One Woman's Lessons From Living On The Street

Aug 30, 2014
Originally published on March 14, 2016 3:34 pm

The grass is fraying around the edges in Washington, D.C.'s Franklin Square Park, but the trees are more important. They offer much-appreciated shade to the homeless people who sit below.

Many of the park benches are occupied by homeless men — but there are a few women too. Susan, sitting amid her bags in the park's northwest corner, is one of them. She's been on and off the streets of Washington since 1995 and asked that her last name not be used because she was in an abusive relationship and doesn't want her whereabouts known.

Susan says life on the streets is a constant battle for all homeless people, but for women it's particularly hard. On top of the everyday challenges of finding food and a safe place to sleep, she says, women face the threat of sexual violence and cruelty.

In nearly two decades on the streets, Susan, with graying hair and bright eyes, has learned some tough lessons.

Lesson One: Don't Look Like A Woman

"It's not easy to be a woman on the streets, OK?" Susan says. "We tend to hide our features. In other words, we will wear more than one sweatshirt to look more like a man than a woman."

When darkness falls, Susan pulls out her dark and bulky clothes.

A slight Boston accent betrays her childhood origins, and it's particularly strong when she speaks of her children and grandchildren. But Susan says those relationships are complicated.

Susan is what experts call a rough sleeper; it's a small and hard-core subset of the homeless population. Research suggests this group often struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse, but their defining feature is that they choose not to go into shelters.

Susan sometimes stays in shelters but she doesn't like them. There is no place for her bags and she finds them rigid, with strict curfews and rules.

She says she prefers the freedom of the outdoors, where "I can go and I can come."

After decades as a rough sleeper coming and going, Susan's confident about her strategies.

Lesson Two: 'Act Crazy'

"On the street we tend to carry a real nasty personality," Susan says. "If you act crazy, they'll leave you alone."

That means screaming, cursing and acting wild.

She says the reaction she's looking for is, " 'Oh, she's crazy, leave her alone. We don't want to be bothered with her.' And walk away. OK? You can only act kind and sweet to so many people."

Dr. Jim O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and a physician who has been caring for the homeless population for almost three decades, confirms that Susan's hard-learned lessons hold up more broadly.

O'Connell says that on the streets of Boston, homeless men outnumber women 3 to 1. And those women are "among the most vulnerable" members of the homeless population. Thus, he says, disguising yourself as a man can be a good strategy.

"Many of the women like to get clothes that are much bigger than usual," O'Connell says. "They like to get clothes that have dark colors and no colors. They like to dress essentially as the men on the street would dress."

But O'Connell points out that while most female rough sleepers "masculinize" themselves, "they will be quick to say that's not who they are or how they feel. It's a protective mechanism."

How about what Susan calls acting crazy?

"It's a strategy we have seen many, many times," O'Connell says. "We will frequently see, as anyone goes near any of those women, they will start screaming at the top of their lungs."

Both strategies, O'Connell says, are safety strategies.

"Where they are probably going to be the victim of some kind of violence, they don't want it to be sexual violence," he says.

Lesson Three: Pick Your Spot Carefully

For a rough sleeper, much of the day can be spent planning where to sleep.

One of Susan's caseworkers, Paula Dyan, works the night shift for the Salvation Army. She says "the normal standard operating procedure [is] you don't bed down until 10 p.m., up by 5 a.m."

The most important factor, Dyan says, is to avoid anyone who is "really psychotic or really drunk."

Susan explains that the worry is they'll "try to do something to a female."

So, Susan spends time planning in the hopes of ensuring safety. "You walk around and you scope the area out, OK? To find out what's going on."

She checks out who is in the area, but she also takes a look at the nearby buildings.

That way when dusk starts to wipe away the trees' shadows, Susan knows where to go. She gravitates toward big public buildings. They represent one thing to her: safety.

"[If] somebody [is] chasing me and trying to cause me problem, then I look at the closest place that I can go and what its affiliation is — the United States Capitol, the White House, the Senate Buildings, an embassy," Susan says.

Crossing onto their property is like calling 911, for someone who doesn't have a cellphone.

Lesson Four: Partner With A Man

More than dressing like a man or seeing the protection of public buildings, Susan says she's learned the importance of being associated with a man — ideally he's ex-military, trained in survival.

"If you befriend a veteran, then you won't die on the street," Susan says, "because they will treat you as part of their unit and part of their family. OK? You just have to learn their little ticks, their little moments when — they kinda just have their moments."

Jim O'Connell, the expert on homelessness, has seen this dynamic many times.

"The underbelly of that protection, though, is it's frequently someone who has a streak of violence," he says.

This can be physical and sexual. "And then the issue of domestic violence becomes a really paramount issue," O'Connell explains.

He says it's nearly impossible to pull homeless women away from abusive relationships. The women prefer the predictability of one man's violence to the unpredictability of street violence.

Susan says protection and the never-ending need for money require sacrifices. In her experience, "the main thing is sexual favors."

And over the years she's had to make some tough choices. But she is adamant that "everybody walking down the street is not a prostitute."

As Susan gathers her things and prepares to head into the night's darkness, she says, "the men have it a little easier most of the time."

She says decades of rough sleeping have taught her that women on the streets can be as tough as men — but they have to be smarter.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

For the homeless, life on the streets is a constant battle. Finding food, a place sleep and staying safe is never guaranteed. But this life is much harder for women, who face a higher risk of sexual violence and cruelty. NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel spent some time with a woman in Washington D.C. who has been living on the streets for years and has learned some tough lessons along the way.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Lesson number one - don't look like a woman.

