Homeless Little Bit changes lives, including hers

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on May 13, 2012 in Rat News | Subscribe

Chronicle staff photographer Brant Ward first spotted “Little Bit” striding down the street, swinging her arms back and forth like a child, tiny legs pumping purposefully. Brant thought she was a little girl; she stood only about 4 feet tall. But she wasn’t.

She was Susan Beach, otherwise known on the street as “The Midget” or “Little Bit” – or, to the shopkeepers who watched her shoot heroin, smoke crack and turn tricks outside their windows, a plain horror. City homeless counselors considered her so hard-core as to be all but untreatable.

This was summer 2003. Brant and I were spending six months on San Francisco’s streets to research a five-part series on chronic homelessness, he as photographer and I as writer. We needed someone to illustrate how soul-crushing street life can be, and after his first chat with Little Bit, Brant knew we had the person.

“This woman is amazing,” he told me. “She told me to screw off, but I think we can work on her. There’s something about her that’s special.”

He was, as always, right.

And she stayed special up until the day she died last month.

It turned out Little Bit, then 32, was in a colony of a dozen panhandling homeless junkies that lived on a traffic island at Mission Street and Van Ness Avenue. They called it Homeless Island – and as a group, they were the most desperate, charming batch of street people we’ve ever met.

What we learned about them over the next four years brought us great sorrow and great hope.

The sorrow was more than we could fit into our stories.

Several died. Addictions ate away their will and health and, as they cycled in and out of hospitals and jails, they always wound up where they began. It was awful.

The hope was found by sticking around long enough – and we still keep in touch – to see the islanders’ inner strength and potential. We heard them tearfully admit they hated sleeping outside. We watched them try to clean up again and again after humiliating failures.

The best solution, Brant and I found, was getting the hard-core into supportive housing – residences with on-site counselors to help them conquer the dope, madness or whatever else had put them on the sidewalk. “Little Bit, if you get your life together, you could run a company somewhere,” we used to say. She’d always laugh to show bravado to her pals, but the look in her eyes said she wanted that, too. And in those 3 a.m. moments when she’d finished sex with her last john, she’d say what only her eyes could during the day.

“I’m going to kick someday,” she tearfully told us one night. “I’ll be off the stuff and off that traffic island. I will. I will.”

She finally got her wish a year ago.

A few years ago, Little Bit got herself a boyfriend named Andre who lived in the Raman Hotel, a counseling-enriched complex on Howard Street for 89 formerly homeless people, run by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He was stable, unlike her earlier boyfriends, and though she started crashing there she couldn’t move in under house rules. That’s when the support staff got busy.

Manager Shelley St. George saw that spark in her that we did and started good-naturedly pestering her to get domestic partnership papers with Andre so they could live together. The Raman’s two counselors got in on the act, and – lo and behold – Little Bit took their advice. Last fall, she moved into her first real residence in decades.

Soon she was on methadone, had stopped turning tricks and got approved for a government disability check – for bad kidneys, a legacy of street life. She kept three pet rats, Squirrel, Baby Boy and Kasper, and became the neat freak of the complex, constantly cleaning her tiny room and the group kitchen.

“She did a complete turnaround, and she could have become a drug counselor,” said her case manager, Kermit Burleson Sr. “I wouldn’t put any limits on her.”

If San Francisco is to solve its homelessness – and panhandling – problem, it needs more people like Burleson.

Since 2004, the city has housed 8,476 homeless people, but many have been unable to change their behavior and still go out and panhandle. That makes it seem like the city is more clogged with homeless people than it is. The official homeless count today is 6,455, down more than 2,000 from its peak earlier in the decade, and Brant and I can see where the homeless camps have disappeared – but you wouldn’t know it if you’re just anyone walking around the streets. More counseling can change that. Like it did for Little Bit.

Kidney failure killed Little Bit at 40 on Sept. 23. The solace is that her last year on Earth was good.

“Life is so much better inside,” said Rita Grant, another great success story – a Homeless Islander rescued near death by her sister – who today is a beautifully rejuvenated health nutritionist in Florida. “I’ve evolved from being happy to being spiritually happy, and maybe Little Bit had that knowledge by the time she died.

“I pray she did.”


Kevin Fagan is a Chronicle staff writer. E-mail him at kfagan@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E Р6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Tags: , , , , ,

Copyright © 2020 RatChatter All rights reserved.
RatChatter v1.0 theme from BuyNowShop.com.