Christina Voyles, a senior marketing director, and her husband, Robert Hubble, moved to San Francisco in 2015 when Christina landed a job at the University of Berkeley.
Her father had worked there when she was only two years old, so it felt like “a nice full circle moment”.
But the city had changed from the one Christina cherished in fond memories of her childhood. San Francisco’s large homeless population has become a problem for all residents of the area.
Christina explains how people have learned to “kind of get on with things, and leave them alone”.
One day, as Christina was having lunch outside, enjoying the good winter weather before heading back to work, she was the victim of an unprovoked attack by a homeless man.
“He started approaching me and as he got closer and closer, I put my arm up and said ‘I’m sorry I don’t have any change,” Christina explains. “He then stared and lunged at me.”
She remembers him grabbing her by her hair and scraping the inside of her mouth, as he threw her around: “I could not get him off, and I remember thinking I had to get away from this construction cement wall that was next to us because there was a corner and I was afraid he would knock me into it.”
“I was just screaming for help as he was dragging me around,” Christina adds.
After 10 to 20 seconds, which she says “felt like forever”, two construction workers managed to pull him from her. They then held him down while someone else called the police.
“The emergency services came and there was an ambulance for him that took him away, as he claimed he was having a heart attack.
“One of the policemen sort of talked to me to make sure I was okay. But I was in so much shock that I just went back to my office and went back to work,” she adds.
After Christina told her co-workers what had just happened, they urged her to visit the campus clinic and go home, so she did.
“I went to the on campus clinic, and because he had scratched me in the mouth, they had to put me on a drug to prevent possible HIV – as a preventative measure.
“At the time, I was only six months out of finishing my breast cancer treatment and was still on a drug for that treatment – which is quite hard on your system. So having to go on the HIV preventative treatment on top of that was a lot. “
Looking back, Christina shares her disbelief at the fact that emergency services paid her little to no attention, but invested all of their efforts in “calming her attacker down”.
Attacker ‘knew how to play the system’
In the days that followed, Christina never stopped going to work, but she describes how she wasn’t coping very well: “I was jumpy, every little thing freaked me out.”
“I wanted information about him. I wanted a picture of him so I could recognise him if I saw him again. I ended up contacting the Berkeley police department,” she explains.
Christina describes how the Berkeley police were really helpful, and they not only provided her with a picture of the attacker, but also filled her in on what they knew about him.
“He was in his 60s and he was really well known to police as a homeless person who was becoming increasingly violent over the years.
“They also told me how he had just got out of jail a couple of days before and he’d already attacked somebody else,” Christina adds.
She recalls how, when the man was finally pulled away from her, he immediately said he was having a heart attack and that she had come after him.
“I know mental illness plays a huge part in stuff like this, but he definitely had his faculties about him. He knew how to play the system, and the cops said as much.”
The situation with the ever growing homeless population in San Francisco is not news. Christina thinks the root of the city’s issue is very simple: “Homeless folk are very enabled.
“If there is no repercussions to bad and aggressive behaviour, why would they change? The city has been very lax.”
Incidents becoming ‘normalised’
Following the attack, Christina tried to retain a sense of normality, by convincing herself that it had been an isolated incident.
“I forced myself to stay at my job and in the city at first. I am not a petite little girl. I have always thought I was pretty strong. I’ve been through cancer. So I thought I could handle it,” she shares.
In addition to having started to see a therapist to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, Christina signed up for a self-defence class.
“It was so interesting, and sad, how women would talk about their own incident with homeless people, but in a very normalised way – as if they were talking about a grocery store closing down.”
Christina remembers a lady who had shared how she struggled getting in and out of her apartment every single day due to a homeless person, usually on a lot of drugs, blocking the doorway.
“This young woman would have to sneak into her own home so she did not get attacked,” Christina says.
She adds: “There is this level of acceptance because you can’t avoid it.”
San Francisco ‘never like this before’
Looking back at her teenage years, when Christina would visit her friends in the city, she recalls: “San Francisco was never like this before.
“You’re constantly dodging and weaving and everybody acts like that is normal. I think downtown is empty. No one is around as it is very taken over by homeless folk.
“It’s not comfortable to be around. You’re outnumbered. The best way to describe it is to compare it to a video game, having to deflect anything and anyone that is coming at you.”
This sense of fear never really went away for Christina, and eventually the couple decided to leave San Francisco and move away for good.
“It’s tough, because you want to be kind and you want to help people, but there has got to be another way to help and get them up on their feet.”