The Loneliness of the Street
Observations of an Employed
Homeless Heroin Addict Living in San Francisco
by David H.
Iíve met a lot of other homeless people while living on
the streets. And out of all those, there was only one person whom I
could truly call my friend.
Paul is dead now. He passed on sometime in November,
after his liver grew so inflamed that it rubbed against his rib cage and
was cut open. They were unable to stop his bleeding because of extensive
damage caused by alcohol. He slowly bled to death at a hospital in Marin
Paul and I were best friends, always looking out for
each other. Paul had gotten his life together and had quit drinking. He
spent about four months in SF County Jail two years ago, which gave him
the time and opportunity to ďdry out.Ē
Paul and I lived together on the streets before that,
both of us heroin addicts who panhandled every day so we could both ďget
well.Ē (I wasnít working at the time.) It didnít make one bit of
difference who came up with the money, we both ďgot wellĒ together,
whether he paid for it or I did.
We saved half of any food given to either of us so the
other could also eat. We slept near each other so as to watch each
otherís back at night.
Paul was an alcoholic. He had to have those
beers, which always turned him into a falling-down drunk. I myself never
developed a taste for alcohol, but I allowed Paul his vice and he
allowed me mine.
At the time, I was smoking crack cocaine rock. I would
always put away enough money to buy myself a rock at the end of our day.
Sometimes Paul smoked with me (even though it was small,
I still shared with Paul. Iíd never do that with anyone else.)
However, most of the time he just sat there and drank a beer or two
while I smoked. We went up on a hill to a public park to relax and enjoy
our vices at the end of our day. This was after sundown, when it was too
dark outside to panhandle from one of the traffic islands along Van Ness
When Paul was released from jail, he immediately went
into a drug rehab program and worked hard at getting his life back
together. He was so successful that he ended up with a good-paying job
and his own efficiency apartment south of Market. We still stayed
friends and didnít lose touch with each other. Paul would lend me money
if I needed it to score drugs, even though he was clean and straight.
Every time I saw him, he had a bag full of clothes and soft-covered
books for me. (Iím an avid reader, always having a book Iím reading with
I had been leaving messages on Paulís answering machine,
trying to plan when we could spend some time together talking over a cup
of coffee. We usually met at the doughnut shop on Van Ness and Geary
when I got back into the city after work.
I was surprised when he didnít return my calls, or even
answer his phone when I called him late at night at his home. At the
time, I wasnít worried because I knew Paul attended a lot of NA and AA
meetings, often serving as the guest speaker himself.
It was raining, and I was huddled in the doorway of St.
Brigidís Church when a pick-up truck pulled up to the corner and someone
shouted my name. It was an old friend whom I used to work with years ago
in the telemarketing business. He had met Paul at the rehab and told me
how Paul had unexpectedly died. Paul was doing so well. He had turned
his life totally around and was truly enjoying being alive.
I was shell-shocked. My friend let me sleep on his floor
that night and also pitched to me about how he had turned his life
around, urging me to go into a program and get help. I told him about my
problem getting a California ID card, which prevented me from getting
into a methadone detox program. H suggested that I purchase a stockpile
of prescription drugs on the street and use those to help me ďkick my
Let me try to put into words what it is like to detox
off heroin. Your body becomes dependent on the drug. Without it, you
begin to get very physically sick. Every muscle in your body aches and
cramps up so much that even a hot bath provides only temporary minor
relief. (And of course, for people on the streets, a hot bath is out of
the question.) You break out in a horrible case of the cold sweats,
making you feel clammy all over. Itís impossible to get comfortable.
With a blanket, youíre too hot, and without it youíre too cold.
Your whole body feels weak from exhaustion. You want to
lie down and rest, but you are unable to because of the intense pain
surging through every muscle. You become extremely nauseated and are
unable to keep down even a little bit of water. Your appetite is
nonexistent. Even the thought of food makes you sick. Your bowels become
extremely loose, causing you to constantly run to the toilet, amazed
because you know there is nothing in you because of your inability to
And you might as well forget about sleeping for the next
few weeks. Itís totally impossible to sleep. All you will do is toss and
turn all night long, trying to get comfortable, which is also impossible
because your entire body is racked with pain. Aspirin couldnít even
begin to help the headache you have, much less provide comfort to your
It is a physical, emotional, psychological drain on your
entire system, which I wouldnít wish on even my worst enemies. The pain
is steady and unrelenting for the first five days and then ever so
slowly your body starts to heal itself, realizing that it is not going
to receive any more heroin.
All this went through my mind as my friend and I talked
about detox programs, as we grieved for Paul.
Even though Paul and I werenít living together any more,
he was still my one and only good friend whom I could trust. And there
you have the key word: trust. Oh, I have friends I know from the
streetÖ I have friends I know from workÖ but there isnít anyone I can
truly trust with my life. Nobody at work offers me a place to
spend the night, even in a garage, when itís pouring down rain. Nobody
on the street offers me anything at all.
I smoke cigarettes and usually Iím not without a pack,
but Iíve learned from the past to lie and say I donít have any when Iím
asked (which is way, way too often on the street). I even have a
co-worker who makes more money that I do ask me to sell him cigarettes
(at a quarter apiece).
