Homeless and going to San Diego State

“I would pitch my tent at night but clear out before dawn every morning"

Before dawn on the morning of SDSU’s commencement last May, James Ziegler-Kelly climbed out of his tent under a bridge in Mission Valley. He dressed, folded the tent and his sleeping bag, and loaded the car. He showered in the Aztec Recreation Center on the west side of campus. During the afternoon, in cap and gown, he walked across an outdoor stage and received his diploma. He had completed five years of study (not always continuous or full-time) and, over the course of his stay at SDSU, had been homeless twice.

That evening, Ziegler-Kelly hosted a graduation party for his family at the apartment of a friend in the College Area. Ziegler-Kelly had shared the apartment only a month earlier, and his mother, father, and two sisters believed he still lived there. “It all came off well,” he tells me. “They didn’t find out.”

I knew that in these recessionary times there must have been such a student at SDSU. On December 6, Salon.com ran an article by Ken Ilgunas entitled “I live in a van down by Duke University.” The story came to my attention only recently, but for comparison purposes I quickly found Ziegler-Kelly. My question now is whether other SDSU students sleep in canyons or cars before stumbling into their morning classes. Ziegler-Kelly says he never ran into other homeless peers during a total of seven months’ sleeping outdoors while in school. “But if they were like I was,” he says, “they weren’t telling anyone.”

In the Duke University story, Ilgunas explains how he’s been able to avoid going into debt while still paying a hefty tuition for graduate school. He’s done it largely by choosing to be homeless — or rather by making a 1995 Econoline van his home — during his first year at Duke. “To me,” writes Ilgunas, “the van was what Kon-Tiki was to Heyerdahl, what the GMC van was to the A-Team, what Walden was to Thoreau.” Trends in student habits, however, run in the opposite direction. “The idea of ‘thrift,’” he continues, “once an American ideal, now seems almost quaint to many college students, particularly those at elite schools. The typical student today is not so frugal. Few know where the money they’re spending is coming from and even fewer know how deep they’re in debt. They’re detached from the source of their money. That’s because there is no source. They’re getting paid by their future selves.”

“Elite school” is not a term normally attached to SDSU, but the costs of attending the university are no joke. Its website estimates a total cost of $21,490 for an undergraduate stu-dent living off campus to attend school for nine months during the coming 2010–2011 academic year. That includes $5002 in registration fees, $1638 in books and supplies, $10,388 in food and housing, $1690 in transportation, and $2772 in miscellaneous personal expenses.

During his five years at SDSU, Ziegler-Kelly lowered some of these costs by living as cheaply as he could. He had at least part-time jobs at all times. When he first started at the university in 2004, after completing two years at San Diego City College, he was making $32,000 a year as a manager for Taco Bell and had saved money. So he paid for his first semester at SDSU upon matriculation.

But he was having trouble with two roommates bringing drugs into the apartment they shared in City Heights. To extricate himself from the situation, Ziegler-Kelly says he paid the entire rent for a month and moved out, leaving the apartment to the roommates. He wanted to make sure credit problems didn’t dog him. That’s when he decided to try living without a roof over his head. He found a hidden section of canyon on the east side of Balboa Park near Morley Field. There was a place to park his car nearby.

There was more to his homeless plan than saving money, he tells me. “I looked at it as an adventure, to see if I could do it and learn about different kinds of people. I didn’t hang out with the homeless but did meet a lot of good people. The panhandlers and drunks are the visible ones. The ones you don’t see have amazing stories. They’ll have kids with them and be living in a car under a bridge. Most of the time, they’ve often lost everything.”

Ziegler-Kelly stayed homeless for six months, including all of his first semester at SDSU. “I would pitch my tent at night but clear out before dawn every morning. Only one time did I hear anyone nearby. It was somebody walking a dog. I got up right away and left.”

Still working at Taco Bell, Ziegler-Kelly says he occasionally stayed overnight in the office after a night shift. “It was totally against company policy,” he tells me. “But I’d be out before any other employees arrived the next day. If they did catch me in there, I’d say I just came to pick up something I left the previous night.”

Did he ever sleep in his car? “Only once,” he tells me. “I wasn’t paying for parking on campus, so one morning about five I stopped along College Avenue between SDSU and El Cajon Boulevard and went to sleep, thinking I could get a few hours in before my first class. A cop came by and told me that was illegal. He was nice about it and didn’t give me a ticket. I just didn’t know the rules.”

