almost in the same thought, I realized that I’m the one who’s supposed to be doing something about it,” he says.
Mecca and Basinger came up with the idea for an LGBT shelter in 2010. They were scouting locations to host sit-down vegan meals for homeless people in the Castro and Upper Market neighborhoods, a project Mecca had started years earlier. While touring an abandoned church downtown, they discovered the building’s cavernous basement. A switch flipped in Basinger’s mind.
“We could put a shelter down here,” he shouted to Mecca.
The costs to bring the church up to code would have been almost $1 million, so the plans fell through. That year, District Supervisor David Campos held a hearing on violence toward LGBT residents in shelters, which eventually led Dolores Street Community Services to take on the project. The shelter passed the city’s planning commission last year, and Dolores Street raised the remaining necessary funds to get it up and running. It will house 24 beds. It is expected to open this year. There are currently shelters for LGBT youth, but this will be the first such adult shelter in the country, Basinger says.
In the meantime, LGBT homeless people in San Francisco often avoid the shelters, instead preferring to sleep on the streets or in parks. On a recent afternoon, Andrea Suchyta, 19, and Bethany Haughton, 22, said they spent the previous night camping on a beach.
“I don’t feel safe in shelters,” Suchyta says. “I’ve been in two before. It made feel me really uncomfortable, especially being pretty young.”
The women were playing ukuleles on a sidewalk near the Castro Theater in front of a sign reading, “Help Hobo Queers — Spare Change 4 Beers.” They said they would be more likely to stay in a shelter that was created specifically for LGBT occupants.
“I think I’d check it out, definitely,” Suchyta says. “I’d give it a shot.”
“This isn’t the life that I want for us,” Bandera says. On a Tuesday afternoon, he sits across an uneven table in the waiting room at the AIDS Foundation, waiting for a Stonewall counselor named Chuck. “I don’t want to be walking around the Tenderloin at 3 or 4 in the morning looking for something.”
He produces his muscular, tattooed bicep to reveal track marks. He is bruised. His forearm has been numb for months. “For me, I don’t care. But I’m not going to drag him into it.”
He and Quintero know plenty of people in the gay community who have fallen in deep with meth and never climbed out. A report released by the Center of American Progress in 2012 indicates LGBT communities are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than the rest of the population. In San Francisco, the Stonewall Project sees about 250 gay men annually through its outpatient substance abuse program, and 350 to 450 during walk-in services. Another 2,500 use the organization’s outreach or web services each month.
Bandera started on meth about a year ago. He smoked it in the beginning, but eventually that wasn’t enough. He started shooting up every day.
At first he started reducing his intake because he just didn’t have enough money to score. But after he began dating Quintero, he decided the time had come to begin weaning his body off the drug, even if the withdrawals made him tense and, at times, unpleasant to be around.
“I don’t want Kevin to be with a drug addict,” he says.
Bandera disappears into a room with Chuck, and Quintero takes the opportunity to run some errands. He likes to keep busy. He walks a few blocks down to Ruby Skye, where he was recently filling in for their regular light and sound technician. It was a good week — he picks up a check for $750. He runs into the normal technician, Allan, who says there might be more work in the near future.
“What’s going on with your living situation?” Allan asks.
Quintero shakes his head.
He leaves Ruby Skye for the bank to cash the check. Being homeless isn’t all bad, Quintero offers. He’s young and living a bohemian lifestyle, and enjoys the freedom each day brings. Spending most of his time traveling around the city running errands and wasting time doesn’t seem to affect his mood. That’s not to say he wants to be homeless. After months couch surfing and roaming the streets, he’s ready for something permanent. But being homeless also gets easier.
“It’s once you don’t have a house, and you don’t have to worry about that bill is when you start putting that bill way down on the list,” he says.
He heads back to the AIDS Foundation and spots Bandera walking toward him. Their eyes catch, and they run to each other to embrace.
“Did my first pee test,” Bandera says. “Made $2. Woo!”
The city’s homelessness count this summer highlights the enormous challenge politicians and advocates face in housing its displaced LGBT residents.
“We tell kids it will get better,” says Kara Zordel, director of Project Homeless Connect. “But for 2000 San Franciscans, it hasn’t, and we really need to do something about that.”
Since the data came out, leaders and advocates have stepped up their efforts. In October, San Francisco held its first LGBTQ Connect event, a day of walk-in services for LGBT homeless people, offering everything from employment assistance to medical attention and haircuts.
“It was one of my favorite days of my career,” Zordel says. “We saw people who have never felt comfortable walking through the doors of the agencies.”
Other measures are in the works, Dufty says. He is working on a plan to identify people at risk of evictions so the city can intervene beforehand. The city is also working on educating staff at existing shelters on LGBT issues, and setting aside beds specifically for LGBT clients.
