Tariq’s Narrative on Living and Surviving Homelessness

Editor’s note — we ran the first part of this piece in March of 2020, with the intention of running Part 2 in April. By April we were temporarily out of print as we grappled with how to continue the Street Sheet program safely while COVID raged in our communities. We’re so happy to be back in print twice a month, and to finally share Tariq’s story with our readers. Here is the full story:

I’m not sure where to begin and end this short tale about my homelessness. It’s just when you think it’s over, the saga continues. So let’s start with when I first left home with no place to go. I was only 13 years old and I told my mama that I was a man, and she replied “get your ass out there and be a man. When yo’ mannish ass get yo’ own place you can do what you want to do. You have to pay the cost to be the boss.” 

Street Sheet vendor Tariq Johnson stands in the Coalition on Homelessness office wearing his vendor badge on a landyard and grinning.
Street Sheet vendor Tariq Johnson stands in the Coalition on Homelessness office wearing his vendor badge on a landyard and grinning.

I thought of myself as a manchild going through a rite of passage from maleness to manhood. The initiation was to independently survive on my own. The whole process was a great challenge, more complicated than I ever imagined. The most important things were food, clothing and shelter, which meant I needed money. So I went to my Great Grandma. She always knew what to do. She was 100 years old. She asked me what made me think I was a man? We both started laughing at the same time. The reality of the answer to her question was I really wasn’t ready. She stopped laughing and told me, “Go back home, boy.” 

Fast forward this story to when I became a man. I was really ready to be initiated into manhood. I started by graduating when I was 16 with my GED. My older brother gave me the hookup on how to become an emancipated youth with a job so I could have the same privilege as grown folks. I moved into his Victorian flat which meant I had a place, a job and my GED. I even bought his car. It was 1981, and I was a man. I soon learned that meant I had to have my own place, cause God blesses the child that has his own, like Billie Holiday said. I got laid off from my job and ended up on GA and food stamps, which came with a room for two weeks. 

Back then, life was sweet in San Francisco. There wasn’t a whole lot of homelessness — you didn’t see a bunch of people sleeping in the streets unless they were winos or bums. 

So I got my GA room at a place called the Apollo, located on 16th and Valencia. One thing about a GA room was you couldn’t have any visitors. That was the one rule they enforced; they would put you and your visitors out. The Apollo was a prototype of what would become what is known today as an SRO, short for single-resident occupied. It was like most SROs, one room, shared bathroom down the hall, mice everywhere. The building was almost 100 years old. They got the contract with the City to make more money cause they were renting at $25 a night. The City hotel voucher paid more than that, sometimes $200 a week. Do the math on that, and you’ll see they were raking in the dough. These days, the same room with nothing but a sink and a bed inside would cost you $100 a night. Most people would be grateful just to have a warm place to stay with hot and cold running water. When your two weeks expired, you had to leave the GA room. They would make sure you left sooner than later, regardless of checkout time.

As the years passed by, the homeless community began to grow and develop in the Tenderloin: resources like drop-in centers, soup kitchens, shelters, and finally, after 15 to 20 years of going through the revolving door of homelessness, couch surfing from here to there with family and friends, back to the streets, the City came up with a fake-ass solution to homelessness called SRO. Most of these places were actually uninhabitable, dilapidated and infested with mice. The owners did a little quick remodeling to pass the City’s inspection and get the contract with the City to house these low-income and no-income tenants. The cold truth about the SROs opening up doors to the streets was that drug addicts came up. Some of them never had a place to stay before, period. They trashed the restrooms and left needles all over the place. 

There is an old saying: “You don’t shit where you lay your head.” That means you don’t bring the streets home with you. The spread of AIDS escalated all over the TL at a rapid speed. The reality was beginning to take effect in SROs cuz people were always looking for a place to shoot up inside. 

