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 freeway 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.”
Their relationship is alternately tumultuous and tender. Despite frequent fights and breakups, a fierce loyalty and devotion has held them together amid a relentless struggle for survival.
On the streets they uphold a code of conduct that includes no pan- handling, no booze, and a militant refusal to relinquish their civility amid the trash, noise, drinking, fights, poverty, drug abuse, danger, and grinding disrespect that comes with living on the ragged edges of Wine Country’s bounty.
Steve and Michelle have a soft spot for others suffering in the shadows of a society that snubs them. One is Vinny, an old acquaintance, who is dying at Memorial Hospital. When Vinny asks for Chinese food, they bicycle from their campsite across the street to fetch him takeout. Michelle, in scrubs, quietly lingers as Vinny moans in pain, even as it stirs painful memories of her mother’s death from cancer when Michelle was just 7 years old.
They have fond memories of their former lives when they worked as carneys, living in the bunkhouse while on the road and gaining a following operating “The High Striker” strongman game. But Steve, for all his charm, can also be a hothead. When he got into a clash at the carnival, he was forced to leave; Michelle reluctantly followed.
The couple doesn’t scrounge for food. They appreciate meals at St. Vincent’s Dining Room in Railroad Square and often whip up their own, of sausage and eggs, pork chops and steak — prepared on a propane burner that has gotten them into trouble with police. The couple sleep on a stack of soft blankets — they refuse hand-me- downs — and bicycle to the portable showers run by The Redwood Gospel Mission and Catholic Charities — a chore that can take hours. They hit the laundromat weekly; Steve decries the homeless who filch free clothing, wear it once, and dump it on the street.
Steve and Michelle have mixed feelings about their peers on the street, variously protective and furious.
“I can’t let that guy sleep there, he’s making us all look bad,” Steve says one day as he spots a man sprawled beside a row of garbage bins in front of a small house beyond the underpass. Crouching down he yells at the man to get up, grabbing him by the collar as he struggles to lift him. Steve’s voice is shaking and his eyes fill with tears. “Look man, I live on the streets too. I’m just like you. Can’t you see I’m trying to help you?”
He offers to carry him to the underpass for safety but the man asks to be left alone. Defeated, Steve heads back to his tent, stopping to look back down the street where the man is still lying with the garbage. A soft rain begins to fall. “That guy doesn’t understand it,” he laments, his voice choking up. “If he’s drunk and he sleeps in the rain, he’ll die out there.”
At the start of 2017 Steve has a full-time job, pedaling five mornings a week on his nearly new bike to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where he works on a maintenance crew, while Michelle sweeps away the dirt and trash outside their tarp-covered tent and checks rental listings that might by some remote chance meet the criteria for a housing assistance program. The futility of her tasks leaves her alternately angry, defiant, and depressed, her flashing moods reflected in her deep-set eyes.
Both find it increasingly hard to live on the streets as the effects of age set in. Michelle has colitis, back problems, and a torn shoulder from lifting the hammer of The High Striker. In April Steve severely tears a rotator cuff during the winter rainstorms while lugging wooden pallets he planned to use to get their tent off the muddy ground. He has already had multiple surgeries, including a heart stent, and suffers chronic diverticulitis. Years ago he had all his teeth removed and chose not to get dentures.
Yet he says he’s healthier than he has been in years after weaning himself off a load of prescription medications that he said were only making him sicker. Both smoke pot, but claim they are otherwise clean after years of drug use.
“We have hard times. It’s stressful,” said Steve, who was born and raised in Sonoma County and then Lodi after his parents divorced. “I love my wife dearly. We are clean. We don’t do the things half the other people do. And people respect us.”
People on the street, that is. One day Michelle is pelted by loose change flung from a car window. Steve is awakened in the middle of the night by a drunk in a Mercedes calling people sleeping in the underpass “worthless.” Disheartened that no one else would stand up to preserve their dignity, Steve confronts “the gentleman,” knocks him down and delivers a lecture on respect. “No matter what these people have done, they may be drug addicts or alcoholics, but they’re human beings,” he said, a mantra he repeats often.
