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Last Tuesday, a woman named Liz Hirsch wrote to us after we announced a new reporting effort on homelessness in San Diego.
“This homeless life is new to me and I am experiencing so much that I don’t know how to express it all,” she wrote. “I’ve been staying in hotels and sitting up nights at Lestat’s, but I am out of money so I have to see what the shelters are like.”
I wrote her back, intrigued to hear more of her story. Over the weekend, she stayed in a shelter for the first time. She and I have been trading emails all week.
As we do this dive into homelessness in San Diego, lots of big numbers color the conversation. How many people there are in shelters and on the streets. How many in downtown, and how many countywide. How much the various plans on the table might cost.
But there’s merit in zooming in. Sam Hodgson and I met up with Hirsch Tuesday afternoon, and then spent several cold hours around downtown (Balboa Park dipped down to 41 degrees Tuesday night), talking with maybe a dozen others. Many of them have been on the streets for years.
For Hirsch, this is all new. Over this last week, she’s sent me a handful of reflections on her experiences. She OK’d me sharing them, and I’ve obscured her email address for her privacy.
I began by asking Hirsch about the last few years of her life. How did you end up in this position, I asked. She told me the story — she’s lost her sister and her job in the last several years.
“I wouldn’t have said, ‘OK, in 2012, I’ll live in a shelter, no,” she said.
Her unemployment checks covered rent in her $850 per month apartment in Normal Heights. Then the checks stopped.
“When the money ran out, I sold things (things I and my sister had collected over the years) to stay in hotels at night, or sat up in coffee shops,” she wrote. Now, here she is.
On Saturday, she wrote to say she’d found a friend’s house where she could stay, a woman her age whose Social Security payment doesn’t cover her rent and who is planning to move in with her sister soon.
Hirsch reflected on the technological tools that help her stay connected:
I was thinking how different being homeless is now then it was in the 1930’s when my mom lived through the first Depression. I have a cell phone that I buy minutes for, a small laptop I bought at the pawn shop loaded with windows and software that he “shared” with me, an MP3 for portable music and videos. Very different from someone living in the streets where maybe they could watch t.v. at the local hardware store window and maybe be a dime for a phone call on a public phone.
Even chronically homeless possess a cell phone, although they don’t always have minutes.
Sunday night, she ventured to the Rescue Mission for the first time. “It really wasn’t awful,” she wrote Monday morning.
After Hirsch sent that note, she found my post from Monday highlighting some of the deadlines politicians have put on “ending homelessness” in the next few years. She sounded skeptical.
She added that the shelter had given her two pairs of jeans, a couple of other pieces of clothing and a bag of toiletries. All much-needed, she said:
I REALLY needed the jeans, I had one pair and I’d worn them for about two months straight, washing them in the sink at the hotel.
I asked her what she planned to do that night. She’d try the Rescue Mission again, she wrote, and “hope they have a bed.”
Yesterday afternoon, Sam and I went to meet her while she drank tea and used the internet in that same Starbucks. She said she’s had a sense that as long as she can go to Starbucks, “I’m not totally done.”
When I got there, she was scouring Craigslist, looking for odd jobs she could pick up — ones the 58-year-old can physically handle, which aren’t a lot. “I’d rather work than be in this situation,” she said.
Then she caught the bus up to the Rescue Mission to try to get a place for the third night. She wrote again Wednesday morning.
Hirsch wheels around a small rolling suitcase and an L.L. Bean tote bag that says “SIMON” in embroidery on the front. In the corner of the downtown café, in her sweater and scarf, you might never guess she’s in this situation. Her emails make clear she’s a keen observer of what’s happening around her.
“It’s fascinating,” she said before she left for the Rescue Mission Tuesday. “As soon as you get over the fear. But I’m not dead, you know? I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but that’s OK.”
I hope to stay in touch with Hirsch as she continues to learn about homelessness here firsthand. I’m grateful she was willing to let me share this peek into her experience with you. I’ll share more with her permission in the coming weeks.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.