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.”