Loyalty and devotion held a homeless couple
together for nine years,
but the relentless struggle for survival on the streets
has left them with a more uncertain future.
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.”
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 Hayes, 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.”