By the time I stumble upon the alley, the man who sets himself on fire has passed out, and the woman who roves around naked shouting obscenities is fully dressed and interrogating pigeons convened in the motel parking lot. Across the street, Keisha and Marcus huddle against a chain-link fence and pass a plastic bottle of Royal Gate vodka, 80-proof, back and forth. A shopping cart from Target is parked within arm’s reach, piled with everything they own: tents, clothes, plastic bags busy with snack cakes, a grimy stuffed animal — taxonomy unknown — nicknamed Attitude.
Keisha and Marcus have been together for 18 years. They met outside of a San Francisco sex club called the Power Exchange, one of the few haunts in town where a transgender prostitute like Keisha could reliably pick up johns like Marcus. She considered him “just another trick” until he spread a beach towel on the pavement so they could fuck without skinning their elbows — an act of chivalry that made Keisha swoon.
“You’re going to my wife one day,” Marcus told her then. “I have too much respect for you.”
Keisha chokes up when she tells this story now. It’s obvious they’re in love, although it’s also obvious it’s the kind of love that leaves scars as proof of its intensity. Marcus used to throw Keisha’s wigs into trash cans downtown; Keisha would fish them out and comb them clean; they’d laugh about it later. They have that kind of bond. Marcus, 59, claims he’s been locked up in every prison in California, with a rap sheet spanning four decades. Keisha, 41, alludes to her various illnesses, among which only HIV is named with precision. She hikes up her pant leg to brandish a black, wisteria-like rash branching up her calf.
They’ve lived on the street almost continuously for two years. Sometimes they rent a cheap hotel room when Keisha’s SSI check comes on the first of each month. Otherwise, they shuttle between a tent they pitch on church grounds less than a half-mile away and this sun-faded alley in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods. Most afternoons they split a bottle of cheap liquor, smoke weed, and read paperbacks scavenged from the street. Today they’re thumbing through a travel guide to Paris.
“Basically, we need each other,” Keisha says.
The alley — hedged by motor lodges, an auto body shop, and low-rise apartment buildings — isn’t ideal for a couple seeking intimacy. Regular disturbances include the aforementioned naked woman and the freelance pyromaniac. But, then, few public spaces offer refuge for the homeless, especially homeless couples whose desire for romance too often collides with interruptions from passersby, spotty hygiene, or citations for indecent exposure.
Still, Keisha and Marcus manage.
“We do the hoochie coochie,” she says, swigging vodka. “We don’t go to the bathroom stalls and do it. We ain’t nasty.”
Instead, they rely on the fragile privacy of their tent, tucked away in an adjacent neighborhood that sees less foot traffic than the Tenderloin. They have sex a few times a month — more often if Keisha feels Marcus growing restless. They’ve been together long enough that she has an almost telepathic sense of her husband’s moods.
“If he’s looking somewhere else I’ll give it to him,” she says. “In fact, I might give him some tonight.”
Sex among the homeless is rarely discussed. I contact nearly a dozen shelters and advocacy groups before I find anyone willing to talk about it. Katie Hill, deputy CEO of an L.A.-based organization called People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), is one of the first to answer my inquiries.
“If so much of your life is just based on survival and safety, it takes precedent over everything else,” she says, noting that most physical relationships she sees among the homeless are transactional or coercive. Even for couples in shelters who have consensual relationships, intimacy is nearly impossible since most shelters segregate by gender. Many don’t admit couples at all.
“This is why we see a lot of folks staying outside, especially in encampments,” adds Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “That’s where they can actually stay with their family members and have a tiny measure of privacy and autonomy.”
This is true for Keisha and Marcus, as well as for their friend Tee, a 53-year-old widower whose husband of more than three decades died of a stroke two Halloweens ago. Tee was so haunted by the phantom drumbeat of his dead husband’s cane that he fled the residential hotel where they’d lived.
“I needed to get outdoors away from it, get my own place,” he says.
