Homeless drug addicts fall easy prey to sexual predators in San Francisco.
They don't seem to be safe anywhere. The shelters and the hotels have little security for them, and the domestic violence centers rarely want to take a homeless woman.
One night in 2002, Carla Crandall was asleep under the freeway overpass near Eighth Street. She was jolted awake by a man sexually assaulting her.
"A person I didn't even know," she said. "That's how I woke up."
Today, Crandall is 32 years old. She still looks like the San Jose State journalism student she was 14 years ago. She has a middle-class background, an impressive vocabulary, and an interest in writing.
She also has an addiction to heroin.
Twelve years ago, still a fresh-faced kid out of San Jose, Crandall landed on the streets of San Francisco to become a member of the worst possible demographic - homeless, addicted and a woman. It's one thing to have no place to sleep or eat, but it is twice as tough for homeless women. In a crude, violent world, they are outnumbered, harassed and victimized by lawless, remorseless men. And worst of all, there are extremely few safe places for them to go, writes C.W. Nevius in San Francisco Chronicle.
For 17 years, Carolyn Ritchie worked as a social worker at the Tom Waddell Clinic, concentrating on helping homeless women. What she saw broke her heart. Then it made her mad. And now that she's retired, she feels she has to speak out.
"There's no refuge, no protection," Ritchie said. "You wouldn't let a child run around like that on the streets. She just becomes a victim."
There seem to be many options for homeless women: shelters, subsidized housing, domestic violence housing. But Ritchie says those are false choices. "Ask me how many (women) I placed in (domestic violence centers) in 17 years," Ritchie said. "Three. Maybe four. They don't want them because they think they are going to be trouble."
The city's homeless policy director, Dariush Kayhan, said he was well aware of the problem.
"The vast majority of the people we see are middle-aged, single, adult men. And I think we do a good job with them," Kayhan said. "But I think we should be doing more for women. And we will be doing more."
But for now, and in recent history, homeless women in the city live out the slow, debilitating nightmare that has been Crandall's life.
"You can see by looking at her that she'd be a target," Ritchie said. "In this case, her good looks are almost a disadvantage."
"I've had some dreadful things happen to me," Crandall says. "On the street, being a woman is not an asset in any way, shape or form."
She kicked around from doorways, to hotels, to the psych ward at a hospital (she's been diagnosed as bipolar). It doesn't surprise anyone who knows the streets to hear that she was assaulted, harassed and raped. Finally, she reached the point where she accepted a grim bargain with herself.
"It's going to be taken away from you anyway," she said, "so you might as well give it away."
Or sell it. Crandall was embarrassed to admit she worked as a prostitute but, after some thought, decided that she'd make it public.
"My parents," she said, "told me I couldn't shock them any more."
Crandall has tried going back to live with her family, but it hasn't worked out. Ritchie, who has known Crandall for years, said there are huge, difficult issues with the parents. Let's just say that returning home is no longer an option.
Such women also get into abusive relationships hoping the man will take care of them. But the life takes its toll. Their hair falls out, their skin withers and scars. Without dental care, the women lose their teeth. And then who wants to take care of you?
Homeless policy director Kayhan said the city would like to create a single building, a refuge for homeless women. But for now, it is just a plan for the future. A Woman's Place is one female-only shelter option, but with fewer than 100 beds, it can hardly meet the demand. Given all the opportunities for men, safe housing options for women fall far short.
Ritchie stresses that the Waddell Clinic is one of the best, most sympathetic, in the city. But when she worked there, she saw homeless women defeated by the futility of life on the street.
"They get to the point where suicide looks good to them," Ritchie said. "You can't talk them out of it. You'll say, 'It'll get better.' And they say, 'No it won't.'"