JoJo doesn’t always consider herself homeless. The twenty-nine-year-old prefers to live outside of that label. “I consider myself a part of this community,” she said. “Even though I am homeless, San Francisco is my home.” Born and raised in Eastern Washington, Jojo was drawn to the Bay Area for the culture and the promise of the hippie dream. “San Francisco is known worldwide as the place you come to put flowers in your hair,” she said, smiling. “I like to think it still is.”
Jojo didn’t want her full name published, or the name of her hometown. She described it as somewhere between Seattle and Pullman, WA. “Twenty minutes north of the Oregon Border,” she said. Jojo’s relationship with her family is complicated. “I don’t want them to come looking for me,” she said.
Before leaving Washington, Jojo fell in love and married her husband, Colin, who was seated beside her on their shared blue tarp. “I was 19 when I met that man,” she said, looking over at him. “That’s the love of my life.”
In Washington, she completed her Associate’s Degree and took all of the required prerequisites to transfer into a four-year nursing program. She planned to finish her last year of undergraduate study at Washington State University, in their nursing program.
But in 2012, things got more complicated.
Nine months before Washington legalized recreational marijuana, Colin was charged with delivery of a controlled substance for giving a man 1.8 grams of marijuana. “He literally gave someone a bowl of pot and he still has those charges,” she said.
Colin wanted to fight the case in court, but the legal process was complicated. Because the police had used a confidential informant, essentially a civilian, there were minimum sentencing rules, increased charges and other legal hoopla. “We ended up leaving Washington and not going back,” she said.
For the first six months in San Francisco, the young couple lived in Jojo’s car. Then the car’s battery died and they didn’t have the money for a new one. “We finally got enough tickets for parking that we had to move it,” she said. “We had to push it to move it to the next spot.”
‘Even though I am homeless, San Francisco is my home’
Eventually, the city impounded the vehicle, and they didn’t have the money to retrieve it.
“That made a big difference,” she said. More than the shelter provided by a vehicle, her car enabled her to store her belongings.
“I could sleep outside and go to a job every day— that’s not a big deal,” she elaborated, “But, where would I store my things or take a shower before I go?”
If Jojo can find one of those services—a shower, a laundromat, a storage cubby—she can’t usually find the others in the same location. “It’s almost impossible to get a shower when you have a clean set of clothes,” she said.
Without her car, Jojo and Colin settled into the tight-knit homeless community in the Castro. “There’s a really good community of homeless people here,” she said. “There’s real, true friends here, which is something that’s hard to find in such a lonely city.”
People look out for each other in the Castro, Jojo said. “And, compared to downtown or the tender- loin, it’s pretty quiet here.”
Jojo describes her days as “pretty boring.” In the absence of a job, she spends most days reading at her local branch of the SF Public Library.
Most recently, she read a book on the subject of female anger. “The book looks at how anger is one of the emotions that gets swept under the rug and how, as females, that’s like the one emotion we’re taught not to express,” she said, “It’s not a good color on us, they say.”
The book talked about how anger is a normal part of the human experience. “It’s healthy,” she said, “And, it’s a driving force for change and social justice.”
Jojo’s interest in nonfiction writing is a newer development. “When I was inside, like all my life, I used to be a really big fan of fiction, like science fiction, especially fantasy,” she said, listing the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings among her favorites.
“But outside, I find nonfiction, anything from philosophy to science-type books, psychology, really fascinates me,” she said.
She dreams of going back to school, though now she’s more interested in psychology than nursing— cognitive linguistic psychology, in particular. She
is fascinated by how language affects the way we think.
When she’s not at the library, Jojo likes to play music. Sometimes she plays the guitar and sings for money in the Castro. It doesn’t matter what genre of music. “I just love singing.” she said.
Recently, Jojo’s husband Colin, an honorably discharged Marine, has been trying to get housing through Veterans Affairs. It’s a slow process.
Jojo has thought about returning to Washington, where rent is cheaper. “Where I am from, what you pay for a studio here, like $1,500 a month, I could get a five bedroom house,” she said.
However, Colin’s marijuana charges haven’t been dropped, even though marijuana has now been legal in Washington state for eight years. “I was sur- prised it never went away,” she said, “It’s so stupid that that’s whats keeping us out [of WA].”
Additionally, Jojo feels connected to San Francisco. “I love this city,” she said, “I really do try to take care of it because of that. When I leave an area I like to leave it cleaner than I found it because it’s my home.”
Though aspects of the Navigation Centers appeal to Jojo, they haven’t been able to guarantee that she and Colin could stay together. “Every time I ask them about it—us being able to stay together—they say, ‘well, we’ll see, or yes but no, not right now,’” she said. For the last decade, Colin has been a con- stant presence for Jojo, helping to make her feel safe while living on the streets. “We’ve been together since 2010,” she said, “That’s my best friend.”
Jojo is thinking about finding housing. On Halloween she got an ID, which will allow her to pursue General Assistance. She says that makes her feel one step closer to finding housing and a job.
By the end of our interview, the sun had set. Colin lay next to Jojo, tucked under layers of blankets and tarps. The next morning, I walk past Jojo and Colin’s blue-tarp bed next to the park. They do look safe together like that, held tightly in each other’s arms.
Street Spirits is a monthly feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.
Emma Arnesty-Good is a writer and researcher living in her home town of San Francisco, CA.