I have so little that everything I own in the world fits
in my small backpack I carry, and there is plenty of room to spare in
there. So I am forced to alienate myself to protect what little I do
have and not be used by others.
The loneliness is the worst. My heart literally aches
for a good friend, someone I could tell anything without being judged,
someone to hang out with, work with, party with, and sleep with. I read
so much because reading takes me away and helps me momentarily forget
that Iím all alone. But when all is said and done and the day is over
and I lie down somewhere by myself, I still cry myself to sleep, wishing
I had a friend, someone to talk to and say good-night to. Someone who
wouldnít use me because I have money that I earn every day at work,
someone who would be waiting for me to get off the bus at the end of the
day and would have a good-night shot of dope waiting for me.
The thought of female companionship doesnít even cross
my mind, knowing that is a total impossibility. I know a lot of other
homeless guys who will go out and buy a bunch of crack rock, then pick
up a hooker and offer to smoke her out if she will go party with them.
Besides the fact that I quit smoking rock and havenít touched one in
seven months, Iím not the type of guy who can turn to a prostitute for
companionship, which is of course not only temporary but also totally
fabricated. She doesnít like you, no matter what she says. The only
thing she likes and wants is that next hit of the crack pipe and will do
and say anything to get it form you.
Crack cocaine has got to be without a doubt the very
worst drug to ever hit the streets. Heroin addicts would never do half
the things crack heads do to get their next hit. People have been hurt
(and killed) over $5.00 which a crackhead thinks he has got to have. He
isnít physically addicted like the heroin addict, but he is
psychologically addicted, so deeply that he becomes dangerous to others
Iím glad that I was working and had money to buy crack
when I did smoke it, and Iím even gladder that God helped remove that
desire from my life. Now, not only do I not crave it at all, but
I also loathe it and will get away from it or anyone having
anything to do with it (which is another reason I donít have any
homeless friends Ė a good percentage of them smoke crack, either
casually or heavily.)
I miss Paul a lot and think of him often. Even when we
went our separate ways, we still maintained the close friendship that
was so special to both of us. Now with no one to trust (there is that
word trust again), I feel so alone and lonely that it literally
Iíve been married twice and was with my last girlfriend
for 2ĺ years, so I became used to being with someone. Itís been sort of
conditioned into me since my first marriage, which lasted just one week
short of five years.
But I was even lonely as a child. To this day, I can
vividly recall sitting up in my room and staring out the window alone,
wishing I had a friend to play with.
I do have a friend who is also homeless, who panhandles
during the day to pay for his habits. We used to hang out together and
we slept together and we fixed together. I still consider him my friend,
even though we no longer hang out together.
Why donít we? What happened?
Iíll tell you. He took advantage of my friendship and I
felt extremely used. He totally lost my trust (yup, thereís that
trust word again).
And what caused this to happen, you ask?
His rock cocaine habit became more important than our
friendship. I paid for both our habits, morning and night for a number
of months, while his money went to his crack habit.
Now hereís where it gets interesting. He swears that he
wasnít making enough money to buy any rock, much less help out by
chipping in for dope. So I ended up paying for it and he still got half
Ė probably more than half, since he never would cook it and divide it
with me around. Well, I just up and left one night without looking back.
I knew I was being used, but I let him use me. That was my fault and no
one is to blame except myself. My reason for allowing myself to be used
like that is because I needed companionship, which I paid for deeply out
of my own pockets.
Thatís how lonely I was. I was willing to overlook what
was being done to me so I would have a friend. Maybe not a friend I
could trust (yup, again) , but at least someone to hang out with. Was it
worth it? I honestly donít know. On the one hand, I donít like to be
alone. On the other hand, I donít want people to think that they can
easily take advantage of me by aiming for the weak spot in my heart. I
end up pushing myself into a self-imposed exile to avoid being forced
into one of those negative situations.
I believe that most homeless find it hard to trust
anyone. We are so used to getting ripped off, dumped on, taken
advantage of, and just plain outright used, that we find it hard to put
our trust in anyone.
Thereís an old saying, ďMoney canít buy happiness.Ē It
can, however, let you go out to clubs and bars to meet people, something
a homeless person canít do because of the cost involved. Being homeless
leaves you with hardly any options to meet someone in a social
environment. And the people you do meet are generally in the same
circumstances as you are, homeless, without any real opportunities to
turn their life around and get off the streets and into their own place,
with a job that allows them to pay bills and make ends meet.
Everyone Ė no matter who they are, how rich or how poor
Ė knows the pain of loneliness. However, when you are among the
population of the homeless, you have even less chance of meeting someone
to become close to because of the great lack of trust among the
homeless. As a homeless person, not only do you tent to trust others
less; others also trust you less, making it even more difficult to
connect with someone on any level. Homeless people need friends to reach
out to them, people they feel they can trust. The beginning of a good
solid friendship could help build a strong foundation on which to
rebuild a life back.
Reach out, please, to a homeless person today. You could
make a significant difference. Remember, we are all the same inside. We
all need someone to talk to.