CJ's been on the streets for 16 years. When you talk to him about it, there are two things that keep coming up: drinking beer and making people smile. He's constantly making jokes and waving to passersby while flying his big yellow sign that reads, "Wife + dog kidnapped by ninjas need $$ for kung-fu lessons I really want my dog back!" He's also a military vet, husband, father, and small business owner.
His story exemplifies the internal conflict of homelessness. How can a man who has known so much responsibility give it all up and live off of others? How can a person who feels real joy--to the point where he wants to share it with others--sink into periods of alcoholic depression? CJ is complicated, stubborn, and downright enjoyable. He's a hard man to figure out until you learn how he got here in the first place.
17 years ago CJ's wife was driving with their seven year old son when a drunk driver hit their car, killing them both. After the funeral CJ wasn't able to sleep in his house or work at the construction business he owned. He turned the business over to his foreman and sold the house along with everything he had except his truck. He bounced around for a year, holding odd jobs and moving in and out of his sister's place. The $80k he kept was spent on alcohol and motels. When the money ran out he happened to be in Austin, so one night he found shelter under the freeway overpass at 183 and Burnet and slept under some old blankets he found.
On the third day of shooting with CJ his mood had darkened noticeably. I figured it was the tall cans of Colt 45 that he and his buddies had started on early, so I didn't mention it. A couple hours into the day, he turned to me with tears in his eyes and told me that it was the anniversary of his wife and son's death. His son would be 23 years old.
After the beer, he went out to the corner with his sign and a big smile. He told frog jokes to a fellow vet in a big truck with a 'Trump' sticker and chatted warmly with a 20-something in a prius. Some people liked his sign, some people looked nervous and rolled up their windows. But CJ doesn't mind. To him it's just another day of surviving on the streets with a smile.