Monday, February 10, 2020

Getting behind the wheel

Chris stood, slightly crouched and motionless waiting for the exact moment when the call would tell him to go from perfectly still into an instant sprint.


Chris took off horizontally across the field behind the line and running back, the quarterback faked a hand off as Chris pushed himself to move even faster than his legs had strength. Chris was the fastest player on the field but he would have to push even his limits for this play to work. At the exact moment he turned a perfect ninety degrees and started heading down the field. The safety caught Chris’s eye and began to close in, Chris juked to the outside and glanced up just in time to see a spiral passing over his head, he leaped grabbed the ball falling forward into the endzone.

The adrenaline rushed through his body as a whistle blew, “Good practice boys. Now hit the showers.” The couch called out as the safety reached down to help Chris up.

“I let you have that one.”

“Yeah right, keep practicing someday you will be able to keep up.” Chris joked back. Sweat dripped from every part of his body, he gave his all, even if it was only a practice. He knew he and the team would have to be better than ever if they were going to stand a chance against the Monarchs in the CIF championship next week.

Football had become Chris’s life. It was the first time that he felt accepted and part of something bigger. People looked up to him and cared about him. He felt more love and compassion from the men who spent their after school time slamming into him at full speed than he had his whole life off the field. His Father had left him at age 7 and his Mother, who only saw too much of his Dad in him often would beat him. Football was his ticket to leave that life behind. This Championship was the beginning of a new life for Chris, one he was convinced would culminate in his ultimate goal, playing on Sunday in the NFL.

Chris gathered his gear after showering and took what little strength he had left and began to walk home. Many of his friends were already driving, but given the make up classes he had to do and other issues at school he hadn’t taken drivers ed yet. He figured next year, his senior year, he could fit it in.

He turned the corner to see a Uhaul outside of his home. “Not again,” he thought.

“Mom, what’s going on?”

“Billy said we could move in with him in Alpine. Isn’t that great?”

“I am not moving in with your new motorbike boyfriend,” Chris yelled.

“Don’t talk back. It’s already been decided and you're coming.”

“Or what Mom?” The days of her being able to take her aggression out on him had passed, and both of them knew it. “Mom, the football championship game is a week away. I am not going to miss it.”

“I know you think that game is important, but this is a big chance for us. I will see if we can work out you coming back for the game.”

“We won’t be back and you know it.”

“Honey, get your stuff packed we’re leaving.”

“You might be, but I’m not,” Chris yelled as he took his pads and helmet and took off running down the street. He could hear his Mom trying to chase him and yell at him to stop, but he just kept on running. He couldn’t believe his Mom would move out right before his big game. He wasn’t sure where he would go, he just wandered the streets. Late that night he decided he better go home, what else could he do. When he arrived the home was deserted, they had left him.

Chris eventually connected with his Grandma. She didn’t live very close but it was close enough that he was able to get to the game. They lost 31-0. He spent the rest of the school year with his Grandma transferring to the school that had beaten him. By the summer things hadn’t worked out with the boyfriend so his mom came back. He had hoped to return to his old school but due to not registering timely and he now being 18, they said he would have to attend night school to complete his degree. That meant no football.

Without football to help motivate, he decided to simply get a job. The soup plantation had every soup and salad option you could think of and for the next six years he worked his way up from dishes, to line cook to cook. Meanwhile his little brother, Adrian continued with school close by. One day after work he went by his home to find his little brother Adrian had gotten a car, a rabbit. They went out together and Adrian asked Chris, “Do you want to learn how to drive?”

“I guess.” They went to a parking lot and Adrian tried to teach his older brother how to drive, but it was a stick and a tough one at that, and he gave up.

“Mom had to show me a bunch of times before I could do it. I’ll teach you later.” His little brother reassured him.

That later day never came but when Adrian graduated and needed a job, Chris his big brother helped land him a job at the Soup Plantation. Chris had been working there for years and couldn’t wait to finally get to move from the back of the house to the front of the house. But when the first opening came up, who got it? Adrian. Chris couldn’t believe they picked his little brother over him, and quite.

A short time later he was hanging out with his Brother-in-law's house. He was busy welding some stuff in the backyard. “What are you working on?” Chris asked.

“It’s a gate for a fence I have to put in tomorrow.”

“You build fences huh?”

“Yup, you want to learn how? I could use another hand on the job.”


And like that they were a team, building fences all over the San Diego area. Chris loved the work and had so much fun doing it that he hardly felt like he was working at all.

“Chris you know we could get a lot more done if you could drive, to quote jobs, or cover jobs that I couldn’t be at,” His Brother-in-law mentioned one day.

“I guess, but I’ve never driven before.”

