Could you sustain yourself on $5.70 worth of food a day? Could you keep your car operating on $4.25 a day to pay for gas, insurance, and maintenance? For homeless people like Jim, a Vietnam combat vet, the $177 he gets every month in food stamps and the $132 he gets in general assistance doesn’t begin to cover his most basic needs, but unlike the most visible members of our homeless population who beg for handouts on street corners, Jim works his “job” every day: gathering recyclable materials and trading them in for cash.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- TRASH TO TREASURE : Jim, a homeless Vietnam combat vet with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, supplements his meager government assistance by recycling.
In 1970, fresh out of high school, Jim was drafted and quickly sent to Vietnam, where he became part of a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit. The then-19-year-old kid soon found himself fighting for his life, an experience that haunts him to this day.
After an honorable discharge, Jim attended San Diego State University to study accounting, but even back then he knew something was wrong with him.
“I had a terrible fear of being captured,” confided the 57-year-old. “In classes, I had to sit in the desk nearest to the door. I had terrible anxiety attacks. Later I learned I had PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], but at the time there wasn’t a name for it.”
To ease his affliction, Jim turned to pills and booze. Despite his illness and addiction, he managed to hold down various accounting jobs through the early-Šs, though he continued to be a substance abuser.
“I can’t tell you how many DUIs I had,” he admitted. “It was an L.A. County judge who ordered I get treatment for PTSD.”
Twenty-three years ago, Jim became sober, but it didn’t stop the gradual strain of his disability. He continued to work, but his disorder ate away at him.
“Thirty-five years of just holding this stuff in,” said Jim quietly, “it just keeps wearing on you. I became homeless in L.A. almost two years ago.”
The traffic, the noise, the crowds started moving in on Jim, and since he had been coming to the Central Coast for years and still had friends here, he decided to drive up here and see if he could recover.
“I remember being parked on Prado Road near the day shelter. I’d been parked there—out of gas—for three days, just trying to figure this whole homeless thing out. I didn’t know anything about recycling, but I met another homeless Vietnam vet who showed me the ropes: the bus routes, where to get bags, good places to find recyclables.”
Jim had to put his pride aside. He had to learn to get inside dumpsters and root around for discarded glass, cans, and plastic bottles. He even learned to eat out of dumpsters. Such is the homeless life.
“I’d made above-average earnings most of my life. All of a sudden you’ve got nothing except what you can shove into your car,” lamented Jim, who took over his Vietnam vet friend’s recycling route when his friend became too disabled to ride a bike anymore. “As I recycled more and more and discovered new places to find recyclables, I started thinking more like a businessman again.”
Jim maintains a cell phone and has a laptop computer, where he keeps spreadsheets chronicling his monthly recycling hauls. He supplements his $300 in government assistance with upwards of $700 from recycling—most of it out of commercial areas and dumpsters whose contents were headed for the landfill. That’s still not enough income to allow Jim to find a home, especially considering he refuses to leave his longtime companion Mango, a Jack Russell terrier.
“Being homeless is an acquired skill passed on from one person to another,” said Jim. “I’ve met some really good homeless people out there, people who will share their food with you, people like me who have nowhere to go. If you’re not a drunk or a jackass, people will help you.”
Since becoming homeless and being unable to hold down a job, Jim has had his claims turned down from both SSDI (Social Security Disability) and the Veterans Administration, who each refuse to recognize his PTSD. His claims are currently under appeal. In the meantime, Jim continues with dignity and determination to help himself.
“This is where I am right now, for better or worse. I don’t fight my disability anymore. I have to acknowledge my limitations. Thank God I’ve always been pretty healthy physically, except for a few cases of food poisoning. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more expensive to eat healthily than to go to the dollar menu at McDonald’s. But maintaining my car is imperative, and maintaining Mango to the best of my ability is imperative.
“There’s a lot of people like me around here, many of them without a car, which is why I concentrate on recycling glass people on foot or bikes go for the cans and plastic because they’re lighter.”
Jim paused for a second and looked off into the distance.
“I’ve found you get as much freedom and justice in this country as you can afford,” he said ruefully. “I don’t think I could survive without both public assistance and recycling. I sometimes think what I’d do if I had an accident—picking up glass can be dangerous—or if Mango had an accident. How would I pay? Or if my car broke down ... I’d be camping near a creek.”
Staff Writer Glen Starkey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.