Now if you play with dirt, you’re gonna get dirty. So now the landlords became slumlords and this brought on the infamous bedbugs. These little bugs were the worst thing that could happen to an SRO tenant and managers who live there. My room was my sanctuary, and I kept my floor so clean you could eat and sleep on it. My SRO, like most SROs, had our share of rats and roaches. The bedbugs from hell didn’t play, they let you know they were here to stay. They are some vicious little bastards that move real fast and you know they have bitten you when they take a plug out your ass.

The rats had grown as big as cats. The way they ran around the hallway at night like they own the place had me scared to use the bathroom at night. My room at one time was my sanctuary, the only place I felt comfortable and got peace of mind. I had a portable heater, rotating fan, entertainment center with remote control, which consisted of a dual cassette deck, record player, CD player, AM/FM stereo, 100-watt amp, twin three-foot tri-axle speakers, 40-inch flat screen TV, with remote. My Muslim prayer rug on the floor and nobody but me would use this rug to pray five times a day. Last but not least, I had a 49ers quilt on my bed.

My room was a very cozy cubbyhole. The bedbugs got into everything and ruined my life. My kids couldn’t even come over any more. They were teenagers who loved to play videogames at their daddy’s house. The whole building became infested with these little monsters. The creeps came out at night. You would feel it when they bit and they crawled into every crevice in sight. Our building had 19 health violations. They had pest control come through for roaches, but not for bedbugs. I had to get rid of everything. The longer I kept everything, the more the bedbugs would breed. They were not just biting my body they would also eat chunks of the wood. I guess they were teething or something. 

The manager acted like he either wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything about it, but then the chickens came home to roost — he and his girlfriend started getting bitten by the bedbugs. The health department came out again and claimed they couldn’t see any signs of bedbugs until I pulled one out of the boxspring, trapped him with tape, and put him in an airtight jar. The owner ended up selling the building, and I launched a class-action lawsuit against him and the new owner. The other tenants loved me like I was family. 

Our lawyer had a team of inspectors come out and they checked everything from the basement to the roof. One of the bathroom ceilings had fallen in from water and mold coming from the upstairs bathroom. 

I’m going to skip the details and fast forward to how it turned out. 

We won the lawsuit and most of us moved out. Our lawyer became the “Caped Crusader” of the Tenderloin, and I won’t mention his name but he hit all the slumlords in the T.L. 

I had become disabled with a visual impairment and a venous stasis ulcer on my foot. Trapped in homelessness, going through the revolving door again. Shelters were 90-day quick fixes. Navigation Centers didn’t house everyone permanently. We had no case management, no aftercare; it’s 2020 but it seems like nobody cares. One of the realities of homelessness is that low-income housing is diminishing in San Francisco. I got on the waiting list 1 1/2 years ago and I was denied. A housing case manager told me I should have kept my mouth shut, but I decided to fight for housing justice for everyone, which is why I joined the Coalition on Homelessness 15 years ago. 

Every once in awhile, God shines his light on some of us trapped on the dark streets of this sh*tty city we call home. For example I just got a temporary stabilization room in a hotel that was cleaned up because of the movement to oppose slumlords. This place has marble floors all over top to bottom, even the walls in the bathroom are marble. Fresh paint on the walls in the halls. The janitors clean and empty the garbage twice a day. God is so good, we even got bathtubs on every floor. They scrub the tub for me before I get in it. That’s one thing I like — the bathrooms are a top priority. The video surveillance and security is so tight, you can hear a rat piss on cotton at night. It is so quiet and peaceful.

No drugs, alcohol, loud music, hanging in the halls and bathroom. People that live here respect one another. It’s only temporary but it feels so much like home. I don’t have an entertainment system, but I’ve got a prayer rug that I use five times a day. The marble floor is so clean you can eat off of it. My foot is getting better because I can elevate it regularly. This motivates me to elevate my life. 

I have to end this tale by saying that for me homelessness has been a blessing and a curse. Right now I am grateful, so I’m going to keep praying and thanking God for the blessings.