Intimate relationships are uniquely fraught for those with nowhere to call home
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…