“It really got to me,” he reflects on a March morning as chill wind rips through the concrete tunnel between Santa Rosa’s east and west sides. “It made me sad they’d gotten to the point where they couldn’t speak up for themselves. Society has shut the door on them so many damn times.”
It was a galvanizing moment for Steve. That and the five days in jail on the trespassing warrant during which he stared at a message posted on his cell wall: “Use this time wisely, to think and to figure out the right thing to do.”
SPRING - SUMMER 2017
Wherever they land, they nest. Over the course of the year, Michelle and Steve move more than a dozen times, schlepping from one underpass to another and from one hidden campsite to the next. In April they settle into a sylvan glade behind the old cemetery off Chanate. But rains turn their lush Garden of Eden into a muddy mess.
In May they scout a spot across from Memorial Hospital beside Santa Rosa Creek. Eventually they’re discovered by police, who give them 72 hours to move. They move to what they hope is a more hidden spot nearby. That also is discovered. This time, Steve is given 10 minutes to drag everything up on a tarp, even with his torn shoulder.
Sick of the constant displacement and threat of arrest they decide it will be safer outside the city limits. By summer they carve out an elaborate homestead in the blackberries beside a pond in the creek. With a level and power tools, Steve constructs what amounts to a cabin, complete with door. Twice they’re told to tear it down. Each time Steve, undeterred, rebuilds farther downstream. Only after the third time at the end of summer do they admit defeat and head back into downtown six miles away.
A desperate Michelle confesses to feeling like she’s on the verge of a breakdown. “I’m tired; I can’t do this anymore,” she said from her camp back under the overpass. “It’s killing me. I’m too old for this. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end.”
In late summer, they get an offer to share a two-bedroom house with a friend on property west of town for $600 a month. The hitch? The owner can’t take dogs and Michelle, several months earlier, had adopted a pit bull puppy for comfort, companionship and protection. She refuses to go without her Missy. But that’s not the only problem. One day while visiting and watching TV in the friend’s cottage, Steve suddenly panics. Sweating, all he can think is that he needs to get out.
He is perplexed by conflicting demons — a discomfort about being inside and the fear of getting a home only to lose it.
“It makes me sad thinking this. Sometimes I feel better out here than I do in a house. But then again, my poor wife is out here sleeping on this dirt,” he laments. “I feel bad. I really don’t know how to make a change to make it better for her because who can afford $1,200 a month rent?”
Steve’s shoulder injury early in the year has made him unable to work, so the pair ekes out a living by recycling. They approach the job professionally, targeting neighborhoods, houses, and businesses that are particularly fertile. It’s a night shift that can leave them exhausted the next morning. With flashlights and gloves they root through the blue bins only, trying to be considerate and not awaken sleeping residents, some of whom leave out bags of recyclables for them, knowing they’ll be by. Their efforts can yield up to $70 on a good night.
SUMMER - WINTER 2017
When the Sonoma County Fair rolls around Michelle lands an ushering assignment at the horse races. In shades and staff shirt, she’s in her element. She loves the work, which leads to an $11-an-hour job with Praetorian, a private security company. By late summer she’s tooling all over the county and the Bay Area, to everything from the Sausalito Art Festival to Fleet Week to the Dickens Fair in Daly City.
She takes pride in her work and develops a growing confidence, aided by a new friendship with a co-worker who drives her to gigs and provides a refuge during fights with Steve. She likes this other life, where no one knows she goes home to a tent.
Steve and Michelle both have adult children and make an effort to stay in touch. Steve’s oldest, Chad, 29, couldn’t be more different than his dad. He has a good job overseeing programs for the Sonoma County Water Agency, is working on his master’s degree, and bought a home last year in Forestville with his wife, Alli. In September the couple presented Steve with his first grandchild, and he’s bursting with pride. Father and son talk once a week on the phone and periodically get together. A younger son, Brandon, 23, lives near Lake Tahoe.
Michelle has four grandsons by her daughter, Constance, and her son, Nickolas, both in their 20s and living in Washington. She says she and Nickolas were estranged for several years, and recently reconnected through Facebook.
