Homeless In Las Vegas: A Father's Story

James Walker once lived on the streets of Las Vegas with his 9-year-old daughter, rummaging through dumpsters to stay alive. Now they're in transitional housing.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Recently on this program we've been airing stories about people whose fortunes have turned for the worse. They have lost their jobs or their homes. Today, though, we bring you this profile of a man who once was homeless and jobless, but now James Walker of Las Vegas is working and he has a place to live, but some habits from his past are proving hard to break. Producer Adam Burke brings us his story.

ADAM BURKE: When James Walker was evicted from his apartment in 1997, he, his wife, and their 6-month-old daughter plunged into the free fall of homelessness.

Mr. JAMES WALKER (Telephone Survey Worker): It was a roller coaster feeling. One minute it was it's OK, we can manage through this, we'll find a way, and the next minute was feelings of dread and doom. We didn't know where to turn, and what to look for and how to look for it. We just kind of kept going from place to place to place.

BURKE: Walker admits he made countless mistakes and bad choices. He struggled with drug addiction. He spent some time in jail for petty crimes. After his wife left, he found himself raising a little girl by himself. He was determined not to giver her up. To keep her off the street, to make sure she was in a safe place every night, Walker relied on a circle of friends who could give her somewhere to stay.

Mr. WALKER: She needed a place to take a shower and a bath and go to the bathroom. She needed a bed to sleep in. She needed a place to have her clothes and all those regular things that a kid needs to give them a sense of security and stability.

BURKE: Meanwhile, Walker slept in garages, in backyards, under bushes...

Mr. WALKER: I existed on the fringes, and had to succeed at living on those fringes with fringe tactics.

BURKE: But if you can believe it, James Walker looks back on at least one of these fringe activities with pride. At a time when Las Vegas was blooming, Walker attuned himself to the ebb and flow of trash that accumulated in dumpsters and alleyways across the city. He became an expert gleaner, a super scavenger.

Mr. WALKER: I'm a legend for dumpster diving, for scrounging, for making something out of nothing. Everybody knew about me, everybody that ever did it or that was out there knew about me, that I did it and I did it well.

(Soundbite of car ride)

Mr. WALKER: If you go up here and turn left.

BURKE: Roaming boulevards, back streets, and cul-de-sacs with Walker is to see a city through fresh eyes.

Mr. WALKER: You go around for a while and you look in things, and once you recognize the pattern, then it becomes easy to project the days and the times when would be best to come buy and find something good. See like right here - see all these debris out here? It looks like it could be anything.

BURKE: Walker took an enterprising approach to dumpster diving, gathering food not just for himself, but for a number of families.

Mr. WALKER: I could find great quantities of food that was tossed out from the stores that was still dated, and take it to people and put it in their refrigerators. Some of it you would have to wash the containers off because it would be mixed in with other stuff, but the containers would still be sealed or the packages would still be sealed.

Go right here. See that's' Akite(ph), getting food out of a dumpster. You get the stuff that's free of any debris (laughing) and other garbage. You don't want to eat garbage, you want to eat something worth eating. And go left in the alley. People are probably going yuck or gross or whatever, but let me tell you what, I ate like a king. I eat shrimp, I eat flank steak, I had fillet mignon, I had clams and oysters, I've had gallons and gallons of milk, cheese, cases of eggs that had one or two broken eggs inside of them, so they throw the whole case away, and there would be 240 eggs in this case. What's wrong with those eggs?

BURKE: And it wasn't just food, he gathered items he could resell - books, appliances, toys. On a few lonely acres of asphalt behind a big box store, Walker leans on a dumpster and recounts some of his greatest finds. There was the autographed photo of Jackie Gleason that brought in 150 bucks, the set of vintage golf clubs, the chest full of old boy scout materials from the 1950s.

Mr. WALKER: I can't tell you the good feeling it gave me to be in a dumpster and finding stuff in it. I don't care about the mess, I don't care about people with their remarks and comments. Kids would call me names or people would stand out there and say, what are you doing in that dumpster or whatever? I'd say I'm having a good time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: Dumpster diving gave his life definition, a daily sense of purpose. It sustained him in the most literal sense, and he was accountable to no one, no one that is except for his daughter, Amy.

Mr. WALKER: The only structure I made possible in my life was her school. She was there on time every day. She did her school work every day.

BURKE: Most mornings, Walker would bring his daughter to school in a trailer he pulled behind his bike and then he'd pick her up in the afternoon. As she got older, Amy grew more aware and more embarrassed by their living circumstances. He had to get them a place and give up the life he'd made.

Mr. WALKER: I couldn't expect to have a wife, a girlfriend, or my daughter, or anybody else as long as I was living like that, because I couldn't be dependable, I couldn't be counted on, I couldn't be there. I was always somewhere else.

BURKE: In 2006, Walker got himself enrolled in a program for chronically homeless people in Las Vegas. It offered drug rehabilitation and help with food and housing, but he needed to kick the dumpster diving habit. He even signed a contract promising that he would no longer scavenge things. And the first time he had to pass by a pile of someone's discarded possessions...

Mr. WALKER: It felt bad. It felt wrong. It felt odd. It felt - it felt like I was walking away from something that was put there just for me. What am I doing?

BURKE: But he stuck with it and eventually grew accustomed to going through the front door of a supermarket instead of rummaging around in the dumpster outback. Now, James Walker and his daughter Amy live in subsidized housing. He has a part-time job doing telephone surveys and he is getting some government assistance. He's got a girlfriend, and there are some new challenges to deal with.

(Soundbite of people eating breakfast)

Mr. WALKER: You remember when you went dumpster diving with me?

Ms. AMY WALKER: No, I didn't.

BURKE: Over breakfast at a Denny's near their house, father and daughter talk about the past. Amy doesn't like to admit they were homeless, and that her dad used to dig through trash for a living.

Ms. WALKER: Two of my friends know about my whole life.

BURKE: She's afraid that her classmates might find out and look down on her.

Ms. WALKER: Like that I'm not good enough to be their friend.

Mr. WALKER: You'll be OK, baby. It's nothing to be ashamed of. She's embarrassed by it and she doesn't have the understanding of the character that it built in her for real yet. She will someday.

BURKE: But the majority of Amy's attention seems focused on the present and the future. Like most 11-year-old girls, she wants things - a new camera, a bigger home. In fact, just the other day, she saw the perfect house right down the street and she wants her dad to buy it.

Ms. WALKER: It's a really big house. It has a pool in the backyard, it has a huge kitchen, and all the floors are new, a big backyard. It's pretty.

Mr. WALKER: Baby, right now we got the best we've ever had. If we can get better, that'll be great. But, realistically, we'll be lucky to be able to stay off the streets and in home (laughing). Things are tight right now.

BURKE: Things are tight, but they're mostly better for James Walker and his daughter. Still he can't help looking back with a bit of longing to his former life on the fringes.

Mr. WALKER: I miss it a lot. I gave up something that was an important part of me. I like the variety of life that it offered, a variety of things that it gave me to play with and experience on a daily basis. It's like finding a Spanish galleon and treasure chest full of Spanish doubloons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

COHEN: Day to Day returns in a moment.

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