The violent life of homeless in downtown San Diego

You can sleep on our couch tonight

I met Barbie and Ken (not their real names) at a downtown food line for homeless people. She still has permission to crash on my couch if she needs to get away from him, but I haven't seen either of them since before Easter. Her little plush bunny rabbit is waiting for her on my love seat.

They didn't look homeless. They looked healthy, young, attractive, full of life. He was blond, blue-eyed, well-built, with full lips and a clean-shaven chin. She could have been the model for the Pocahontas cartoon character with her big, brown eyes, pouty lips, black hair, strong bones, and tall, leggy figure. I would never have guessed she'd given birth to twins just six weeks before.

They showed up at the Thursday-night food line willing to help serve. I needed extra help and often get volunteers from the ranks of the homeless people waiting in line. This time, in addition to the usual pots of chili, bread, and pizza, I had 11 trays of quiche appetizers a caterer had donated. I gave the young people rubber gloves and put them to work serving quiche.

While we were cleaning up, our friend Saul took me aside. He was thinking of inviting them to stay in his apartment for a few nights. I was reluctant to advise Saul to take anyone into his small apartment. My attempts to help homeless people by giving them a few nights on my couch had always turned into stressful situations.

He took them home, but by Saturday morning, he was on the phone, begging to come over. Barbie and Ken had been fighting, and he was ready to call the police. "They're okay now," he said, "but this morning I heard them arguing very loudly. Then it sounded like he hit her, and she was gasping for breath as if she'd taken a blow in the solar plexus. When I got up, my shaving mug had been broken, and it looked like there was blood."

He went on. "She's 36 and he's 24. She's bipolar. She needs to be put in 72-hour hold and stabilized with the right medication. She provokes him, and it escalates until he loses control. I'm bipolar myself, so I know how difficult it can be until you get on the right meds."

"Are street drugs a problem?" I asked.

"I don't think so. He had one beer when we went to Hillcrest, and she smokes a little marijuana, but I think that's all."

It was a short walk to his place. When they let me in, I noticed how cluttered his living room looked with their clothes and possessions strewn everywhere. Barbie was busying herself in the kitchen washing dishes. "Do I look homeless today?" she asked. She didn't. "Saul's a wonderful cook," she said. "We had homemade soup last night and pancakes for breakfast."

Barbie showed me the twins' pictures, and they looked like healthy newborns. Her mother was caring for them at her home in Laguna Beach. The couple left before Barbie was fully recovered from childbirth because Barbie's mother couldn't stand Ken. Now Barbie was kneeling on the living room floor folding garments that had been pulled out of a bag. Ken had gone out for a walk. "I get everything folded and sorted," she said, "and he reaches in and gets something out of the bottom of the bag and messes it all up. "I was raped when I was seven months pregnant," she said. "It wouldn't have happened if Ken hadn't gone off and left me all alone. It was right around Thanksgiving, and we were staying at the Pickwick Hotel. We checked out at 10 o'clock in the morning, and he went off and said he'd be right back. I waited around all day in front of that hotel. You know, it's at the bus station, not a very nice place to wait.

"Finally, it was getting dark, so I started walking to the trolley stop thinking maybe I'd see him getting off the trolley. This black man kept looking at me. I tried to ignore him - just act like I was not interested. I've never been with a black man. But he grabbed me and pulled me into the sheriff's parking lot between some cars. I didn't scream because I was afraid he'd hurt me; he weighed about 300 pounds.

"He had me on the ground with my maternity dress up over my head and my feet up. I wanted to get it over with, so I started encouraging him. I said, 'Have you got some alcohol? Maybe we could go to your place.' I wanted him to let me get up. He thought that was a good idea, so when he let me up, I ran. There was a police car in the street, and I ran up to it and started pounding on the window, saying I'd been raped and the man was right behind me.

"Well, they got him, and it turned out he'd raped another woman too. But you know what they did? They took me right from the hospital where they'd examined me to jail. There was a warrant for me in L.A. that I didn't even know about because I hadn't appeared in court for something that wasn't even my fault, so they put me in jail.

"I'm going to have to testify in court," she said. "They say I can get $10,000 for psychological counseling from the Victim Witness Fund." The thought of the money seemed to cheer her up.

I asked her about the fighting with Ken. "It only happens about every two weeks," she said. "He doesn't realize how strong he is. You know, he's had a very tough life. He's been on his own since he was 14. He needs me; I don't know what he would do without me."

I asked her about her manic-depressive condition. "I went off the medication when I found out I was pregnant," she said. "Saul thinks I should go into the hospital, but I can't do that. I can't leave Ken alone for that long. I don't know what he would do." Ken came back from his walk. Barbie punched him semiplayfully, and he punched her back a little too hard. But there were also affectionate gestures; they couldn't keep their hands off each other.

Sunday afternoon, Saul called and asked if he could come over. "I can't keep them both in my apartment another night. I'm afraid one of the neighbors will call the police; I could be evicted for having them here. They make so much noise, and they might hurt each other. I'll call the police myself if it happens again."

"I'll take Barbie if she's willing to leave Ken at your place," I said. "We don't have much room at our house either." We could have thrown them both back on the street, but we knew them now, and we liked them.