Tee knew he could make it on the street because he’d been there before. He and his husband used to read to each other at night in their tent, guarded by a Shih Tzu named Mighty Thor. The dog, a local celebrity that carried a vodka bottle in its mouth the way more modest dogs carry bones, was struck by a car last year.
Tee shakes his head when tallying his ghosts. “You can’t win for losing out here,” he says.
It’s not physical intimacy he craves — he estimates he has sex once or twice a month, “if he’s lucky” — but companionship. His right side is partially disabled from a stroke, so Keisha helps him tie his shoes when they wake each morning around six. At night, she and Marcus peek inside Tee’s tent to make sure he’s still breathing.
“We’re thicker than thieves,” Keisha says. “We’re all each other has besides the grace of God.”
Being outside hasn’t made Tee any less haunted though. He dreads July, the month he and his husband used to celebrate their birthdays together, and holidays and anniversaries mark more grim milestones of his life alone. He’d hoped that antidepressants would dull his grief, but side effects including nausea and diarrhea only introduced new complications.
Yet he finds comfort where he can: in his adopted family of Keisha and Marcus, in unexpected indulgences like the chocolate chip pancakes the Unitarian church sometimes serves for breakfast, and in praying three times a day, a habit he picked up from his husband, whose father was a gospel singer. Tee also goes to support groups many afternoons to give Keisha and Marcus time alone.
When asked if he ever thinks of falling in love again, Tee grows quiet and stares into the empty parking lot across the street. His eyes gloss with tears. “No,” he says finally. “I know how painful it is to lose someone.”
Billy Bob, reading a paperback thriller about 10 feet away, also knows what it’s like to lose love. Both of his husbands died: the first at age 96, while having sex with Billy, and the second at 69 after what Billy deems malpractice in a Florida hospital. (Billy enjoys narrating a lurid and highly improbable tale about his first husband, who died with his erection lodged deep inside Billy. It took two paramedics to wrest Billy off.)
“I like seniors,” Billy says. “They’re safer. And a lot of people don’t know that they’re still virile.”
At 44, Billy looks like a steampunk pallbearer: black-clad, elaborately hooded, with women’s fur-trimmed boots, lavender-tinted glasses, and strappy motorcycle gloves. According to his wristwatch, he’s been homeless two years, four months and 21 days.
After rambling around the East Coast and a nudist campground in Florida, Billy ventured to Seattle, living inside an SUV he’d outfitted with a TV and a satellite dish. The vehicle was stolen eight months ago, so he migrated to San Francisco. He already has a pair of lovers, one a 92-year-old WWII veteran who lost his leg in a plane crash, the other a 65-year-old who lost his genitals to cancer. Both are housed. Billy hopes to marry the 92-year-old someday.
“I love him, but I don’t know if I love him enough,” Billy says, suddenly philosophical, packing a bowl with weed. “I want a marriage of convenience with benefits. And he wants somebody sleeping next to him.”
Billy says he never gets lonely, thanks to his lovers and friends like Keisha, Marcus, and Tee. But when he mingles with other city dwellers — especially on the bus or train, or in a bar — he complains that nobody talks to him. He’s “treated like dirt, or like [he’s] asking for money.”
The night before was an exception, he admits. He met a handsome 64-year-old in the Castro who invited Billy home to smoke pot, snort poppers, and have sex. That’s about as wild as Billy’s life gets these days — a brief interlude between the chill and grime of the alley. He emphasizes that he’s mostly sober, except for marijuana, which he doesn’t consider a drug but “a necessity.”
“I can’t see more people die,” he says of his self-discipline. “I’ve seen that enough.”
Across the street, in the parking lot behind the motor lodge, are Celeste and John, friends brought together by heroin who’ve weathered their own seasons of death. Celeste, 54, has a red scarf threaded through her hair and a flower near her ear, although whether the flower is an ornament or if the wind tossed it there is anyone’s guess. John, 59, has a grizzled beard brassy with nicotine.