I ask Ziegler-Kelly how he handled the winter cold and whether he cooked meals at his campsite. “My sleeping bag kept me pretty warm. The problem was getting up in the morn-ing, when I’d be very stiff. That’s when the cold bothered me. And yes, I did some cooking. I used a butane flame and just heated the contents of cans. Afterward, the cans could be cut and spread out to create a kind of grill, so I could fry some meat. But my favorite thing to eat was canned corned-beef hash.”

Ziegler-Kelly’s grades at SDSU suffered during his first semester, so he got a transfer from Taco Bell and went to stay at his mother’s house in Phoenix. After a few months, he re-turned, took up apartment living again, and was able to study better. He still had enough money to avoid going into debt. Eventually, however, student loans beckoned. He was get-ting anxious to graduate and decided to take full loads in his biology major. “At the start of my last two years, I took out $7000, and more later. Only about half of the $7000 was student loans. The other half was a Pell Grant. Somehow I was able to qualify for a bigger grant if I double-majored. So I added political science as a second major, something I also did at City College.

“Then came the fun part,” Ziegler-Kelly continued. “I was in my last semester when I broke my foot. We were bird-watching down at the dam in Mission Trails park. I jumped off a rock onto another and snapped the middle metatarsal bone. Snapped it in half. All of a sudden, I was finished at the McDonald’s near the university — where I was working by then — and couldn’t pay my share of the rent. Figuring that I’d been homeless before and could do it again, I found the spot under the bridge in Mission Valley. It’s next to the river near the Mission San Diego trolley stop, much closer to campus than my previous campsite.

“So at graduation, I limped a bit walking across the stage. But by then, the foot was healing well.” Now finished at SDSU, Ziegler-Kelly remained at the Mission Valley outpost for most of the summer. He went back to work at McDonald’s. One night, the police rousted him out of his tent. They said they were looking for a sexual predator in the area and were about to leave, satisfied that he was not their man. Still, they searched his backpack and found at the bottom, in a little box, a “ninja star,” or shuriken, used in feudal Japan as a small multipointed weapon that could be concealed in the hand until used for stabbing or throwing at enemies. Since California law views the shuriken as a deadly weapon, Ziegler-Kelly faced a felony weapons charge. He was taken to jail, where he spent three nights. “At least I had a roof over my head and three meals a day,” he says, “so I didn’t try to get out on bail. But I did call my mother, who then lived in Orange County, only to tell her I couldn’t use my cell phone and not to worry. But the phone system in jail seems to require a master’s de-gree, and I only had a bachelor’s. I was cut off right away, and the only message my mother received was that the call came from the San Diego County jail.”

To Ziegler-Kelly’s consternation, his mother arrived at the jail the next day. He was about to be released anyway, since a judge had dismissed the charge against him. But he had to explain the situation to his mother, who now discovered his homelessness. “She knew about the first time I was homeless and was okay with that because it was an experiment,” says Ziegler-Kelly. “But she was not okay with my being homeless only a short time after I graduated. She put me up in Hotel Circle for a few days at $80 a night and wouldn’t hear of me being homeless again. After a few days though, I convinced her to replace the $80 a night for the hotel with $20 a night for a campsite at Lake Jennings. I camped there for sev-eral weeks and then stayed with a few friends until I rented my own apartment.”

Ziegler-Kelly worked at McDonald’s until three months ago, when he got a new job driving for a taxi service. He tells me the job pays more money, much of which he plans to use for paying off his student loans. In the end, they came to $20,000, an amount he’s not happy with, but it’s less than half of what he knows some of his fellow SDSU graduates racked up. When the loans are paid, he plans a return to earn his teaching credential. His goal all along has been to become a high school biology teacher.

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I'm glad he re-turned for his de-gree. He can be a he-ro for others, an example that if you be-lieve in yourself, anything is possible. You might even write for the Re-ader.

Lots of luck to him on getting a job teaching. The school districts are into their third year of declining budgets and teacher layoffs. I suppose some districts have hired a handful of teachers in areas they were short of talent during that period, but seniority rules the roost, and they have to juggle things to make them fit.

One thing missing from this story is any mention of Ziegler-Kelly's age. Is he 25? 35? 45? His comments about the lack of frugality on the part of many students sounds spot-on. They go into debt for life to earn a degree of dubious value as far as creating an income stream that can pay off the debt. Tales of recent law school grads being in debt more than $100,000 or even $150,000 abound. The old assumptions regarding the worth of a degree in future income are at least on hold for a few years. Many of these degrees are worth nothing in income prospects. After all his study, the subject of the story is working at at McDonald's? He could be doing that with no education at all. Illiterates can work there and prosper.

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