That evening, my husband and I drove over to Saul's to bring Barbie home with us. They had agreed to the temporary separation. On the drive back, Barbie told me how Ken earns the money they need to stay in hotels. "He hustles; he can make $50 a day," she said. "We like to go to gay bars. They're so much more fun than straight bars, and Ken doesn't have to worry about me and the guys. In fact, they come on to him and offer him money. Oh, he doesn't do anything. He's not like that. But I guess they think he might." "Aren't they upset when they expect something for their money and then nothing happens?" I asked.

"Oh, they're sweet guys," she said. "They wouldn't hurt anybody. And they have plenty of money. Besides, Ken can take care of himself. And it should be obvious that he's with me."

After she was bedded down, she told me how her mother had taken her two girls (aged six and ten) away from her. How much she misses all of her children. Especially the twin baby boys. We looked at the pictures again. "Don't they look just like Ken?" she said.

The next day, Ken started phoning early in the morning. Before I could stop her, Barbie was on her way over to Saul's. An hour later, Saul called me.

"They're at each other again."

"What do you want me to do?" I asked.

"Here comes Barbie. I'll put her on."

I asked her what was happening. She sounded confused. Then she said, "Someone's pounding on the door."

"Where are Ken and Saul?" I asked.

"They're outside, but they wouldn't need to knock." She sounded scared. A few seconds later she said, "It's the police. What am I going to do?"

I said, "I'll be right over," and hung up.

When my husband and I arrived, Saul and Ken were sitting at the patio table smoking. "Where's Barbie?" I asked.

"She's in the apartment with the police officer," Saul said.

I went to the door and knocked. The police officer answered. "We'll be out in a moment."

"Who called the police?" I asked.

"I did," said Saul. "I think she needs to be put in 72-hour hold." "They'll put her in jail," I said. "As soon as they run a computer check and find out there's a warrant on her."

When Barbie and the police officer came out, she looked poised and self-possessed. The young officer seemed confused. "You said she was threatening suicide," he said to Saul.

"But she says she's fine."

Saul waved a certificate around and showed it to the officer. "I'm a certified crisis counselor," he said. But the officer looked doubtful. Barbie had convinced him that Saul was the nut case, not she.

I suggested Barbie come back to my house. She agreed. Barbie and Ken went back to the apartment to sort through their possessions.

"I want to take them both to County Mental Health today," said Saul. "I'm hoping they'll get her back on her meds. I think they should see Ken too. He needs something to help him deal with her without getting violent."

Finally, Barbie was ready with another bag of clothes. We drove back to my house. Saul and Ken showed up a little while later ready to go to cmh. Barbie wasn't ready. She agreed she needed her medicine, but she wanted assurance that the mental health workers wouldn't consult the police. Before she would go, she got on the phone and talked to someone at cmh who told her it was not their practice to call in the police unless there was trouble.

Barbie and Ken came out of the bedroom dressed in matching overall outfits and looking like a cute couple - not homeless or crazy. It was the third time she'd changed clothes that day. At 11:00 we drove in Saul's Volvo to County Mental Health.

We were all anxious when we parked at the cmh complex off Rosecrans. A sign on the wall explained that people would not necessarily be taken in order of their arrival. In the waiting room, Barbie and Ken's behavior escalated. She would sit on his lap in the narrow bucket chair and smooch him seductively. Then she'd complain, "Hey, don't grab me so hard." When Barbie and I went out to smoke cigarettes, she told me how she'd once owned a houseful of beautiful furniture; it was still in storage somewhere. She'd been a model, she said. She hoped someday to have a nice apartment with Ken and get all four of her children back, plus Ken's four-year-old. "Did you know Ken's ex-wife shot him? Yes, he still has the scar. She was Mexican."

While we were outside talking, a motherly looking woman came out and addressed me.

"Would you like to come in and talk now?"

I was taken by surprise. "What for?"

She looked down at her clipboard. "Aren't you Mrs. S.?"

"I'm Mrs. S.," said Barbie.

Barbie and the social worker went inside for their interview. I realized I was the one who looked crazy. Barbie looked perfectly normal.

Barbie reappeared after a short wait. "That was fast," I said.

"She started asking me questions about my mother," Barbie said, "but I told her I didn't want to talk about that. I knew it would upset me too much."

We came back to my house. Both Barbie and Ken had gotten drowsy. They'd taken their medicine, and it was affecting them. They went to bed early and slept late. It was a peaceful night.

About 2:00 p.m. the next day, after arguing, making up, arguing, making up, Barbie and Ken were ready to go out. They were going to try to make some money for a hotel room. I didn't ask how, but I gave them some of our homeless newspapers to sell at $1 each, hoping that would do it for them.

Barbie came back by herself early that evening. "Ken's drunk," she said. "He gets crazy when he's drunk."

"You can sleep on our couch tonight," I said, "but I don't want him coming around here."

Later that evening Ken called and asked for Barbie. Soon after, she got ready to leave.

"He's meeting me over at that church a block away. We can sleep on their porch." "I thought you didn't want to be with him tonight."

"He says he'll be good. And he needs me." She filled one bag with stuff and left.

About 11:00 p.m. she was back. "We started fighting and he knocked me down," she said. "He hit me with this," she indicated her tote bag. The strap was broken. She slept on our couch that night. The next morning, Ken was waiting for her on our porch. I saw them off and on for the next two weeks, but she never slept on my couch again.

Just before Easter they'd raised enough money for bus tickets to Los Angeles. The last time I saw them, they were packing too many clothes for a three-day trip into two large bags. The rest they left here.

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