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A Rough Life for Women

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday August 06, 2009 - 10:34:00 AM
A memorial for Cheryl Ferguson, a homeless woman who died outside the Berkeley Public Library.
Riya Bhattacharejee
A memorial for Cheryl Ferguson, a homeless woman who died outside the Berkeley Public Library.
Paris Ford, a disabled teacher, has been living at the North County Women's Center on Dwight Way for a month since losing her Oakland apartment to foreclosure.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Paris Ford, a disabled teacher, has been living at the North County Women's Center on Dwight Way for a month since losing her Oakland apartment to foreclosure.
Shelter resident Suzanne Smith, who until recently was living under the 580 bridge in Walnut Creek, is waiting for her insurance provider to clear the way for her to get surgery for a brain tumor.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Shelter resident Suzanne Smith, who until recently was living under the 580 bridge in Walnut Creek, is waiting for her insurance provider to clear the way for her to get surgery for a brain tumor.
Ms Wong, who at 83 is the shelter's oldest resident, picks up her chicken salad sandwich lunch from the dining room last Friday.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Ms Wong, who at 83 is the shelter's oldest resident, picks up her chicken salad sandwich lunch from the dining room last Friday.

Cheryl Ferguson, 49, a homeless woman, died on Berkeley’s streets July 24. Ferguson was found unconscious in front of the downtown public library around 1 a.m. When Berkeley police failed to revive her with CPR, deputies from the Alameda County coroner’s office took custody of her. 

Authorities are still investigating the cause of death, but have ruled out any kind of crime. 

Friends remembered Ferguson by creating a makeshift memorial on the piece of flimsy cardboard she slept on, something a passerby on Kittredge might easily have missed: a few white lilies, a coffee-cup clutch holder cut in the shape of a cross, and “Cheryl” in black letters on the cardboard. 

Sgt. Damon Wilson of the county coroner’s office said that although the county does not keep track of how many homeless people die on the streets every year, the number is not very high. 

When family members don’t want to pay for the funeral, Wilson said, the dead are “disposed” using the county’s indigent program under which the body is cremated and the ashes stored indefinitely in a cemetery vault. 

Wilson said Ferguson’s family had agreed to handle the funeral. Records kept on file at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s North County Women’s Center show that Ferguson had two sons. She last stayed at the shelter from Oct. 14 to Nov. 17, 2008. 

Ferguson, a diabetic who suffered from pancreatitis, has a file at the women’s shelter that includes her birth certificate and an emergency contact number, but no I.D. 

Her death shocked shelter staff and residents, a couple of whom remember her as a frail lady who lived there off and on. 

“Ferguson was found by social workers on the streets of Martinez, and she came to us from Martinez Hospital,” said shelter coordinator Kendra Lewis. “She had no income.” 

Lewis said homeless people rarely die on the streets, because they can avail themselves of city services. Although a lot of her clients die of various illnesses, substance abuse or old age while in permanent housing, this was the first time in Lewis’ eight years at the shelter that she had heard of a person dying on the streets because of homelessness. 

“She knows our system,” she said. “She could have come here. A lot of the women who are used to the streets don’t want to live by the rules. Often when women are out on the streets, especially in Berkeley, it’s by choice.” 

The landmarked 1895 Davis-Byrne building on 2140 Dwight Way, which is home to the 33-bed women’s shelter, also includes a two-year transitional housing program for homeless women with severe psychiatric disabilities and a six-month transitional housing program for women and their children. 

When a homeless woman rings the buzzer on the first floor, she can come in for a hot meal, get an emergency roll-away bed when available and sign up to reserve a 30-day bed. 

“Sometimes the doctors will call us, the hospitals will call us, police will call us, or women off the street will just come in,” said Lewis. “We ask about addiction, their last rental and what their income is to get a general idea about increasing it, which nine times out of ten is what we have to do. There’s not a lot of subsidized housing in California, and it takes years and years to get on a waiting list.” 

Caseworkers work around the clock with clients to get them to doctors and enroll them in recovery programs or classes. 

When the shelter is full, Lewis sends her clients to Harrison House on Harrison Street, or even the overnight Men’s Shelter on Center Street. “We try to get them a place, no matter what,” Lewis said. Unlike the men’s shelter, where the residents have to leave at 7 a.m., the Dwight Way facility lets its clients stay there all day. 

If clients are employed or receive aid from Social Security, disability or unemployment, they can extend their stay, but they are required to save 30 percent of their income with the shelter. 

“We don’t want them to get too comfortable and relaxed,” Lewis said. “If they are doing whatever we tell them to do, we move them into suitable housing.” 

Lewis said Berkeley has more homeless men than women, perhaps because the city’s shelters have more beds for men.  

The plight of women trying to survive on the streets, however, is often far more serious than that of their male counterparts due to the threat of sexual harassment, rape and battery. 

“The homeless population faces lots of problems legally anyway, because you cannot be on the streets,” said Lewis, referring to the city’s Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, which seeks to penalize unlawful street behavior. “There’s no loitering, no hanging around, so if the shelters are full, where do they go? Homelessness is not supposed to be a crime, but police treat it as a crime.” 

At the women’s shelter, case managers do their best to encourage clients and give them a sense of security. 

“We feed them a good meal, get them some good coffee, let them take a nice hot shower—we have beautiful hygiene products—and that gives them a sense of comfort,” Lewis said. “Because when you are clean, and fed, and you are not worried about where your next meal is coming from, you can start thinking about your life again.” 