“I used to work at the Bank of America,” Celeste says. “I swept the homeless off the stairs, and now I’m one of them. Isn’t that ironic?”
She laughs without irony. She’s phonetic about it: ha-hA-HA.
John has a master’s in social work. After his wife of 20 years died of lung cancer, he “gave up on himself.” He broke his hip shortly after, then began a long rendezvous with methadone. After a decade of homelessness, he was recently placed in an SRO. It’s better than the street, he concedes, although he’s still getting used to the communal bathroom.
“I’m not interested in relationships,” he says when I ask about dating again. “I’m interested in staying alive.”
Celeste is more blunt. “I’m out here to do dope. No reason to fib.”
She’s cynical about relationships on the street, especially between partners addicted to drugs. She’s learned that the drug will always come between them. The street is a “black hole.” Besides, she says, the words “trust me” almost always presage heartbreak.
According to Katie Hill of PATH, 97 percent of homeless women with mental illness will be victimized either physically or sexually. Some homeless women try to protect themselves by being deliberately undesirable, smearing feces on their genitals, for example, or ignoring basic hygiene. Others cling to abusive relationships rather than be alone at night.
None of these describe Celeste, whose only precaution seems to be a baked-in skepticism about other people. How has she survived 20 years of homelessness and heroin, sleeping in makeshift cardboard huts every night?
“It’s all about what you can withstand, how old your soul is,” she says. “I have a very old soul.”
Jay Corzine, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida who has studied homeless populations, summarizes his findings as “unsurprising”: homeless people have the same need for intimate relationships as those who are housed. He notes that the homeless couples he’s researched tend to live in encampments, which not only makes them more vulnerable but also less likely to seek intimacy because of poor hygiene or fatigue. Plus, homeless couples often sleep in shifts to safeguard their belongings. Since there’s scant academic literature on the subject of sex and intimacy on the streets, most funding goes towards material services rather than therapeutic or psychological support.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s something we don’t have a good answer for because, operationally, there’s not really the funding, or the resources, or the manpower to administer that better,” says Katie Hill of PATH. Shelters aren’t hospitable to couples, so her organization offers a workaround. If a homeless couple can put up the money, PATH shelters allow them to rent a hotel room for the night without forfeiting their beds in the shelter. It’s a welcome alternative but not a long-term solution.
Alexandra Pray, a deputy public defender in San Francisco, sketches a particularly grave consequence for those on the streets who engage in sexual activity: a $100 to $500 citation for indecent exposure, which leads to either a conviction and mandatory registration as a sex offender, or, if they’re lucky, a downgraded charge of lewd conduct. Registered sex offenders are less likely to find employment, public housing, or shelters that will admit them.
Pray estimates that she’s argued five or six indecent exposure cases, most of which involved a homeless man masturbating outdoors. Pray’s office sees approximately one case per year in which a homeless couple has been cited for having sex in public.
“[I] even posited to one jury, ‘Where are homeless people supposed to masturbate?’” Pray says. “There were no answers.”
More than 600 miles north, in Portland, Oregon, Metropolitan Public Defender Services represented 31 clients cited for indecent exposure in Multnomah County last year. Of those, 21 — or 67 percent — were homeless or unstably housed; 16 had a mental health diagnosis; and 13 were both homeless and had a mental health diagnosis. Metropolitan, the largest public defender service in Portland, handles only some of the indecent exposure cases in the county, so the number of affected homeless is likely higher.
And last year in Seattle, the city’s municipal court saw 53 indecent exposure violations, although the court doesn’t track the housing status of those charged.
While intimacy may not be as urgent a need as shelter or food, it is a desire that has real resonance — and real risks — for those on the streets. “The sex is cool,” Keisha says, but it’s “the love and being in love” that carries her and Marcus from one day to the next. For Marcus, the relationship, as erratic as it’s been, is now also the measure of his life and why it mattered.
“I want someone to be there when they bury me,” he says.