For a couple that’s been together such a long time, Paul Aiu and Sharon Hemingway seem unusually affectionate. They finish each other’s sentences, sleep in each other’s arms every night, and even eat from the same plate. After almost twenty-five years together, they spend hardly a minute apart.
Lately, the two can be found on Glendale Boulevard, the former center of Los Angeles’s silent-film industry, a block from where Charlie Chaplin invented the Tramp. Hints of Chaplin’s character — a vagrant whose sunny demeanor rose above his impoverishment — can be seen nearly a century later in Paul and Sharon, who have been homeless since November. Each night, they crawl into their sleeping bags behind the Hi-Ho Drive ‘n Market, which Paul sweeps out every morning in exchange for a space behind the owner’s Dumpster where he and Sharon can stash their belongings.
“The owner usually offers me a soda, but I never take it,” Paul tells me, clutching a cardboard sign asking for work. Adds Sharon, a tiny white-haired woman who clings to his arm and beams an endearing smile, “We don’t want to owe anything to anybody.”
Self-sufficiency may seem a quixotic goal when you spend your days panhandling, but “we get by,” says Paul, fifty-seven, who’s just split a cheeseburger with Sharon, sixty-five. “We’re never hungry. Actually, our stomachs have gotten smaller.”
Still, every time I see them, I ask if they need anything, and they always politely refuse. They’re not starving, but they are looking forward to finding a way off the streets — particularly Sharon. “Paul is so trusting, everybody wants to take advantage of him,” she explains. The other day, she says Paul gave money to a homeless woman who was digging through the garbage.
“Nobody should have to do that,” says Paul.
“It was probably an act,” chastises Sharon, explaining that she’s “the suspicious one.”
At this, Paul laughs. “She keeps me out of trouble,” he says. “That’s how we survive.”
The more I hang out with them, the clearer it is that he’s right. Homeless couples like Paul and Sharon can offer each other support and protection from the city’s myriad perils. Life on the streets is more dangerous than ever, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which has been tracking a continuous upward trend in attacks on homeless people since 1999. As a couple, neither Paul nor Sharon need to be on guard all the time, they tell me. And they make a good team: Sharon feels physically safe with Paul, and Paul says Sharon has better instincts for dangerous situations. A few weeks ago, for instance, Paul was accused of shoplifting a pack of gum from a Vons grocery store.
“I can become a bulldog,” she says. “I asked the manager, ‘Do you really think homeless people would steal gum? Then why don’t you call the cops and have them search his bag?'” The Vons manager let Paul go.
“It’s always been like that between us,” Paul tells me. He was thirty-three when they met, a draft-dodger from Hawaii who’d moved to Idaho to study computer science. Instead, he dropped out to work as a landscaper and musician. “Primordial Soup,” he grins, recalling the name of his band. At a show he met Sharon, an alcoholic with an estranged daughter in her twenties. Recently widowed, and with a two-year-old daughter of his own, Paul immediately fell in love. But their relationship progressed slowly. Sharon spent six months trying to dry out on his couch before anything physical happened.
“When I met Paul, I felt like I’d finally met someone normal,” she says. “All my friends did was drink.” Paul ended up nailing the doors and windows shut to stop Sharon’s friends from dropping off bottles of booze. “They called it gifts from the Easter Bunny,” he says.
Eventually, he decided he had to get Sharon out of Boise; some musician friends hooked them up with a job selling concessions for the Grateful Dead. At some point during their long, strange trip, Sharon was born again in Marin County, and finally quit drinking for good. The two ended up in the hippie enclave of Pahoa, Hawaii, where Paul resumed his studies at the University of Hilo and worked as a janitor at night. But Sharon felt lonely on the Big Island, so much so that she was tempted to start drinking again. Two semesters short of Paul’s graduation, she begged him to quit so they could move to Honolulu.
When I ask Paul if he regrets the decision to drop out at Sharon’s behest, he says, “It’s not that simple. I wouldn’t have had the ambition without her. I was doing it for her, not for myself, so much. What do I need, really? And she was lonely and it was important for her to be happy, to not get so sad she’d start drinking.”
“I’m so terrible,” she says. “How could I make you do that?”
“You were homesick,” he shrugs, without a trace of resentment.
After moving to Honolulu, they waited tables and cleaned rooms. “Then there was 9/11, and the hotel scene just kind of fell apart.”
It was only then, on the cusp of middle-age, that they began to see the reality of their situation together. Paul found a job working as a documents manager for Bank of America in Los Angeles, but was eventually laid off. The two returned to where they’d started out, only to discover how much the world had changed. Their former friends, the Easter Bunnies, were gone. Paul’s daughter was now a college student who didn’t want to be burdened by her father’s chaotic lifestyle. Sharon’s daughter still resented her mother’s drinking problem of thirty years earlier. Their savings ran out before they could find work. After a life of scraping by and having fun, they realized they were no longer doing either.
“All we have now is each other,” Paul says.
I ask them if they’ve ever thought of getting married.
“Not really,” Paul says. He explains that both of them had already gone through failed marriages when they met.
“Yeah, and besides,” Sharon jokes, “don’t you know that marriage is the leading cause of divorce?”
With the press focused on unemployment and housing foreclosures, couples like Paul and Sharon have served as convenient symbols of middle-class ruin. Yet despite the media narrative, couples form a miniscule minority of Americans on the streets.
“It’s less than half a percent,” says Sandra Peterson, who helps run Union Station Foundation, the largest homeless-services provider in Pasadena. “I’ve been here almost fourteen years, and I’d say we’ve had thirty to thirty-five couples. Currently we don’t have any.”
She isn’t surprised. At her shelter, couples must sleep apart, and are prohibited from showing any sort of affection toward one another. The rules are meant to protect the large number of battered women served by the shelter, she explains; even male children over the age of sixteen are kept separate from their mothers.
