When I was pregnant with my last son, I wasn’t technically homeless, but I wouldn’t go home because I didn’t want to be around my mom or my daughter who was 15 at the time and my other son who was 15 months, while I was on drugs. I got mad at my son’s father, and I wouldn’t go home, so I literally walked all the way to UCSF.  I got out of the car, and my water broke. That’s when I started walking.

They [the providers at UCSF] treated me like shit. I walked in there, pants all wet, you could tell I’d been up a couple days, and they treated me like shit. They got mad because I walked. I didn’t have bus fare, so I walked. I got treated differently than I did with my other two children.

Life happens. You get lost along the way, but that still does not make you human. People are human. It pisses me off, because, I love dogs and animals too, but can we please treat the people better than we treat the animals? Please?.

Imagine how you’re being treated when you’re pregnant. People will turn their nose, and say, “Why is she pregnant anyway?  “Give her a room to stay in. She’ll be all right. And that’s how I feel. Help her, do not treat her less than human, that is not okay.

My children are adults now, one thing I’d like to share, now that I am working in the field  is compassion and empathy. We never know when we might be there ourselves. I wasn’t always here [at work]. I never thought I would be out there in the streets. When I started using, I was going to school to be an attorney and working for a law firm. One day, my world just turned completely around. I came from a two-parent home, raised in church, and everything else. One morning, my life was over. It was starting to go slowly, but it was over. I never thought that I would be smoking crack, turning tricks, and all that stuff in the street just to get some dope, and having children while I was.

My two sons father  got clean first after I had the second son, but I was still out there. I wanted somebody to come and rescue me, but not him. I wanted somebody else to come and help me. I didn’t know where to go. People would tell you, “Go down here.” You needed money back then in the 90s. You had to have money to go to treatment. You had to have money for everything. There was just nothing for us. We just stayed out for so long, because there was nothing for us. If somebody would just come and talk sometimes, and ask us how we were doing, that would have been cool.  If somebody would have came up to me when I was in my addiction and asked me about did I want one of them Depo shots, I would have said, “Hell yeah.” I had several abortions. I took time off to go do that, because I knew I wasn’t ready. I tried doing the pills when I was out there running in the streets, but I kept losing them. I couldn’t remember if I took them or not.

A lot of our clients want children. A lot of them do have children. A lot of them would like to go to care, but there are barriers related to being homeless: wanting to come to the appointment clean (not on drugs), technically not having somewhere to live once they have the baby, and the fear of the baby being taken.

I can remember when we took a client for an appointment to get into treatment, because she wanted to keep her babies. She was having twins. She had went and took her methadone that morning, and she couldn’t stop nodding because she was up all night. She was literally sleeping on the streets, so she would be up all night. She would go to sleep in the daytime when people were up walking around. Because she kept nodding, we took her to three different programs and they just stopped the interview because they thought she was on high on drugs.

It was hard for us to get her to labor and delivery. She would come. She went maybe twice to spend the night. But if we left, she left. We had to just literally hand hold her and walk her in there. She said she didn’t like the way that people treat her, and they’re nasty to her, because she’s homeless and was an addict.

It was heartbreaking, and it was hard. A lot of our clients won’t go because of that reason. They’ll be like, “They’re going to take my baby,” or, “Nope, because they’re going to treat me like crap.”  Some of them, they want to go, but they’re living in encampments. In the encampment, they can’t leave their stuff, because it’s going to be all gone by the time they get back. There are so many barriers.

They really don’t like us asking them questions about contraception. Some of them will answer, and say, “Well, no. I don’t want any,” or, “Yeah. I want to have a baby,” but not thinking yet, “I want to have a baby, but I’m outside. Me and my baby are going to live in this tent.” They don’t look at the whole picture, but that’s their right to have a baby if they want a baby. Some people just want someone to love and call their own. They have been through so much. That’s why a lot of them will have a baby.

What I learned is, we have to remember that everybody’s human, especially the women. Everybody’s a human. We need to treat them with more love, care, and respect. If we got to hold her hand, we got to hold her hand. We have taken clients to eat, because they’re hungry. We take them to eat to get them at least to start talking about going into appointments, and getting them hooked up with doctors, and all that.

How I work with clients? I just go up to them. I’ll be like, “Hey. How are you doing? My name is Wilma. I work for such and such. What can I do for you today? You need something today?” And they’ll be like, “Well, no.” I was like, “I can’t promise you a lot. I can’t even promise you nothing, because we ain’t got nothing, but I can do the best I can with the little bit we got.”

I keep bottles of water in my car. I keep snacks, like granola bars, the Nutri-Grain ones, because I know a lot of people don’t have teeth, the soft ones. I keep those. I even keep a cup of noodles, and I ask some of them, “Can you find some hot water?” Or if it’s right here, I say, “Go in the building and tell them I said to give you some hot water.” It helps them to open up. I always shake their hand, unless they have cuts, blood, or feces, or sometimes bugs.

