Rebecca’s Story: And Still, She Rose
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to homelessness because there is immense diversity in the unhoused population. That’s why we’re focusing on telling the stories of their experiences—and those of the people on the front lines of working toward solutions to see them see them safe and housed.
This time, we’re honored to hear from Rebecca Jackson of Cameo House San Francisco to learn more about her story and the challenges of women who have endured cycles of homelessness and incarceration.
In the last Point in Time Count, 25% of unhoused people interviewed said they spent at least one night in jail or prison in the previous 12 months. Homelessness and incarceration are compounding experiences — the stigma of criminal justice involvement makes it difficult for people to obtain housing or employment, and people without stable housing are at increased risk for incarceration or other criminal justice involvement.
What results is a cycle that is difficult but not impossible to break as long as we understand the importance of providing the right resources and services for neighbors.
By Rebecca Jackson
I am a 49-year-old African American woman who has survived trauma, battled for years with substance use, experienced incarceration, and been frequently unhoused. I am also a mother who had to fight to get her children back and, today, I am a proud grandmother. I serve as the Program Director at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s Cameo House, where I support homeless, justice-involved women and their children as they heal, find stability, and deepen family connections.
I understand the challenges our women face because I’ve been there.
I spent over half my life in these difficult-to-escape cycles. Now, I’m dedicating my life to providing women with the kind of supportive services I wish I’d had during my own darkest moments.
Getting to 17
I grew up in a multicultural family in Southern California. During my early years, my father was an alcoholic and I witnessed him physically abusing my mom. Because of my racial and cultural background, I endured years of bullying at school. At the time, there wasn’t much discussion of bullying or getting help through therapy.
As a result of the turmoil I felt at home and at school, I entered my early teenage years feeling ashamed of who I was. This shame was rooted in insecurities about my skin color, my weight, and my core identity. The pain I felt led me to start taking diet pills, and, over time, grew into an addiction to amphetamines. By the time I was 17, I was using illicit amphetamines and had been arrested and placed in adult county jail for possession.
Locked in a Cycle and Struggle to Survive
This was the beginning of a life of going in and out of the justice system. Between the ages of 17 and 32, I was arrested over 15 times and spent 12 years homeless. My involvement in the system came at the height of the “war on drugs.” Instead of receiving support and treatment, I was repeatedly jailed for my struggles with substance use.
During this time, I became a mother of two. Although I stayed sober during my pregnancies, I struggled to maintain sobriety as my girls entered early childhood. Despite a strong desire to change, I found myself stuck in a cycle of incarceration and homelessness, and no matter how hard I tried to overcome my addiction, I would eventually spiral back into old patterns.
For me, it was bigger than being addicted to a substance. I had become comfortable with the lifestyle and pain that came with the choices I made. I had a kind of “acceptance” that incarceration was my fate because it was also the fate of so many other people of color I knew. This cycle continued until I was finally given the option to go to San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation to get the help I needed to address my core issues and underlying trauma.
Hope on Delancey Street
I first heard about the Delancey Street Foundation from a family member. At the time, I was facing a serious drug trafficking charge that could have put me in prison for up to 15 years. Delancey Street Foundation offered what no courtroom or social worker had before: an opportunity for treatment in place of incarceration.
I knew this was the place where I would turn my life around. I spent the first three years developing my personal strength and gaining many valuable work and life skills, including enrolling in classes at the City College of San Francisco.
Eventually, I moved into the role of mentoring newer residents, facilitating groups, and managing two of Delancey’s business training schools. After being with the Delancey Street Foundation for nearly 12 years, I knew that whatever career path I chose, it was vital that it be a role in the San Francisco community helping other formerly incarcerated women.
That’s what led me to work for Cameo House, a long-term transitional and alternative sentencing program for homeless, formerly incarcerated women and their children.
What We Get, We Give
I feel privileged to be able to support other women of color on their journeys towards stability and independence because it’s a journey I know well. I know what it’s like to not have anywhere to call my own.
Providing this support in San Francisco, a city I’ve lived in and loved for nearly 20 years, presents both opportunities and challenges. It’s a place that offers one of the most robust networks of community-based programs in the nation. These programs, including Cameo House, help provide a continuum of highly needed support services to individuals experiencing housing insecurity, justice involvement, substance use, and mental health needs.
San Francisco is also a culturally diverse city that has been built on the values of acceptance and inclusion. Because of these values, San Francisco devotes significant public resources to addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness, problematic drug use, mental health or justice system involvement.
However, San Francisco is now in the midst of a homelessness epidemic that demands much more of the city and its residents. In the time I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve seen the population of unhoused people grow and the wealth gap widen. So many unhoused San Franciscans are the victims of gentrification and inequality. People who have lived here for generations are being pushed out. Some end up on the streets after being one check away from being able to cover rent.
It’s tragic that you can walk through the beauty, grandeur, and privilege of Nob Hill and be unaware of the suffering taking place just three blocks away in the heart of the Tenderloin. It’s past time for us as a community and as human beings to take action. People are dying on the streets. We have to find a way for all San Franciscans to have a safe, healthy home to return to each night.
What Can We Do?
We must support policy change that protects unhoused San Franciscans and invests in, rather than de-funds, supportive and safe services for them. We all need to do our part to uplift and sustain the nonprofits that are working hard to support our city’s most vulnerable. This includes peer-led recovery programs, affordable housing, and long-term programs, like Cameo House, that help people address their underlying needs. And, above all, we must remember to lead with compassion and love for our fellow San Franciscans.
CJCJ: Cameo House
CJCJ’s Cameo House is a long-term transitional and alternative sentencing program for homeless, formerly incarcerated women and children in San Francisco. Cameo prides itself on providing long-term services that give women the time and support they need to find childcare, employment, sobriety and permanent housing. Participants can stay for up to two years during which time the women and children build deep relationships with staff and other families at the house and these vital connections endure long after a participant graduates. Cameo House remains a refuge for vulnerable women and their children, and its positive effects reach across generations by interrupting cycles of incarceration and homelessness.