SANTA ROSA, CA | 2017
Behind a metal door in a crawlspace under Highway 101, Steve Singleton and Michelle Last huddle in hiding. A spear of light from a thin, open seam between a wall and the underbelly of the interstate reveals their tent perched atop a steep earthen slope. It smells of mold and damp dirt. But the couple would rather be in this grave a few inches beneath the eerie thrum of freeway traffic than risk Steve's going back to jail.
It's a short reprieve. Two days later, police find the hideout and arrest Steve for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. He was popped when the pair took cover in an empty office, fearful after a homeless man was stabbed to death on the streets not far from where they were sleeping.
Alone, Michelle packs up the blankets, loads the tubs of clothing, food, and gear onto their bike trailer, and moves to a leaky underpass in downtown Santa Rosa. Being homeless means being constantly on the move. And Steve and Michelle have it down to a science. They can tear down and be on the road in a half hour.
Michelle and Steve aren't legally married but refer to each other as husband and wife. They met at a Santa Rosa homeless shelter about nine years ago after Michelle, 47, fled what she said was a bad relationship with a drug dealer. As she tells it, the last straw was the day she stepped out of her room and found two police rifles pointed at her face.
Before becoming homeless, Steve lived in Forestville with a wife and two young sons and worked for a towing company. But at some point about 18 years ago, he began spiraling into a life of drugs, petty crime, and ever sketchier living situations that bottomed out on the streets.
He's been in and out of jail many times, mostly on misdemeanor and failure-to-appear warrants. Steve also has a short fuse and a history of domestic violence. In addition to misdemeanor drug possession charges and a felony conviction for stealing a truck, his criminal record includes three convictions for misdemeanor domestic violence and one conviction for misdemeanor spousal battery in Sonoma and El Dorado counties.
But at the age of 52, he finds himself taking on a new role as “shot caller” and conduct-enforcer within the loose community of homeless that in Sonoma County has reached emergency proportions. He and Michelle condemn other street people who aren't productive, and live in filth. They also are protective of those who are trying and the most vulnerable - the elderly and the young - some of whom call them “Mom” and “Dad” and look to them for help and leadership.
Steve is boisterous and a tease. When he gets to talking, it is non-stop, whether recounting a story or ranting about how the city disregards the homeless.
He's made a certain peace with the streets.
“I went through a phase where I was embarrassed to be living on the streets, “ he concedes, “but now I realize we're OK with our situation. We're comfortable with where we're at and maybe that's why we haven't made a big effort to get off the streets.”
Michelle, a quiet counterpoint to her gregarious partner, gets increasingly exasperated however, and desperate for a roof and four walls. Michelle also has a past and has spent time in jail. In 2010 she was convicted of credit card forgery and felony possession of a controlled substance.
Both want society to give them another chance. Steve says many people on the streets at one time “took a left turn,” but are trying to make their way back. “Whenever you traveled down that highway - a year, two years, three years ago - you got to travel all the way back down that road to get on the right turn again ... it's a long goddam road to travel back. The thing is, you can't give up.”