By Yemas Ly, Real Change
John Birgen has to wait one more year to apply for Social Security retirement, but he wants to make a change sooner. He wants to buy a cheap motorhome so that he can get out of the shelters, drive back to Spokane and try to get his son, who is also homeless, off the streets.
Born in Bremerton and raised in Puyallup, John had a difficult life. His dad worked in the shipyards in Bremerton before moving to Puyallup, where John attended high school.
His dad was sent to a mental institution, which caused problems at home and, in return, separated the family. John and his six siblings were sent to foster homes, and he hasn’t seen them since.
At the age of 18, John wanted to make something of himself. He went into work and he worked hard. He bounced from every corner of Washington state doing handyman jobs for 40 years. He stayed at each location for a handful of years and had a nice time doing so. He learned a lot about life being on the road.
There aren’t any before-and-after stories for him, because he’s been homeless since he was 18 years old.
“It was exciting back in the ’70s and ’80s,” John says. “It was great because you could hitchhike with no problems. People were a lot nicer back then.”
He worked in apartment maintenance to make enough to get by. He painted houses, put locks on doors and fixed sheetrock, baseboard, doors, windows, anything.
After failing to mend problems with his ex-wife regarding his son, John moved to Seattle for a fresh start. He traveled with a buddy doing some professional house repair and, in general, he saw that Seattle offered him more opportunities.
“Being homeless in Spokane, it’s a lot colder than in Seattle,” he reflects.
John was never unemployed until he received a DUI eight years ago. This marked the start of a difficult period, as the DUI created an obstacle in his ability to find employment: most jobs require employees to have driver’s licenses. Because he didn’t pay off the court charge, it was sent to collections, which created more problems.
Every summer, John buses to Spokane for three weeks, where he is the oldest crew member to set up and work on Spokane’s Pig Out in the Park. It’s a food and music festival, and it also provides him with his main source of income.
John’s ambition is to reach his goal of getting a trailer and heading back to Spokane, but he is burdened by legal constraints.
It will cost him $4,000 to reinstate his driver’s license and between $3,000 and $3,500 to buy a motorhome.
He has been trying to save money but needs to use his income to survive.
John has been selling Real Change for the past six years to support his basic needs, but he spends most of his time in the public library searching for maintenance jobs on Craigslist.
Real Change is a good place to start, but it’s not his ideal job. John prefers physical work.
Things are hard for John because he doesn’t have the tools or transportation needed to be a maintenance man. He often searches for welding and repair jobs where the lister provides the tools.
John wants to reduce the time that he spends working under the table [i.e., off the books] so that he can add more into his Social Security retirement benefits. However, he can’t apply for many jobs because he’s an ex-felon and having no license means his applications are not as attractive as other people’s résumés, especially these days when jobs are scarce.
“Every year gets harder and harder,” he reflects. “I just kind of gave up. I’ve been homeless for so long I got stuck in a vicious cycle. The longer you are on the street, the harder it is to break.”
He admits to feeling discouraged but adds: “I know I shouldn’t stop caring.”
“And Trump’s gonna cut welfare; what is that gonna do?” he asks. “It’s just gonna create more problems. There’s gonna be a lot more stealing than there is now, because people are gonna survive one way or the other.”
But John is still going to try. He’s not going to stop searching for work to add to his résumé.
“There’s always somebody worse off than you,” he says. “When you have nothing, you have to appreciate how lucky you are. There’s always hope. Just keep plugging along.”