Abdiel Avila, 58, sets up on Mission Street every morning. He spreads a blanket out beneath the shade of a tree near 17th Street and pulls out watches, chargers, shoes, backpacks, movies, bike seats, and whatever has come his way. Once, he even tried to sell a dog someone gave him. On a good day, he says, he can make up to $200.
Next to Avila is a young man in a green hoodie lining up shoes on a blanket. A young woman approaches him and begins shouting. “He is also homeless,” Avila says of his nearby vendor and friend. “That’s his girlfriend and she stole something from him.”
Avila shakes his head. It is one of many experiences the vendors on Mission street can identify with. Many also share in chronic homelessness and unemployment. Some also struggle with drug addiction. Still, like Avila, they endure.
“This is not a permanent occupation,” says Avila, shoving some peanuts into his mouth even though he claims to be allergic to them. He is on the lookout for a new job and in the past has worked on and off in different hotels and restaurants. He misses the stability that comes with a regular paycheck, but he’s also managed to survive a life of insecurity.
Born in Mexico, Avila was 26-years-old when an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City, leaving his family and thousands more homeless. His family found a place in nearby Puebla, but there were no jobs in the smaller city and they had to return to the capital. In the 12 years that followed, Avila never managed to get a foothold in the economy and by 1997 he decided to try his luck in the United States. At the age 38, he landed in the Mission District.
“It was hard to get here,” he says, looking away. “After crossing the border, I spent five days in the desert not knowing where I was going. It was a relief to arrive in the Mission.”
Nevertheless, it’s been lonely. He has one cousin who lives nearby, but has lost any connection he had with the children he left behind in Mexico. “I am very alone, even with the partner I have now,” he says.
An older woman with short red hair greets Avila as she walks down the street with her flowered grocery cart. “That’s one of my regulars,” he says. “I have a couple of them and they often give me stuff to sell. I try never to steal. I don’t feel comfortable doing it and it’s not worth the risk.”
Avila says his best job has been working in local hotels where the owners will rent him a discounted room, a perk that allows him to avoid the shelters. The latter, he says, are like prisons, “There are rules for everything, even for going to the bathroom, and there is no space or privacy.”
Any time he spent there, he says, “brings back really bad memories.” He would rather sleep on the streets, he says.
The only reason he visits a shelter now is to eat.
“When I don’t have money or spent it on drugs, which I am trying to give up, I go to St. Anthony’s,” he says. The dining room at 121 Golden Gate Ave. in the Tenderloin serves meals to the poor and the homeless.
But generally, he says, food is not a problem.
“We can get it somehow or another,” he says. Housing, however, is another story. He has been living in hotels and on the street years. For the last few months, he’s been able to sleep in a hotel room he shares with his current partner. But he never knows how long that arrangement will last.
Still, he says, he hasn’t given up. And right now, selling on the streets on Mission Street is working for him. He stands in the same place every day hoping that he will hear back from employers.
“I want to get my life back together,” he says.