Rebecca Chapman is homeless.
And that might be the only thing she has in common with stereotypes of homeless people.
For one, Chapman is no transient. For the past 21 months, she’s been homeless in Mill Valley, the wealthy enclave where she’s lived for three-quarters of her life. She's never panhandled, though . And a cursory glance at Chapman reveals a woman who could easily be on her way to the track at , sporting bright pink running shorts, red running shoes and a t-shirt. Oh, and she’s often seen wielding her white iPhone.
Chapman is far from anonymous, having grown up in Park Terrace, lived here for 36 years, attended and Tam High, worked at both and Living Foods before that and regularly patronized businesses all over town. Those deep ties to the community and lack of anonymity might be considered assets for someone who fell on hard times and ended up homeless in October 2010, and they likely were initially.
But while the 48-year-old Chapman acknowledges the unwavering support of a small number of local friends, she’s also seen her relationships with many longtime friends collapse under the weight of her own admittedly bad behavior towards them and people’s discomfort with her downward spiral. And while hunger, health and the oft-crushing weight of not having a place to lay your head at night have been overwhelming for Chapman, so has being ostracized by her community.
“You just don’t live down your worst moment in this town, “ she says. “It’s such a small town and a lot of people have watched me grow up since I was 12. It’s been shocking to see who has turned against me. But I would never claim to have done this perfectly. I was ugly, I do yell, I do swear and it’s often gotten out of hand.”
Chapman’s candor about shouting matches with local residents and business owners, and the clarity with which that candor comes, is striking. It’s also a trait that, coupled with her excessive drinking and use of prescription medication for depression and epilepsy, has burned a lot of bridges in town.
“She’s very well spoken and articulate about her predicament,” says Robert Green, the owner of the , who Chapman considers a friend. “But she’s also outspoken and as a result she gets her self into a lot of predicaments. She probably has very few people that she can fall back on because she’s alienated them in one way or the other.”
As Chapman tells it, the details of her spiral into homelessness in the fall of 2010 are complicated. She says her epilepsy became acute when she moved from the Miller Ave. Whole Foods to the new store on East Blithedale . She had a bad reaction to the store’s lighting, she says, to the point of even having trouble speaking at times, and took several leaves of absence.
Whole Foods’ officials could not be reached for comment about Chapman, who says the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement about what exactly was causing Chapman’s problems at the new store. "They just didn’t believe me,” she says. They parted ways in October 2010.
Chapman then informed the owner of the Homestead Valley cottage she was renting that she’d lost her job, and eventually was evicted.
“In their defense, I was acting manic and some of my behaviors were alarming,” Chapman says. “I was being very unpleasant and I was also freaked out that everything was happening to me all at once.”
In addition to her erratic behavior, Chapman’s appearance also made a dramatic shift, as she cut off her long hair and dyed it, lost a dental bridge for her front teeth that stemmed from a childhood injury and morphed from a relatively mellow person into, well, something else.
“All of a sudden everybody thought that I was crazier than sh** – and when they would ask me, I would say I say, ‘Yup,’” Chapman says.
Much of Chapman’s story and predicament, is tied to her family, she says. Her parents died in tragic incidents 10 and 12 years ago, respectively, but had stopped being able to care for themselves long before that, she says. Chapman’s older sister, who she says suffers from schizophrenia, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010, Chapman says. She currently lives in Washington state.
“People who know me and know my family’s story are just completely blown away by what I was able to survive,” Chapman says. “I really was the parent of these lunatic parents who didn’t want to feed or clothe me.”
Chapman says she occasionally receives small amounts of money from a family trust set up for her sister.
She uses that money for two things: to buy food and to pay for her iPhone, which she says is vital to maintaining communication with relatives overseas and keep track of her efforts to fix what she says have been mistakes on her medical records and government identifications.
Other than those efforts and her constant focus on meeting her “daily caloric needs,” Chapman says she’s working on a book, I’m Gettin' Homeless, that serves as a blueprint of sorts for off-the-grid living, and would love to shop it to publishing houses.
Chapman declined to say where she stays now, noting that she crashed for a while in a friend’s storage unit and in the back of the Laundromat on Miller Avenue before being kicked out of each.
“I can’t remember all of the places I’ve stayed,” she says. “I’ve had a bunch of different hideouts. But I always try to be very respectful of people’s property.”
Chapman says she’s tried services like Homeward Bound in San Rafael and found them to be scary, unsanitary and depressing. In a recent conversation, she seemed determined to move beyond her past struggles, find some income and move back to New York, where she lived as a kid and where she still has some family.
“I just want a better, normal life for myself,” she says. “Honestly, if somebody would've told me that I would’ve been homeless for this long, I would’ve been so freaked out.”
“She doesn’t want to be homeless,” Green says. “How she’s going to change that, I don’t know – it scares me.”
Asked if she wanted to remain in Mill Valley, Chapman responds with a quick “No.”
“A lot of people just see me as a parasite at this point,” she says. “Its too bad because I was serving them at Whole Foods and Living Foods for many years. But it’s just a relationship that’s gone bad. This is something that I don’t think you can really heal from.”
Ed. Note: An earier version of this story misstated the type of cancer Rebecca's sister has and the exact title of her book.