Most of Lewis’s clients are victims of domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, low or no income and recently, foreclosure. Some have been incarcerated. 

“If you talk to our women, they love being here,” Lewis said, looking around the shelter’s spacious common area, which doubles as kitchen and dining room. “It’s bittersweet, because we don’t want you to love being homeless and love coming here, but we do want you to be comfortable and safe if you do end up coming here. We want women to understand that this is an emergency need, not a permanent thing. We want you to get yourself back together, so you can get into society.” 

On a recent Friday afternoon, shelter residents were enjoying a chicken sandwich lunch, with a side of watermelon and canteloupe. A couple were talking about Ellen Henniger, a graduate of the shelter’s 12-step drug recovery program, who passed away a few weeks ago at Harrison House, 

Henniger, 58, carried oxygen tanks and smoked a lot of cigarettes. 

“She was frail, so frail,” said Lewis, shaking her head. “Basically we put her through a recovery program to get her clean and sober of drugs because we knew she was going to die.” 

Not all cases at the shelter have sad endings, though. 

Lewis talks about 18-year-old Gerlanda Gelin, the shelter’s youngest resident, who had moved into independent housing at the Fred Finch youth center the day before. 

Originally from Haiti, Gelin is now attending Berkeley High. 

“She does have family but chooses not to deal with them,” Lewis said. “She just landed up here from Florida one day—how they get to Berkeley, California, beats me.” 

Younger homeless women often face more problems than others, Lewis said, discussing a case where a client was assaulted and raped by a friend in Oakland. The man was recently prosecuted, and the courts have issued a restraining order against him. 

Not every shelter resident has lived on the street. One arived there after her drug-addicted boyfriend tried to throw her out a window. Bruised and battered, with severe injuries to her head and a busted lip, she was bouncing around domestic violence shelters in Alameda until she finally found a room in the North County center’s independent living program. 

“I don’t think I could handle sleeping on the streets,” she said, feeding a piece of watermelon to her baby daughter. “I mean if I have to, I would, but I have never really put myself in that predicament. It’s not for me. I mean a shelter isn’t either, but it’s a lot better than sleeping on the streets.” 

The woman recently enrolled in Berkeley City College and hopes to open her own business one day. 

Paris Ford, 53, has been living at the shelter for a month after her rental in Oakland was foreclosed. 

Ford said she got her teaching credential at a California state university after graduating from Brown University in 1975, but lost her job as a kindergarten teacher. 

Left to survive on $336 General Assistance every month, Ford got by sleeping on the street and on people’s couches. 

“I had a blanket, a pillow, my medicine and a couple of pair of jeans and T-shirts—that’s about it,” she said. “I faced a lot of safety problems—as far as trying not to be assaulted, trying to hold on to your possessions, which is like everything you own, which is your worldly goods you carry with yourself every single day.” 

Ford said she witnessed drive-by shootings on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland in broad daylight, images that haunt her even today. 

Her worst moment on the street, she said, was sleeping in a friend’s car. 

“It wasn’t safe,” she said. “It was very uncomfortable. It’s a very demeaning type of feeling because the neighbors could see you. I didn’t have any privacy.” 

Ford is currently waiting to get on Social Security and takes medicine for Fibromyalgia, a syndrome characterized by chronic widespread pain. 

When she gets out of the shelter, Ford wants to go to culinary school in San Francisco and become a chef. 

“Gosh, you know, with all that schooling I had, I never knew I would be homeless,” she said, arranging her clothes into a cubby next to her bed. “But it doesn’t matter what you have done right or wrong, you can become homeless no matter what. You can just wake up one day and be like me.” 

Shelter senior case manager Sarah Bridges said that some women suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from living on the streets for the rest of their lives. Bridges’ clients suffer from stress, anxiety, dual diagnosis and schizophrenia. 

“Our biggest challenge is when the clients themselves don’t want to take their medicine,” Bridges said. “It’s really difficult for us to get them back on their medication once they spiral out of control. There is nothing else to do but hospitalize them.” 

Most shelter residents are out during the day working or attending college. Some are busy doing chores.  

Suzanne Smith, 47, was waiting for word on her medical insurance. A resident of Walnut Creek, Smith became homeless after getting addicted to crack at a young age. A self-described crack addict, Smith started living under the 580 bridge in Walnut Creek after her husband threw her out of their house. 

In 2007, Smith developed a brain tumor. 

Although doctors were able to take most of it out, Smith still needs surgery.  

She said she has spent most of the last 10 years panhandling on the streets. 

“I was never raped or anything bad like that,” she said, when asked about her experience. “I think a lot of it was dignity, not having a place to live. Sometimes I would buy beer because I was so depressed. I found myself drinking more and more.” 

Smith said she missed being able to meet her children when she was homeless. 

“It was atrocious, it was hell,” she said. “I had known a better way of living. I had very good parents, grew up in Walnut Creek, got good grades, had a good family—I’d never thought in a million years I’d be homeless.” 

With help from the center, Smith was able to turn her life around and connect with her children once again. 

“Until you have been through being homeless—a lot of the women here haven’t been homeless, they have gone from husbands or apartments to here—you don’t realize what it is,” she said. “I have lived on the streets, and it’s tragic. It’s very hard to get yourself out of this dilemma, but hopefully with the grace of god, I’ll get out of it.”