“I have that old van. You could buy it from me, like a rent-to-own thing. Just pay me a little each month until you pay it off.”

At over 30 years old Chris decided to do it. He took the van and learned to drive and went to the DMV and got his license. The first thing he needed to do with it was go out and bid a job. It was the day after he got his license and off he went.

The job was quite a drive away and as he drove onto the highway for the first time he nervously and slowly merged and horns blared in standard southern California style. A few miles later he nervously missed the exit, not once but three times, then when he finally found the exit, he got lost in the neighborhood. Three hours after his appointment, he finally pulled over, found a pay phone and called his Brother-in-law and boss. “Hey man, I can’t find this place.”

“Um Chris, I can’t talk right now, call me later.”

He tried several times but eventually went home. That night he finally got a hold of his boss. “What’s up Man?”

“That job, we lost it.”

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t find it.”

“Chris, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I have to let you go.”

A little while later after not being able to pay for the car, Chris lost the van. Shortly after that he got a job at a moving company in Yuma. He worked for a year but when things slowed down at the moving company, not really being comfortable driving, he was the first to be let go. Shortly after that he became homeless. That was 18 years ago, and he has been in Yuma, mostly homeless ever since. “I love the winters here, but the summers aren't the best.” Chris says with a smile.

“My old boss saw me on the corner the other day. I asked him how business was, and he asked if I knew him. You fired me, I told him. Boy did he look shocked.”

Adrian, his younger brother now works for UPS. “He’s been driving for them for many years now. He does really well, but about 10 years ago he stopped taking my calls. I think he feels that he is too far above me to be bothered.”

Chris is a bright and positive person who anyone would feel good around. There were many things that came to mind when I sat and met with Chris but the most prominent for me is the license.

Licenses are an interesting thing. I didn’t get my license until I was 18, because I had to get my Eagle Scout to get it. But, I always knew I would get it. I took it for granted that I would at some point. I had parents who took me driving, not happily, but they did it. And it was such a part of growing up and the culture we live in I assumed everyone got their license.

But as I have met the homeless and worked with many who struggle with employment I am amazed how many do not have, and have never had licenses. This becomes a huge stumbling block for people. Think about how many jobs assume you have a driver's license? How often did your boss, even in early jobs ask you to run an errand? How many jobs involve some sort of delivery?

Not only that, think about how narrow your job search area becomes when you don’t have a car or driver’s license? In my town, it could easily turn a 15 minute commute into one of over an hour on the city bus. Not only that, think about how many times you rely on driver’s license as a form of ID? Where would you be without a drivers license?

It is so interesting to me the different paths of the two brothers, Chris and Adrian. One has been on the streets of Yuma for the past 18 years, one is a full time UPS driver, owns a home and lives a very normal life. One of the key differences in these brothers, was one got a license in high school and one waited until when he was over 30 and then never really got comfortable driving.

We all want to help homelessness, and we all know that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. But only recently has it occurred to me that one of the best things we can do for young men and women to keep them employed and off the streets is ensure they get a drivers license.

I have no doubt that if you are reading this, you probably have a license, and your kids will likely get theirs, but what about the kids around you. Do all your kids friends have a parent who can mentor them and teach them to drive? Do you know a kid who has dropped out before he got through drivers ed? Could you mentor them through the process to get a license? Do you know an adult without a license you could help get one?

One of the shocking stats to me is how many minority youth do not get drivers licenses. A study done in the University of Wisconsin found that in the state 75 percent of white’s had a license by age 18 (a number I found surprisingly low) but way more shocking was less that 35 percent of African Americans and Hispanics of same age had licenses.(1)

I hope this statistic is incorrect, but if it is even close to correct we need to help minorities get licenses. I am not sure how, but it starts with each of us, noticing those who need help, and expanding our circle to include those who need help.

I wonder if there is a kid tonight, wandering the streets, with shoulder pads and a helmet. A kid whose world is falling apart, who thinks his whole future is wrapped up in a football game, he is about to lose 31-0. Maybe I could pick him up, and just go for a drive, have a long talk and then pull into a parking lot and let him have a turn at the wheel.

If someone had done that for Chris, just maybe, he’d still be behind the wheel today.

If you enjoy this please read another one of my other Lessons of Homelessness. (When did you get out?)

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Reference, John Pawasarat, 2006, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, The Drivers License Status of Voting Age Population in Wisconsin.


  1. I love how you make the invisibles of our society visible. Thanks.

    1. I am sure I could do more. I am increasingly convinced that we all miss opportunities to touch others lives on a regular basis. My goal is to miss and and less of those opportunities.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks so much for reading. Check out the other stories of homeless on the blog.

  3. Great story. I found it while by coming in the back door...I'm glad I did.

    1. Thanks for reading, glad you used the back door.