Together in homelessness: couples living on the streets struggle to find help

By Zak Cowan

An occupant of the San Francisco Navigation Center in the Mission District relaxes on its outdoor patio July 25, 2016. This and the newly-opened Civic Center Hotel are the only places in the city where a homeless couple can receive shelter without separating. (Zak Cowan)

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on our students’ website Bay News Rising.

Being homeless in San Francisco is tough enough. But homeless couples that want to stay together have an extra burden: The city simply doesn’t know how to accommodate them.

“It’s a real flaw of our system,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. There are no special programs or services for couples, and with the exception of the newly-opened navigation centers, shelters do not allow them to stay together. The choice is stark: separate to find a bed, or stay together on the streets.

That was the dilemma faced by Jay Licea and Allie Eke when they landed in San Francisco two years ago.

When they first arrived in San Francisco, the city’s first navigation center was still months from being opened. This left them with one option if they wanted to sleep under a roof that wasn’t their makeshift tarp dwelling: the city’s shelters, where they were forced to separate, a choice that didn’t sit well with the couple.

“I hated the thoughts that she wasn’t safe,” Licea said.

For a mixed-gender couple attempting to find shelter – and eventually housing – together, there are few options to choose from, Friedenbach said. Unless they are willing to split for the night, their choices for a sheltered place to sleep are limited to the navigation centers, a total of 168 beds open to every homeless couple in San Francisco.

There is no “data on couples, specifically, since these individuals are all served in our adult system whether single or coupled,” said Krista Ballard, assistant to executive director Trent Rhorer. So there is no way to know if the city is providing enough space to accommodate the couples living on its streets.

The Civic Center Hotel opened as the city’s second navigation center June 28. The other is located in the Mission District and has been open since January 2015. An individual cannot secure a spot at one of the navigation centers unless referred by the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team or another authorized outreach program.

Though the navigation centers have similar layouts as regular shelters, the occupants are not separated based on gender. This provides more flexibility, said Scott Walton, manager of adult services for the Housing and Homeless Division of Human Services. “We will allow a couple to push their beds together. It’s not an invitation that they can have sexual intimacy with someone else, but it does allow them to, at least, be closer together.”

Walton said that the city attempts to put couples in the same shelter if they request it, but they would certainly be put in different sections of the shelter. “It does not prevent them from coming and going together,” he said. “But if they’re on different floors, they have to stay on their assigned floor for the sleeping accommodations.”

So Licea and Eke were separated, usually forced to stay in different buildings. They eventually chose to be on the streets together instead of being separated within the shelter system.

In different cases, Walton said, people who identify as couples on the streets don’t retain that label once they have the necessities taken care of.

“In our experiences, couples are fluid,” Walton continued. “What defines a couple is really a personal thing.” Often, “those situations change if the people are provided the basic necessities of life that they don’t have when on the streets.”

This can be due to a number of reasons. For one, there will be abuse “that maybe somebody tolerates in one situation, but once they’re feeling a little safer” they are able to escape it.

For Licea and Eke, though, their bond and partnership was not bound to the streets they call home.

They first met each other at a punk show in Antioch, California, in 2012, but neither of them really remember it all that well. They both struggle to pick up details from their memory of that night, but then laugh it off. “It’s not important, I guess,” Eke said, lighting the cigarette they were about to share.

“We shared a needle, right?” Licea asked.

The two grew close during the first two years of their relationship. They say the heroin that brought them together helped create a bond and level of trust they hadn’t experienced before. Both of them, though, knew it had to stop.

The withdrawals were intense, as both had built up a tolerance – using up to a gram between them per day at the time of their most rampant use – but they both got off the substance in March of 2014 without a visit to a rehabilitation center or a stint in custody. “That’s how our friends did it,” Eke said. Instead of going to rehab, they preferred to lean on each other.

That summer, Licea and Eke had each been clean for six months but had nowhere to stay in Antioch. They decided to make a move to the streets of San Francisco. They figured they would have more help in the city than in the suburbs of the delta.

During the final months of 2014, they spent most of their nights on the streets of the Mission, but they soon found solitude under the trees of Golden Gate Park. It was there, in the spring, that they both used again. After more than a year clean – most of it spent on the streets of San Francisco – they slipped back into substance abuse.

Walton, the human services manager, said that the outreach programs don’t disqualify individuals based on their sobriety, but using on the premises is prohibited. The screening process for being referred to housing is also forgiving of an applicant’s current or past drug use, However, if the required background check finds “a history of serious crimes” that may be related to drug use, such as violence or the manufacturing of illegal substances, the applicant is rejected.

Since they started using again, Licea and Eke’s hopes of escaping their homelessness have been dim, and they have leaned on each other as much as ever before. The two are still wary of the city’s services, having attempted to take advantage of them prior to the navigation centers being an option.

“I can’t imagine being out here by myself,” Eke said, gazing at Licea as they sat outside a needle exchange in the Tenderloin.

From here, they hope to get clean again and, one day, get married under the same trees in Golden Gate Park that have given them shelter over the past two years.

“We’ll stay together,” they both say, numerous times, when asked what their future may hold. “No matter what.”

Zak Cowan is a graduate of Pacific Media Workers Guild’s Bay News Rising mentorship training program for college journalism students. He can be reached at

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