After her husband’s death, when she lost her condo because she couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments, Alice thought things couldn’t get any worse. With tears in her eyes, she sold everything and anything that people would buy. The rest of the stuff she gave away to charity organizations or paid to have it removed to the dump.
All she had left was three suitcases of clothes, which Alice stuffed in her car. She moved in with a friend who was going to rent her a room for a tidy sum of $1000 a month. This gave Alice the rights to a shelf in the refrigerator and two shelves in the kitchen cabinets, but no laundry privileges despite a functioning laundry room.
For that amount of money some people could rent an entire house, but in San Francisco it was a bargain, for which Alice was grateful. At least she had a place to sleep in a safe neighborhood.
But when her friend had a heart attack and died, the house was sold, leaving Alice without a place to live. Her pastor suggested the homeless shelter a few blocks away, so Alice applied and was accepted, but only for three months. She would be connected to social services organizations who would help her find a job and a permanent place to stay.
Alice snickered at that idea. She’d turned seventy last month. No one would hire a woman her age with a lack of computer skills. But Alice went on every job interview that she was sent on, eventually getting hired to clean offices after hours. It paid minimum wage. Enough to buy food, but not enough to pay rent.
When her three months were up in the shelter, Alice had nowhere to go. She packed her stuff up in the car once again and drove to the beach where she parked along a sidewalk, under a shady tree. During the day, the car was cool. At night, the tree provided a bit of shelter from the dripping fog.
Alice slept in her car every night for two weeks. She knew she was dirty despite her best efforts to keep clean. There was a McDonald’s a block away with a bathroom she could use. The sinks were tiny, but with effort she’d stick in one foot at a time and wash the rest of her with paper towels. Even with her daily sponge baths, a layer of grime slowly formed.
And her clothes! The hand soap was too watered down to remove stains and body odor. To remove excess water she had to wring them out, and since there was no place to hang them to dry, they ended up wrinkly and old.
Her hair never got truly clean. She did the best she could to stick her head under the spigot and scoop water on the top of her head, but it wasn’t good enough. Her normally white hair slowly turned a shiny gray and stuck to her head like a helmet.
Because she wasn’t clean enough to be a cleaning lady, she lost her job. How ironic, Alice thought. Who’d ever think that one had to be a model of cleanliness to scrub filthy sinks and toilets!
Alice returned to the shelter, hoping they would allow her to move back in, but they refused. The director told her it was a one shot deal. Others needed a chance. Alice had had hers. She was referred to another shelter ten blocks away, but when she got there, there were no open spaces, so back to her car she went.
One day while she was out looking for work, her car was towed away. Now Alice had nothing but the clothes on her back, whatever was in her purse and a small pension that was on direct deposit.
After withdrawing a bit of money, Alice went to a nearby thrift store and bought clothes. The clerk stuffed them in paper bags which Alice had to pay for because nothing is free in San Francisco. She left with her arms full and stumbled to the serenity of the beach.
She piled her stuff up on a picnic table and considered her options. Alice had none. She had no family that would take her in. She had no job. No place to live. All that was left was a bit of hope that a stranger would come along who felt sorry for an old woman and would offer her a place to stay, but even though she sat there into the night, no such luck.
She wished for a cold bottle of water and a warm meal, which ironically she had enough money to pay for, but McDonald’s would not let her in with her bags of clothes. She would have to leave them outside and hope that no one would steal them. Alice knew that, with the way her luck was going, that nothing would be left if she stepped inside. So she walked back to the beach, hungry and thirsty.
Alice wandered up and down, paralleling the shore, admiring the crashing waves, just to have something to do. Ahead she saw an outcropping of rocks that ran perpendicular to the shore, massive boulders with a base that sported an array of colors. As Alice neared, she discovered that tarps and tents provided the color, and that a village of people made the spot their home.
Alice approached a man who was tending a fire. “Hello,” she said. “What is this place?”
“This is our home,” the man said. “We consider ourselves family.”
Alice’s eyes teared up. She missed her husband so much. Since she had no family of her own, the idea of belonging to this family appealed to her. “What do I have to do to join?” she asked.
The man’s eyes scanned her from head to toe. “Do you use drugs or drink?”
Alice shook her head.
“Are you a prostitute?”
“Of course not,” she huffed.
“Will you contribute to the food pot? Can you buy materials to build a shelter?”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “I can do both.”
“Then welcome,” he said. “My name is George. My tent is the gray one. Put your bags inside. Later on I’ll introduce you to the others and find you a place to sleep for the night.”
Alice placed her bags just inside the door of the tent. She took a quick look around and was surprised to see how neat and clean everything was. In her mind, homeless people were filthy, stinking individuals, with mental issues or addicted to drugs. But here was a camp for people like her. People who couldn’t pay the high rents and had nowhere else to go.
When Alice returned, George offered her a chair and a cup of coffee. He gave her a piece of bread with peanut butter. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m starving. I had run out of options, you know, and was pretty desperate.”
“That’s why we’re all here,” he said. “We’re a bunch of old farts with no place to go. No family to turn to. No friends who’ll take us in.”
Alice watched the waves crashing on the shore. “Is it safe here for an old lady like me?”
George smiled. “We’ll take care of you. Make sure no harm comes your way. That’s what I meant about us being family. It’s like it was our destiny to come together.”
Alice smiled. George seemed like a really nice man. She was sure he’d take care of her. “I’d like to live here,” she said, “if you’ll let me.”
“Sure. No problem. First thing we’ll need to do is build you a shelter of your own. After breakfast we’ll go to the hardware store and buy the things you’ll need. The most expensive will be a sleeping bag. It gets cold out here at night, so you need a good one. Sound okay?”
“It sounds lovely,” Alice said. Then she remembered what George had said about it being destiny that brings these folks together, and she understood what he meant. She already felt like she belonged.