• Give him a jelly donut, a cup of coffee and the courage to succeed

    Homeless special ed teacher sleeps in his car … for now

    by Erika Fiske

    It would be unusual not to see Mark dozing off on a couch at the back of Juice and Java coffee house. That’s where he naps during the day, after spending his nights in a car, or reading in a booth at a 24-hour-restaurant. When he finally stands to leave the coffee shop, he walks with a noticeable limp, with one leg two inches shorter than the other. But the limp is the least of his problems. Mark is a school teacher and homeless.

    Life hasn’t been easy for this 49-year-old California native who suffers from cerebral palsy. Despite being a special needs student all his life, and one of 10 children, he managed to earn a teaching degree and find work, until the economy ended his job and put him out on the street.

    Now he has to earn an advanced degree to find work again. But in the meantime, Mark’s had no place to live since the end of May. Just this past week he was told not to park by the Home Depot at night although non-citizens from south of the border fill the parking lot during daylight hours, hoping to find work.

    A home and job aren’t all Mark’s lost. “In the early ‘80s, I moved in with my girlfriend. She dropped out of high school and had a third grade reading level. She was functionally illiterate,” he said. “We lived together for 10 years.”

    The couple worked at Staff of Life natural foods market in Santa Cruz. She washed dishes and he ran the cash register. After being injured on the job and failing to get proper care, Mark’s girlfriend wound up in a wheelchair. The couple later broke up.

    “I haven’t seen her in 30 years,” he said.

    Mark moved to this area in 1998 and today he’s working on a master’s in education with emphasis on special education from Cal State University. He hopes to return to teaching special ed students. But school has never been easy for Mark. “I have processing differences,” he noted. “It takes me a lot longer to highlight a book and process what I’m reading.”

    What takes one student a little over an hour to study takes Mark up to three hours. “I have a lazy right eye,” he said, noting that when he talks with people, they’re not sure he’s even looking at them. As he speaks, Mark looks tired. He took a while to decide if he even wanted to talk about his situation. “I have no home at the moment. My mother moved to Washington state last year. My father lives in L.A.,” he said. They worked for years as vice president of Security Pacific Bank and on the staff at Camp Pendleton and UCLA, respectively.

    Although Mark’s siblings were close at a young age, they’ve all earned degrees and gone their own ways. One brother lives in P.G., but is dealing with raising children after a divorce. In mid-August, at least, Mark will be able to move into student housing.

    To survive, Mark has been selling off electronics and had his phone shut off, although he’s holding onto his computer. Sometimes friends let him sleep on the floor of their apartments, but after cold nights in the car, “I’ll find a donut shop that opens at 4 in the morning and is nice and warm,” he said. He’s hoping for some financial help from Dad in the near future.

    “Between the 24-hour restaurants like Denny’s and the early-opening do- nut shops in town, one can do okay. I go for comfort—a jelly-filled donut and a cup of coffee,” he said, smiling slightly. Mark can scrounge up a meal for under $3, and for around $22 a month, he can take showers at a Seaside swim center.

    But he isn’t sure what he wants out of life. “A Brazilian girl says I should go to Brazil. She says I could teach English there,” he said. “I’ve also thought about Ireland, and I have a sister in Australia who did some teaching there.”

    In the end, Mark always comes back to special ed students, because he knows what they’re going through. “I went through school without special ed,” he said. “I didn’t learn how to study until I got into college.”

    For many of these students, day- to-day living can be a challenge, from cooking and social skills to reading bus schedules and getting around town. What better teacher could they have than someone who’s overcome a learning disability of his own and gone on to deal with two major life challenges—being homeless and working on an advanced degree.

    And all it took was an occasional jelly donut, a cup of hot coffee and just a bit of courage.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 20, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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