Q&A: Laurie Sue Shanaman (Ails) on a Year of Essential Work During the Pandemic

Photo: jehN.W.A.

As part of USBM luminaries Ludicra, Laurie Shanaman helped craft some of the most thoughtful, introspective black metal ever recorded. So, it’s little surprise that when she isn’t making music (now with Ails) that her job involves helping others. Shanaman works as a case manager in San Francisco where she assists homeless citizens transitioning to supportive housing. While much of the Bay Area’s tech elite were sheltering in place for the past year Shanaman has worked throughout the pandemic – putting her health on the line to ensure that the most vulnerable among us continue to have a lifeline. “It’s been like triple damage with Trump, COVID and having no music,” she says. Shanaman talked to Decibel about her journey during the past year and what she’s learned.

You work with the homeless population, correct?
I work with them once they are housed. Every city in the Bay Area has adopted housing practices on dealing with the homeless from Europe because they work better. I work in case management. People who have lived on the streets chronically can’t just be moved into an apartment like “here you go!” They need support. Some haven’t visited a doctor in years. So, once people are accepted into supportive housing we do an intake, the property manager does an intake, and if it works out they move in.

Do you remember where you were when the shit hit the fan with the virus and it was clear this would be life-altering for all of us?
No, but all of it really blew me away. I think all of us were trying to choose how to feel. Most people wanted to ignore it or said “why are you concentrating on the deaths — talk about the people who survived.” And I was like, are you kidding me look at New York City! I found it completely heartbreaking.

What does your day-to-day look like?
I have a small caseload of formerly homeless clients I help. Some avoid doctors and I’ll help them get to the doctor. There is food insecurity so I’ll sign up to get meals delivered. Or I’ll get them a bag of food from the daily food bank. I’ll check on them if I haven’t seen them in three days. I also try to be a listening ear especially with people being more isolated. It can even be something like helping people find a cheap connection to the Internet. All of these things help people maintain their health and their housing.

You’ve worked in-person throughout the entire pandemic?
Yes, we’ve never closed. Strangely I did get a horrible cold a year ago in March and everyone was like “Maybe you have COVID.” Of course, this was before people were even wearing masks and the doctors told me I had a sinus infection. I was out of work for a week and then I went back to work and we were in lockdown with new rules. We weren’t sharing spaces. We didn’t meet clients face to face and put up barriers. I’m grateful to have been working this whole time even if I do feel burned out.

What were the early days like? Were you taking mass transit?
I live with my boyfriend of many years and another roommate. I’m one of those people who is still stuck living in a flat in the Mission [laughs]. So, I was going to work every day and they were stuck at home. They would wait in line to get groceries and then I’d come back and sanitize everything. I’d take a shower as soon as I got home and wipe off every doorknob and handle and light switch. This was before we were even testing. My BART commute was only one or two stops so I started walking home every day.

We are living The Tenant way more in 2021 than when you recorded it. All of the tech workers in the Bay got to stay home. You and others couldn’t. What did you think about so many people cocooning while others had to put their ass on the line?
It didn’t surprise me. Most people can work from home from a computer. I actually felt ok about it. It was almost like Christmas in that everyone was gone. But as eerie as it was we took precautions and felt safe. The whole year everyone else was like: “I want to be around people” and “I want to go out” and I just felt like I didn’t want to be around anyone. I just wanted to get home from work and pass out. I was kind of on autopilot. Sometimes I liked the solitude because I talked all day at work and was around so much energy.

When you work with a homeless population you deal with issues like mental health, hygiene, drug use, and basic self-care. How did you manage the intimate nature of your work when everyone is supposed to be social distancing?
The isolation has caused a lot of suffering across the board. Work has been more difficult. But the city has done a pretty good job getting homeless people housed in hotels. These hotels would have housed tourists and are now filled with people waiting for housing. But the isolation and neglect have been tough. It’s also caused a lot of food insecurity and skyrocketing overdose deaths. There have been far more overdose deaths in San Francisco than COVID deaths.

People in SROs haven’t been allowed to have friends or visitors unless they are care workers. So it has been more difficult. The community rooms are closed. We can’t serve people food. People can’t come into my office to talk — we can only talk through Plexiglass. It’s been a huge transition.

How have you stayed safe? I imagine some people will just ignore those boundaries.
Mental health issues can come into play and some people find it hard to understand the rules. You have to be really patient and put up a lot of signs, especially that you need to wear masks outside of your apartment. Somehow we just learned things along the way and stayed safe. We started wearing masks. We did have a scare when someone tested positive in June. We were all freaking out and thought we would die. But we ended up just staying home for a few days until we got tested again. Then we started implementing rules like mandatory temperature checks every morning. Everyone also had to get tested twice a month. I felt less afraid.

What have you learned about the human condition from this year of working during a pandemic?
I’ve grown in the sense that I’ve learned my limits. I’ve found ways to build boundaries with people. I’ve also learned I’m very patient and that I’m capable of being alone. I think loneliness has been a huge issue with a lot of people. I notice the loneliness and sheer frustration especially on places like Facebook. I’ve sort of accepted that I’m kind of a loner [laughs]. I never wanted to accept that but I know how to be alone. I remember feeling desperately alone before I joined Ludicra — that I didn’t have any friends. Now all these years have gone by and I kind of like my solitude. I am able to endure things. 

Did you ever think we’d get to the point where a half-million people would be dead?
I never thought we would get this far. I’ve never watched so much online news in my life until Trump and the pandemic. I was more likely to be one of those people who ignored it all. It was frustrating and angering to see so many deaths and so many fuckups. I remember when it started to get really bad again in November. They said we could get to 400,000 deaths by Christmas. At this point, it doesn’t surprise me because everything was handled horribly.

You recently were vaccinated as an essential worker. What was it like?
We lucked out. I thought I’d be in line just like everyone under 65. I have nothing that would push me to the head of the line. We lucked out because we are contracted to the Department of Public Health and work in a community health setting and are considered at risk. I almost felt bad walking in for my appointment.

In all fairness, you deserve it because of the nature of your work.
I hope so. Strangely enough, I was convinced I would get really sick. A nurse I worked with had a 102 fever for two days. But I just had this heavy fatigue and tired feeling and body aches.

That’s way better than the alternative.
I remember when Will Carroll got sick hoping it would make people take it more seriously. People were still hanging out together doing stupid shit.