When asked why he is homeless, Kelly Johnson, 51, answers without hesitation, “I’ve been homeless since I was a child.”
Growing up in various parts of the country, Johnson never had a stable home. His stepfather was an alcoholic, and his mother was often too busy with work.
When he was 8, Johnson was sitting at the kitchen table while his 11-year-old sister made him oatmeal for breakfast. When she reached over for some ingredients, her polyester skirt caught onto the oven coil, and she was burned from her neck to her knees. To this day, Johnson remembers the horrific echo of her screams.
Between her job and hospital visits to Johnson’s sister, Johnson’s mother was overwhelmed and often sent him to live with different relatives temporarily — until one day, she sent him away permanently. He was 13.
From then on, Johnson ended up staying in various emergency shelter cares until he could be placed in a foster home or sent to live with another relative. His mother was nowhere to be found.
“Looking back on it, I think (my mother) really tried … but when she sent me away, it’s like she was saying she couldn’t deal with this, so you deal with it,” Johnson says.
At the age of 15, Johnson had no idea what to expect when he spontaneously decided to hitchhike hundreds of miles from Astoria, Ore., to Los Angeles. There, in the city, he spent the night huddled in a sleeping bag in a vacant parking lot.
“I don’t know if I cried — tears of fear, sadness,” Johnson recalls. “I got woken up when someone kicked me in the head.”
It would be only one of the many nights that he would spend sleeping outside.
When he turned 18, unsure of where to go, Johnson turned to the U.S. Navy and spent two years with the U.S.S. Seattle. He was never deployed overseas, but he was comforted by how structured the Navy was and by taking part in a public service.
Since he left the Navy in 1981, Johnson held a number of jobs, from working as a crew boat member to fishing to driving a truck. From the mid-1980s to the 1990s, Johnson spent the years following the Grateful Dead band on their tour from city to city, selling his beadwork and vending food at concerts to pay for food.
Although Johnson stayed in veterans’ housing in 2004 in Sacramento, he has not stayed in a shelter since then, instead choosing to stay outside on the streets.
Johnson’s situation is not unusual. According to Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home, a nonprofit that seeks to end homelessness, many are not comfortable living with the rules demanded by congregate living areas.
“The longer you are homeless, the harder it is to break out of that,” de Coligny says. “If they were offered a permanent rental unit … I’d say most folks would choose to go inside.”
According to the most recent count of Berkeley’s homeless population in 2009, about 28.2 percent were considered chronically homeless.
Johnson has been living in Berkeley since 2009, spending his nights sleeping in front of Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue and his days at People’s Park.
For about five to six hours each day, Johnson spends his time making his beaded necklaces, anklets and keychains. But Johnson’s artwork is more than just a hobby to pass the days. It’s his survival. He does not earn much — maybe about $20 one day and maybe nothing the next — but it has kept him from going hungry.
“He actually taught me how to (make beadwork),” says Mandy Inches, a friend of Johnson. “The patience he has to create those pieces is just amazing.”
Since meeting him four years ago, Inches has spent almost every day with Johnson. They often talk about the current events they hear from the small, old radio Johnson owns or read in the newspaper.
Johnson still struggles to define the one place to call home. In one way, home reminds him of the early years briefly spent with his family in Washington, with the chicken coop in the backyard that was later converted into a playhouse. In another, home reminds him of his long journey that ultimately led him to Berkeley.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me,” he says. After a long moment of silence, Johnson continues, “(Home is) where I’m content. I may not have a shelter, but I’m at home. Wherever I’m at, I’m pretty much at home.”