Homeless Island leader Little Bit dies

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Oct 20, 2011 in Rat News | Subscribe

Little Bit was known as perhaps the hardest core of the hard-core homeless people in San Francisco, a tiny street hooker addicted to crack and heroin. A doctor who specializes in the toughest street cases once told me he doubted she would ever get inside — that was in 2003, when photographer Brant Ward and I were profiling her as part of a colony of more than a dozen junkies living on what was known as Homeless Island, a traffic triangle on Van Ness Avenue.

But Little Bit, whose real name was Susan Beach, beat the odds.

And then the odds finally beat her.

Little Bit at Homeless Island, 2003

She moved a year ago into the Raman Hotel, a supportive housing complex that gave her counseling and a safe room with her domestic partner, Andre. And in the months since then she cleaned up and did more living than she’d done in decades.

Little Bit became the neatnik of the complex, scrubbing the kitchen and fussing over her room, and she was making plans to look for work, something she hadn’t done in many years. Her social workers thought she could be drug counselor someday, and I believe it. When she was off dope — and even when she’d just shot up and was clear-headed — she was sharp as a tack, and bluntly assertive and pragmatic.

But that all ended on Sept. 23. Kidney failure – a consequence of all those years on the streets — killed her at 40.

When social workers and friends held a funeral for her this month at the Raman, it wasn’t the raspy-voiced, 4-foot-tall street hooker they remembered. They talked about a sunny woman who loved to play with her pet rats, Kasper and Squirrel, and always had a cheery word in the hallway.

“We loved her,” said her on-site case worker, Kermit Burleson Sr. “I took her with other residents to Alcatraz on a tourist trip just a week before she died, and she loved it. You should have seen her smiling that day. And she went to Giants games with us. She did all right in that last year.”

Photo of Little Bit at her 2011 funeral altar, holding pet rat Kasper

Back when Brant and I were first interviewing her, she such was a tough nut to crack that and I wrote a song about trying to coax information out of her called, of course, “Little Bit.” It took weeks of hanging with her on the sidewalk before she finally trusted us.

It was only then that  she cried and said she really wanted to move inside — but just couldn’t muster the will.

“I know what I could do if I could shake the dope,” she said one late night, all of us on the sidewalk with the heaped shopping carts and Little Bit’s fellow Islanders shooting smack or smoking crack around us. “I could really do something with myself. But it’s so damn hard. Real hard.”

We never stopped hoping for her, and exulted when we learned she’d moved inside.

After her story ran and she became nationally known in poverty-aid circles as a face of homelessness, she asked to hear her song, which some involved in homelessness policy had come to appreciate. But everytime I went looking for her with a CD in hand, she was gone. Then when I’d find her again, I wouldn’t have one.

It became a running joke between us. “Where’s my song?” she’d ask. “It’s in the mail,” I’d say.

“Little Bit, do you know what you see?” I wrote in that song.

I’d like to think that she finally did know what she saw. And that it was all good.

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Little Bit, deceased leader of Homeless Island


Little Bit — aka Susan Beach — at sundown in downtown San Francisco, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit getting herself ready to work as a street prostitute, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit heading out to work as a street prostitute, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit greeting a friend on Homeless Island, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Homeless Island, where a colony of addicts lived at Mission Street and Van Ness Avenue, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit in pain, needing a fix of heroin, 2003. (Brant War / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit in SF General Hospital, for treatment of an abscess on her neck from using dirty needles. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit on Homeless Island, writing a letter to her boyfriend, 2003. (Brant Ward / Sf Chronicle)

Little Bit lying in the street, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit with heroin needle, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit trolling for tricks late at night around 17th Street, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

People often mistook Little Bit, who was about 4 feet tall, for a child as she strolled the streets, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit lounging at Homeless Island with a friend, 2003. (Brant Ward / SF Chronicle)

Little Bit at her camp at Homeless Island with Vina, an Island panhandler, 2003. (Brant Ward / S.F. Chronicle)

Photo from Little Bit’s Oct. 6 funeral altar, showing her recently with her pet rat, Kasper. (Kevin Fagan / SF Chronicle)

The altar for Little Bit’s funeral at the Raman Hotel in San Francisco, Oct. 6, 2011. (Kevin Fagan / SF Chronicle)

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  • Little Bit with pet rat Kasper
  • Funeral Altar for Little Bit at Raman Hotel

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