Lisa: “They Took Everything” Including Our Happiness, Hope and Strength 

Interview with Lisa Mahmoud by the Stolen Belonging Team, Bayview District, San Francisco

San Francisco resident Lisa Mahmoud gestures as if she’s holding one of the most beloved and irreplaceable items stolen from her in the sweeps: a basket woven by her grandmother who has passed. Photo by Leslie Dreyer

My name is Lisa Mahmoud. I was born in Ethiopia but I came here when I was five. I grew up in San Diego, but I’ve been living in San Francisco for several years. I’ve been homeless here, and it’s been very trying and difficult. 

DPW confiscated my home and my items here on Marin Street. They were very rude, and they refused to allow me to save anything. They took whatever they wanted, and they trashed whatever they wanted. They were very intimidating and threatened that if we weren’t in compliance with them, then they’d arrest us. The police were also there, and so we were in a state of fear. They took everything I had, not once, but the second time just happened a couple days ago. So it’s a continuous thing. Some of the workers have been very rude to us and give us this look of disgust.

Can you tell us about the survival items that they took from you? The things that you use day-to-day.

They took everything. They took my hygiene items, my clothing, my food, my transportation, my bicycle and roller blades. They took all my dollies [pushcarts], they took all my blankets, my bed and rugs, and kitchen utensils. They took everything. I also have traditional clothing that they took, which meant a lot to me. It came from Ethiopia, and so it was important for me to have it. That was given to me by my mom and grandma, and so that’s gone. It’s not something that I can get back because in our tradition, we pass clothes down. 

What was it like living without those things?

You just feel like you have nothing. Warmth is important when you’re outside. Hygiene is important. Also transportation because you get tired of walking and carrying things. So a bicycle really helps. And even these dollies help you push things around. When they take all that, it’s very difficult to obtain these things again. It’s like, what do you do? It’s not easy.

Being hungry isn’t fun. A lot of these food banks are not around in the area, and sometimes you’re so depressed that you don’t even want to go to get food, and so it’s difficult. And then, for me it’s important to have hygiene items and makeup and things like that because it’s a part of keeping me happy. So things that make me happy, they took everything I had, my clothing, where I slept, I didn’t have blankets, and it was cold. I value warmth and my food, the bare necessities.

Can you tell us about the items that DPW took from you in the sweeps that you find irreplaceable? 

Family heirlooms are important because they’re something that you can’t recreate. They’re part of our tradition and our culture, and so I can’t get them again. My grandma has passed. 

I had baskets that were woven by my grandmother. We make baskets and weave them ourselves out of straw. I had a coffee pot called a jebena. It’s an Ethiopian coffee pot made of clay and it’s painted a certain color. It’s something we got back home, a whole set. It comes with a small table and little saucers, and it was gifted to me by my mom. Also, I’m Somali, and my Somali dresses were taken. They’re long cotton dresses, and have embroidered designs. Also, incense from our culture that we make. … And then olive oil is very important because I wear it as a mask and I drink it, and it’s a big part of our food diet. Olive oil is expensive, so that was stressful. And there’s also a custom that I follow from my mom: The [facial] masks and things like that, which keep me not so sad because it’s doing something that I’m used to doing. It’s something that’s familiar. So when those things are taken away, then nothing is familiar anymore. It leaves you in a state of loss and shock.

I had perfumes and things, oils from my country. And I didn’t realize how important those things were until one day I got a hold of some of it, and it made me feel so much better, emotionally. I was like, “Wow.” So these are the things that when people come in and they rob you, that’s what they take, they’re taking part of your happiness.

Reflecting back, how do you think the city should compensate you for this loss?

I mean, the only way they can compensate us is to basically create some sort of ordinance or something that tells them that they can’t go in and take an item that is dear to you, that’s important, that’s a part of keeping you going, that’s your strength. They can’t rip that person’s hope from them. And for me, I was raised in a tradition of not being so attached to things, but even then, it’s hard because that’s all you have physically.

How do you think the city should be held accountable for taking your stuff?

Well, I think they should pay the homeless people that they violate. They should pay them blood money. It’s like they’re taking from an orphan. You’re outside, you have nothing, you have no help. So they should pay them a certain amount in order for them to get at least warmth again and clothing and food and bare necessities without having to go to these agencies and beg. It’s not that people can’t go to these offices. … They’re too depressed to go. So that’s when they need the local community to help them.

What would you say to someone who’s housed or who works for the City, so that they could see this incident from your point of view?

I would just tell them to walk in our shoes. Put yourself in our circumstance. The world is a funny place. Anything could happen at any time and everything could be taken from you and you could be put out. Or it could be that you can’t handle anything anymore because you’ve gone through some traumatic event and you’re outside. The way you show compassion is actually imagining that was you. Is that what you would want to happen to you? Would you think that’s OK? 

Is there anything else that you would like to share with the City or the general public?

I’d like them to share more empathy towards anybody outside. Because everybody is going through a burden or trial they can barely handle. People that are outside have been really pushed to the limit and they’re having a tough time. Really, smile at them. It’s not going to kill you if they ask for a cup of water to give them a cup of water or an orange or a dollar even. Whatever their circumstance is, be kinder and have more empathy.