SUSAN: It's not easy to be a woman on the street. We tend to hide our features.

EMANUEL: That's Susan talking. We're sitting at the Salvation Army in Washington.

SUSAN: In other words, we will wear more than one sweatshirt to look more like a man than a woman.

EMANUEL: Today Susan's wearing blue jeans and big boots. She's been on and off the streets of D.C...

SUSAN: Since '95.

EMANUEL: We aren't using Susan's last name because she was in an abusive relationship and says she doesn't want her whereabouts known. But we can say that Susan is originally from Boston and she's in her late 40s.

SUSAN: I have a grandchild that's in the first grade.

EMANUEL: But she says her family relationships are strained. Susan is what experts call a rough sleeper. That's a small and hard-core subset of the homeless population. Research tells us that this group often struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse - that their defining feature is that they choose not to go into shelters. Susan has tried staying in shelters but she doesn't like them. She says there's no place for her bags and they're too rigid. She prefers the freedom of the outdoors.

SUSAN: I can go and I can come.

EMANUEL: So after nearly two decades as a rough sleeper, Susan's confident about her strategies. Lesson number two...

SUSAN: On the street we tend to carry a little nasty personality. If you act crazy, they'll leave you alone.

EMANUEL: That means screaming and cursing, acting wild. The reaction she's looking for...

SUSAN: Oh, she's crazy. Leave her alone. We don't want to be bothered with her and walk away. OK? You can only act kind and sweet to so many people.

EMANUEL: I wanted to find out whether these lessons hold up more broadly. So I called up an expert.

JIM OCONNELL: My name is Jim O'Connell. I'm a doctor and I've been working with Boston's homeless population full-time since 1985.

EMANUEL: O'Connell is president of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. And he says that in Boston, men on the street outnumber women 3 to 1.

OCONNELL: Many of the women like to get clothes that are much bigger than usual. They like to get clothes that have dark colors and no colors. They like to dress essentially as the men on the street would dress.

EMANUEL: So lesson number one - check. Now, how about what Susan calls acting crazy?

OCONNELL: It's a strategy we've seen many, many times. And we will frequently see as anyone goes near any of those women, they just start screaming at the top of their lungs.

EMANUEL: Both strategies, O'Connell says, are protective mechanisms.

OCONNELL: You know, where they're going to probably be the victim of some kind of violence, they don't want it to be sexual violence.

EMANUEL: Now on to lesson number three. Susan says this one she needs to show me. So one of her caseworkers, Paula Diane, agrees to take us to downtown Washington. It's Paula Diane's job to get those on the streets into shelters. But for the long-timers, she just tries to help.

PAULA DIANE: I'm like mother to 100 people.

SUSAN: We do mean mother. Mother as in mother as in mother, OK?

EMANUEL: It's well after dark. As we get ready to go out, Paula Diane starts explaining a typical night.

DIANE: The normal, standard operating procedure - you don't bed down 'til 10 p.m., get up by five in the morning.

SUSAN: Right. But you normally make sure you have an idea. You walk around and you scope the area out to find out what's going on. Because you don't want to bed down near someone who's...

DIANE: Really psychotic or really drunk because they're going to get you kicked out anyway.

SUSAN: Right. Or they may try to do something to a female.

EMANUEL: Susan says lesson number three is pick your spot carefully. She says it's the buildings that make her sidewalk vent or parking lot hideout into prime real estate. We head to Paula Diane's car so Susan can explain.

DIANE: I need to lock the door behind you all. All right, come on.

EMANUEL: As we drive along, Susan points out homeless people that I can barely see in the night's darkness. Then she tells me to lean closer.

SUSAN: See, like, look over here. Look over here. See that right there? That's a church. He's going to be there all night. OK. One, two, there are three over here. And you know what this is.

EMANUEL: It's the White House. And as Susan told me, a big public building represents one thing to her - safety.

SUSAN: Somebody chasing me and trying to cause me problems and I look at the closest place that I can go and what its affiliation is - the United States Capital, the White House, the Senate buildings and the Embassy.

EMANUEL: It's kind of like a 911 call for people who don't have a cell phone. Lesson number four - partner with a man. And ideally he's ex-military, trained in survival.

SUSAN: If you befriend a veteran, then you won't die in the street, because they will treat you as part of their unit - a part of their family, OK? You just have to learn their little ticks.

OCONNELL: The underbelly of that protection though is it's frequently someone who has a streak of violence.

EMANUEL: This can be physical and sexual. Jim O'Connell, the expert on homelessness, has seen it many times.

OCONNELL: And then the issue of domestic violence becomes a really paramount issue.

EMANUEL: He says it's nearly impossible to pull homeless women away from abusive relationships. The women prefer the predictability of one man's violence to the unpredictability of street violence. Susan says protection and the never-ending need for money require sacrifices.

SUSAN: The main thing is sexual favors.

EMANUEL: And over the years, she's had to make some tough choices. But she's adamant when she tells me...

SUSAN: Everybody walking down the street is not a prostitute.

EMANUEL: She says all this is part of street life for women.

SUSAN: The men have it a little easier most of the time.

EMANUEL: So how do women?

SUSAN: We deal. We just deal. We do what we have to do.

EMANUEL: It's nearly 10 p.m. and almost time to bed down. So Susan starts to pack.

SUSAN: Let me see. Hold on, hold on, let me see. Where's my bag?

EMANUEL: Her three reusable grocery bags filled with all her worldly belongings - she gathers them up, ties back her graying hair and gets ready to head out. Susan says decades of rough sleeping have taught her that women on the street can be as tough as men, but they have to be smarter. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.