“Giving them housing is just part of the solution,” Campos says. “There have to be services that come with that, including substance abuse services [and] mental health — so we have to increase the availability of those programs.”
Though many in the city recognize a problem, finding a solution is another matter. Evictions and rising rents are heated political issues right now in San Francisco that go far beyond the LGBT community.
Basinger and Mecca believe the answers could lie in community land trust, a system in which tenants own a building and a nonprofit owns the land beneath. In exchange for low rent, the tenants agree to sell the property back at a restricted price when they move out, so the house or apartment will be off the market and immune to the city’s rising rent.
“The reality is we need to create housing, affordable housing,” Mecca says. “And affordable housing that’s going to be affordable forever.”
Even with the city’s efforts to curb the problem underway, Basinger says this is only the beginning. With 2,100 on the streets, a 24-bed shelter is just a drop in the bucket. And even a safe shelter is no substitute for a home.
“We need a Manhattan Project on homelessness,” he says.
Part 4: Moving on
On a Wednesday night, Quintero picks up a lighting gig for a DJ set at City Nights in downtown San Francisco. He’s still limping from jumping the fence earlier in the week.
“I banged it up pretty bad,” he says. “I don’t really have the money to go to the doctor right now, and my insurance is kind of in limbo.”
Bandera has come along to check out the rave. He’s wearing black leather pants with firefighter-yellow, zippered stripes, and a rosary around his neck. Asked if he’s religious, he shakes his head. He bought a few of these from a stand on 18th Street, he says. “I need to put a hole in the bottom so I can hang it upside down on the rosary.”
It’s festive around them, but Bandera and Quintero are feeling anything but. Homelessness has moved to the top of their list of immediate concerns. They fear they’re on the verge of overstaying their welcome with the friend whose couch they’re crashing on, so they spent the day checking out long-term hotels — a cheaper option than most apartments. There were no vacancies.
The party is about to start, and Bandera isn’t in the mood for dancing. He used to work at a place like this 20 years ago, but raves aren’t his scene anymore. It’s also been more than a week since he’s been completely clean from meth, and the withdrawals take their toll. “I’m tired,” he says. “Ever since I stopped doing crystal, all I want to do is sleep.”
The music begins, and the ravers file into the room with furry hats and boots, hoola-hoops, flashing lights, leather, glow-in-the-dark necklaces and bracelets, low-cut tops, nylons, panda bear ears, bleached hair, chains and neon. Three women climb up into a cage above the DJ and one lifts herself off the ground and twerks. A young man tears his shirt off and swings it above his head. The lights flash, and the young crowd shrieks in ecstasy.
Bandera looks down on them all from the raised sound booth across from the stage. He sits stone-faced and bobs his head to the beat.
A week before Christmas Eve, Bandera and Quintero are still crashing at the Potrero Hill studio. They come down to San Francisco General Hospital’s Building 80 — where the AIDS Clinic is located — to meet with a social worker. Bandera isn’t feeling well, but he is hopeful today: He finally has an appointment with General Assistance set for the next morning, and the social worker is going to help him enroll in Healthy SF — San Francisco’s subsidized health insurance program — and navigate his other options. He hopes his HIV status will be enough to qualify for temporary disability, and regular income will help him get back on his feet.
As for a more permanent source of money, Bandera is at a loss. Dancing gigs have dropped down to once every three weeks, and he has no plans to go back to work as a personal trainer.
“I have no idea what I want to do,” he says. “I have no freaking clue.”
He stopped going to the Stonewall Project, in part because he grew tired of the long commute every other day. He explains he got angry in a meeting one day when he overheard two men talking disparagingly about a form of sexual role. That’s when he stopped going to the treatment project. Sitting on a bench outside Building 80, Quintero laughs as he turns to Bandera and caresses the back of his head.
“Have you noticed that I haven’t tried to start a fight in a long time?” he says.
His boyfriend smiles and concurs.
Despite quitting the rehab program, Bandera says he’s stayed clean this whole time — now going on a month.
Quintero is also feeling optimistic. His persistence in trying to find work is starting to pay off. Beginning Jan. 1, he’s going to be working regularly doing sound and lighting for an events company.
“It’s a couple events a week, plus the club events I do normally anyway,” he says.
Their days of crashing on couches appear to finally be over. They are in talks with a mutual friend who is looking at a two-bedroom, and needs someone to fill the second room. With a bump in regular income on its way, the couple believes they can finally afford a room in San Francisco.
It’s an encouraging development on this sunny December day, and they are looking forward to finally have space of their own, but nothing is certain yet, Quintero says. They have yet to sign a lease, and the apartment is only a sublet.
“It’s kind of semi-temporary, because I think it’s only for a month at a time,” he says. “It’s definitely not permanent.”
But on Jan. 6, the day before publication, Quintero says the prospective apartment didn’t work out after all. Once again, their search resumes.