I’ll be like, “Hey, sweetie. How are you doing today?” If they ask me for a cigarette, I’ll give it to them. We’re not supposed to. I tell our director, “A cigarette is an engagement to them.” When we were out giving Hep A shots, I’d be like, “Come over here. I need you to get this Hep A shot here,” while passing out cigarettes. The people came and got in line to get a shot for a cigarette.

I try to approach someone the way I wanted people to approach me during the ’90s when I was using, when we didn’t have HOT team and we didn’t have community ambassadors. We didn’t have anything but the police. I try to treat people the way I would’ve wanted to be treated back then. I literally had to go to jail in order to get help. It shouldn’t be like that. Now, they’ve got everybody walking around saying, “Want some help? Want to go to a program? Want to go to this? Want to go here?” I try to treat them the way I wanted to be treated when I was out there, because it’s hard when you’re out there. It’s not easy.

Even if somebody just walked by, smiled, and asked you how you’re doing today, it makes you feel hella good, because you’ll be like, “They noticed me.” A lot of people just keep walking, because they have tunnel vision. If they don’t look at you, you’re not there, and this epidemic, this problem we have, is not real. If it’s not real, I don’t have to address it.  Even if they cuss me out, I’d be like, “Okay, sweetie. I’ll check on you tomorrow,” and keep on walking. Sometimes they’re not having a good day, but I’ll let you know I’m going to come back and talk to your ass anyway.

Tomorrow, you might feel a little better. You might need something, even a bottle of water. You need water more than you need anything else. That’s why I keep two cases of water in my own personal car. I always park close because I’m disabled, so I’d be like, “You need some water, sweetie? Would you like some water?” Sometimes, I just take it out, and say, “Here. Here’s a bottle of water.” They’re trying to get money to eat, but they don’t think about water, especially when they need that water.

I don’t judge people who are on the streets. I lived it. I don’t really have any biases against them. I have biases  providers, but not against the clients, because they are who they are.

Women out there just need another woman to treat them like a woman, especially the young ones. My supervisor says I get a little too close to these girls, because they’re always in here. They come in the office and say, “I’m looking for mama Wilma,” and I’d be like, “Don’t call me that.” I just treat them the way I wish somebody would have treated me then. Even though my family never gave up on me, I just didn’t want them to see me like that. Just treat everybody with kindness, love, and respect, because they deserve respect. That is somebody’s child, and you don’t know what that child has been through. You don’t know what trauma that woman had last night, the night before. You don’t know the background on the trauma that’s involved. I look at all kinds of people. When I meet them, I need to find out what their trauma is so that I know how to better serve them. If you’re not trauma informed, you don’t know how to serve that person.

I feel that providers should be more like that, and slowly build rapport with these women. Shake their hand coming. Shake their hand leaving. Ask them if they mind, because some people don’t want to be touched. Build that rapport with them. For five minutes, treat them like a human. Like Sarah Newman. I love her. They’ll be like, “I’m going to see Dr. Newmann today.” They’ll be looking forward to that appointment. We need more people like her and Dr. Deb Borne. I literally saw Dr. Borne do an exam on a baby in the alley, and had us holding up coats around the car, because the girl was so paranoid she wouldn’t get out of the car. She did it to make sure that girl and that baby was okay.

That’s what people need to do. Go that extra mile. I know that they say if you’ve got to spend 20 minutes with this client, then do your most. The most important thing is doing your most. The most important thing is not that the hospitals keep getting paid. No. The most important thing is you take them 20 minutes, and you pull 10 of them out of there to spend and be a human with this person. Spend 10 minutes being that person’s auntie, her mother, her grandmother, whatever you got to be there for that day. Her big sister. Take them 10 minutes to do that. The other 10 can be on medical and notes. Take that 10 minutes, and let that woman know that she’s welcome in your clan, and she’ll keep coming back. That’s from my heart. That’s how I feel.

Homeless people can’t go lay down and get a cup of tea, and try to feel better. They can go get a cup of tea if the Starbucks even lets them in. Then, they got to find a little cut where there’s not a lot of wind coming in. Hopefully, they have an extra blanket, ball up in the corner, and pray they don’t die.

My heart just goes out to the women, especially those that’s pregnant, because they want a better  life. They want to be inside. They want to take care of their kids, but they can’t always do it. It’s not easy getting a house here.

As I close, I want to thank the treatment program I went to and the officers I flagged down and told them to arrest me so that I can go to treatment because I was ready.  Thanks to them I now have my life back on track, received my Associates in Criminal Justice, a Bachelors in Psychology and a Master’s in Licensed Professional Clinical Counseling  and will be looking at 20 years of sobriety on May 23, 2020. Thank you all for listening to and reading my story.

Wilma Long was born and raised in San Francisco and considers herself fortunate to still live there. She loves cooking for her family every single holiday of the year because she loves family gatherings. She currently works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health Street Medicine/Shelter Health. She loves her job and working with the un-housed population as there is never a dull moment, and the clients keep her on her toes and hold her accountable.