As a result, most unmarried couples — even those who have been together for years — are a rare sight at homeless-services centers. “They’d rather be on the street in a homeless camp or under a bridge than be in a shelter where they’ll be separated,” Peterson says.
Paul and Sharon never go to shelters. “At shelters, there’s nothing but drugs and winos,” Sharon says. “I wouldn’t be tempted, but we still don’t like being around it. And at the shelters they would separate us. We won’t do that.”
Some countries, like the U.K., have taken a different approach. The troubled history of Victorian-era workhouses, in which women and men were forcibly separated from each other and from their children, has given way to a fair amount of accommodation, even for unmarried couples. In the United States, where the government has arguably played a stronger role in legislating marriage than in tackling poverty, homeless couples have few such options. Receiving joint accommodation usually requires a marriage certificate or some proof of long-term cohabitation — not things most homeless people carry on them.
At the same time, the number of married heterosexual families seeking services is on the rise, according to Rosa Carrillo, a social worker at L.A. Family Housing, a transitional housing center in North Hollywood. This is because married couples with children have no choice but to enter the shelter system or face losing custody to social services. For most it’s an obvious decision, though not necessarily the happiest one.
“The biggest problem is not having any privacy,” says Imelda. At thirty-four, she, her husband Jorge and their four children are one of the sixty-five families allowed to live at L.A. Family Housing for as long as two years while they search for work and affordable housing with Carrillo’s help. “I can’t remember the last time we went on a date,” she says.
Two years ago, Imelda was supporting her family as a teacher’s aide in the Antelope Valley, an hour from Los Angeles, when she injured herself at work. Eventually her worker’s compensation ran out, and she resorted to turning her living room into a convenience store, selling candy through the front window. Now, she and Jorge sleep on twin mattresses pushed together on the floor, which they have to replace on their bunk-bed frames so they can open the bathroom door.
Imelda and Jorge sound like two more victims of the soured economy. But, as with so many homeless couples, there’s more to the story. Imelda was born homeless, she tells me, the daughter of a prostitute who left her with a neighborhood babysitter, Lena, who raised Imelda as her daughter. Years later, fifteen-year-old Imelda was impregnated by twenty-five-year-old Jorge, another of Lena’s boarders, and she soon married him. A few years later, they learned that Jorge had become HIV-positive from sharing needles, most likely after the birth of their third child. Imelda stayed with him, and also took in the two daughters of a biological sister she had only recently met. But seven guests in a single room proved too much for Lena, who gave Imelda the choice between sending her nieces elsewhere or simply leaving. Imelda chose the latter.
“I guess I was kind of born into this situation,” Imelda says. “I wouldn’t do to my nieces what my mom did to me.”
It’s hard not to respect the noble intentions behind these kinds of life choices. What if Paul had stuck with his education instead of dedicating himself to helping Sharon keep sober? What if Imelda had left Jorge because of his drug addiction and subsequent infection? Our culture celebrates such devotion, however impractical it seems.
And yet it demonstrates how being one half of a couple can actually make it harder to get off the streets — being part of a pair may offer protection, but it can also lead to enabling. People are generally homeless because of some problem in their lives, be it medical, emotional or financial — being a homeless couple essentially doubles the magnitude of these problems.
Kitty Galt and Ruben Gallegos, two veteran mental-health outreach workers, have sought out homeless encampments where couples are likely to be found. Their conclusion is that staying together on the streets isn’t a mark of devotion, but dysfunction.
“There are no fairy tales,” says Ruben. “It’s nice to think that when you see a couple on the streets, there’s some romantic explanation, like they just fell on hard times. But I’ve never seen it. There is always some exploitation happening.”
Ruben explains that the exploitation isn’t always overt. He tells the story of a family who lived in a van because the father claimed he couldn’t get work. After the father lost several jobs Ruben had found for him, he discovered the father was a junkie.
“By dragging down everyone else, he was really just avoiding his own problem,” Ruben explains. “The family’s homelessness became a convenient cover for his addiction.”
The other kind of relationship, says Kitty, is the kind that develops on the streets. A decade ago, she says, she ran a cold-weather shelter, whose rules allowed couples to sleep beside each other. She doesn’t recall seeing a single couple who remained together over the course of a season.
“A couple would come in, claiming to be married,” says Kitty. “A week later they would be sleeping with different people — in a non-sexual way, of course. The woman is with the man for protection, and the man is just lonely.”
Ruben concurs. “It sounds harsh and cynical,” he says, “but it’s so much harder to reach the people we’re trying to help when they’re trying to depend on each other. Wouldn’t you rather your girlfriend be able to get help, even if it meant separating from her?”
As if to illustrate Ruben’s point, Paul recently got a job doing construction, and started saving money to rent an apartment for him and Sharon. But during the day, Sharon had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. She spent each day sitting at a bus stop in the sun just outside the construction site.
“I couldn’t let her do that anymore,” Paul says, and so, after a few weeks, he quit the job.
After getting to know Paul and Sharon, I have to admit that I can’t imagine the two of them splitting up. Together, they aren’t starving or lonely, and they’re proactive in other ways. They’re both politically involved. They attend rallies in the neighborhood and listen to NPR on their portable radio. They spend a lot of their time debating whether their situation will improve after the November election, and whether they will be eligible for more services, such as Section 8 housing. Paul supports Obama; Sharon is suspicious, as usual.
On the other hand, I have a feeling that both of them might be more motivated to seek stability outside their relationship — by having a home and a job, for instance — were they apart. “We’re too old to be sleeping on the sidewalk much longer,” Paul says. So far, they’re exposed but not hungry. Together, he says, they may not have money or a home, but they’re getting by.
This article originally appeared in 2008.