Few people knew Marlee and what happened to her. Marlee was a homeless woman I once knew. Given recent headlines about the brutal murders of homeless people, I thought it was time to share something of her story. (I doubt Marlee’s death ever made it into the newspaper, so perhaps the fact that homeless deaths are now newsworthy means progress.)
In the summer of 1994 in San Francisco, I was transitioning from life on the streets. I was living with a friend and her stepmother, and working two part-time jobs. Yet, I couldn’t abandon the streets entirely. I often spent weekends hanging out with my street friends, especially on Haight Street. Those nights I slept in a VW van, or in Buena Vista Park underneath the stars. Many homeless people slept in that park at night. Even Marlee.
Perhaps Marlee had been beautiful once. She was of Native American descent and had almond-colored skin, dark eyes, and thick, black hair that fell below her shoulders. But the years and streets had not been kind to her. I would guess her age as mid to late 30s, but she may have been younger. She was a heavy-set woman, whose hair was perpetually tangled. Her face was so bloated it distorted her features. I never had a coherent conversation with her. Marlee always had a crumpled, brown bag in her hand – as if that could disguise the beer can or bottle along with her drunkenness. I suspect she also had a mental disability; she spoke like a child even when the alcohol buzz should have worn off.
I saw Marlee often on Haight Street. She hung around a group of other homeless alcoholics, some of who had been living on those streets since the Haight-Ashbury days of the 1960s. They were a congenial group, who were always laughing and joking, when they weren’t passed out on the sidewalk. I always greeted and spoke to them, and gave my spare change when I could. They were fixtures on that street, not unlike the sidewalks and street lamps. I thought that would never change, that they would always be there drinking and laughing.
One morning I got off the bus in front of Buena Vista Park. Something was wrong. Flowers were scattered across the steps, and a few lit candles sat beside them. “What happened?” I asked the nearest hippie kid.
“Marlee,” he said, shaking his head, “she was found dead.”
Was Marlee murdered? Rumors flew that day. Some said she had been stabbed, others that she had been beaten. I also heard that she had asphyxiated on her own vomit, or overdosed. She was not in good health – between being overweight and an alcoholic, it’s possible it was a natural death. I don’t know what happened.
Haight Street changed for me after that day. The time I spent on the streets there was so different than grittier areas of the city. It had been my happy place. The homeless on Haight Street protected each other, more often than not. While passers by who noticed the flowers and candles would never know Marlee, everyone on the street felt her loss keenly. She had been one of us. If she had been murdered, it could have been any of us in her place. I never slept another night in Buena Vista Park.
I’ve never forgotten Marlee, and have thought of her often. Who was she? How had she ended up on the streets? Was she murdered? Now you know about Marlee too. She existed. She struggled. She died. No matter what Marlee battled during her life, she deserves to be remembered.
The next time you see a homeless person, please do me this kindness: think of Marlee.
To help homeless people like Marlee, consider giving to or supporting The National Coalition for the Homeless: