“I was a forensic psychologist and worked at state prisons. During (California’s) budget crisis they let me go. I had an apartment – stunning views over the Noe valley – but losing my income, coupled with separating from my girlfriend, and a few other things, put me on the streets. In anglo-saxon culture it’s profoundly shaming. You’d rather kill yourself than live on the streets. Yet here I am. I don’t talk to people from my former life. I don’t want to burden them. I call them civilians.
When my material possessions were all stripped away and I was still there it distilled my sense of self. It was liberating.
Artists, poets, musicians and philosophers used to be the heart of the city but they’ve been driven out and replaced by techies. At the beginning I felt a sense of conectedness to them but not anymore. Some look at you with detachment. Some with contempt, ridicule and fear. Others are very kind. It’s very humbling being in the most marginalised part of society. It’s different worlds. A strong sense of separation. They’re in there. We’re out here.
If you weren’t taking drugs before living on the streets, you do once you’re out here. It’s very tough. Crystal meth lets you deal with hunger or repetition, numbs you out. You want to get high. That’s the goal. People organise things around that. San Francisco is a crystal city.
The homeless move in little clusters and these little groups can become communities. But there’s no trust because people predate on each other, rob each other’s phones or tents, anything. People con you all the time. There’s a lot of paranoia and an end-of-days vibe. You hear rumours of people – civilians – giving poisoned food.
When you’re a woman it’s more dangerous so I move around on my bike. I’ve been attacked by men. Even if you’re a chick being beaten up by a dude people say, hey, that’s your own fight.
The community takes a lot of bikes from the yuppies. Tonnes of them. You buy and sell them. [Lewis grinned when told Nathan Blecharczyk, an Airbnb co-founder, had his bike stolen: ‘That makes me happy. I’m sorry’].
You see amazing things, especially at night. There’s a boy I’ve seen, a beautiful boy, very slender, who tap dances and sings, just for himself. There’s a timelessness out here; no one knows what time it is. But it’s not for the weak. Five days out here on a dollar a day will change your consciousness and your politics.”