END OF 2017 - SPRING 2018
As winter sets in, the couple is forced over to Last Chance Village, a homeless encampment behind the Dollar Tree in Roseland that mushroomed after the city shut down homeless settlements throughout Santa Rosa. Desperation among the displaced grows as they are now competing with fire victims who themselves were on the margins, before the October disaster consumed 5,300 dwellings. Steve and Michelle settle in. It’s not where they want to be but they figure they have no other place to go.
Homeless advocates say Steve has always found a way to be a leader wherever he landed, and Last Chance Village is no exception. Steve becomes de-facto manager of the camp, working the phones, mediating arguments and fights, taking calls from people wanting information, and communicating with homeless advocates and attorneys. He travels by bike to city council meetings each week to stand before the council and argue the needs of his community.
Steve thinks that six months in a shelter isn’t nearly enough time to get out of homelessness. And he’s come to believe that having a more permanent place to camp, without being run off constantly, is what people need to get back on their feet. He argues they need a stable place to set up camp, to free them from the need to “spend every minute trying to figure out how to survive.”
“I want to see something positive out here. I want a place where people can settle down and focus on themselves. Focus on what they got to do,” he says.
On Valentine’s Day advocates hold a press conference hoping to draw attention to the plight of camp residents, as the city makes plans to close it down with no alternative location. Both Steve and Michelle are key speakers.
Michelle is quavering as she reads a speech she wrote out in longhand. “Being homeless is a very hard life,” she says, hoping to soften one person’s heart to the homeless. “You have to carry your belongings everywhere you go, trying to find a place to hide it. If you’re not careful your stuff can get stolen or thrown away ... you can get a ticket for illegal camping or obstructing a sidewalk. How hard is it to think that something bad happened in a person’s life to where they lost their home and now are homeless? We are human just like you.”
A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS
Steve and Michelle have long hoped to get a room in The Palms Inn on Santa Rosa Avenue, which is run by Catholic Charities. They see it as a bridge from life on the run. With only days before the city is set to shut down the Dollar Tree camp, throwing them back onto the streets, they learn their names have come up. They have a few hours on April 2 to break camp and board a shuttle to claim their room and bath.
Steve confesses to feeling “weird,” he’s grown so adapted to life outside.
“I’m kind of scared I won’t be able to stay inside,” he admits.
“I haven’t slept in a bed for awhile. I don’t know what I feel. I’m happy for my wife. She’s inside ... It’s good to be home. I want in two years to try to be somewhere else but right now this is better than where we’ve been. We’ve got a place to shut the door and call home.”
Michelle regards the air conditioning, the bathroom, the queen- sized bed with a real mattress after several months sleeping on milk crates. “I feel like I’m on vacation,” she says in wonderment, “but it’s mine.”
Neither Steve nor Michelle, however, is jubilant. Their joy is tempered by concern about those who are still out there. They feel like their work isn’t done. Michelle is concerned that others will think she and Steve are abandoning them.
“I don’t feel right,” Michelle says, fighting tears. “It’s not fair to all the other ones. I don’t know where they’re going to go.”
Steve and Michelle did not find happiness together in their new home. In early June, after a fight, Michelle’s friend Martina Boudrot called police on her behalf. Michelle threw Steve out of the apartment and he was charged with domestic violence. In securing a temporary restraining order against him, Michelle alleged Steve threw a bottle at her. She threw a bottle back at him, then he grabbed her eye. “I am scared for my life,” she wrote.
In the paperwork Michelle outlined a series of assaults by Steve going back to 2016, including slamming her head against the wall of the underpass and stomping on her chest and face.
A deeply depressed Steve went back to the streets, claiming on social media, “I never meant to hurt my soul partner.” He continued to try to contact Michelle through social media. By mid-August he was in Sonoma County Jail, charged with violating the protective order and probation for a previous trespassing conviction.
Michelle continues to live at The Palms Inn and work crowd control.
“A year ago, everything was different,” she wrote in a Facebook post in July, processing all that had happened and how far she had come from the Highway 101 underpass. “And now that I look back, I realize that a year can do a lot to a person.”
(This story was first published in print in the September/October 2018 issue of Sonoma Magazine.)