It’s the day after the Fourth of July, and Greg Sullivan is talking politics with a middle-aged couple near the corner of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street in Ocean Beach. Not for kicks, mind you—he’s collecting signatures in hopes of helping get Ralph Nader on the ballot in November. In a couple of days, Sullivan is scheduled to fly to Idaho to join a similar effort there.
He’s homeless, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t motivated.
Sullivan, a young-looking 40 years old (“It could be the lifestyle,” he jokes), says he’s gained perspective in his eight years without a home on the way human beings in unfortunate circumstances are treated. He talks pointedly about Esmin Green, the mentally ill woman who last month died alone and sprawled on the floor of the Kings County Medical Center emergency room in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“That’s just beyond sick,” he says. “People are so friggin’ numb.”
Sullivan, you see, is up on current events. He spends hours each day online at the public library and reading at Border’s—where he makes sure to spend a little money on coffee while he’s there. He says homelessness has made him a whole lot smarter, better-informed and far more civic-minded than he ever was.
He knew nothing of Nader in 2000, the year the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George W. Bush and Sullivan moved to San Diego from Quincy, Mass. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was the year when he would last work a full-time job. In a thick New England accent, Sullivan talks of his traditional upbringing in an Irish Catholic family of eight, his Jesuit education at Loyola College in Maryland and his accounting career, including a stint at Putnam Investments, which “was not fun at all—really dog-eat-dog to the extreme,” he says. “Friday was pizza day, and they’d bring in not enough pizza. They’d want you to fight for the pizza.”
Despite his independent streak and his decreasing satisfaction with corporate America, he had every intention of gaining full-time employment upon his arrival in San Diego. But each time his résumé went out, it was ignored. For about a year, he lived in a residential hotel, but without income, he was forced to live out of his Honda Civic, occasionally being startled awake in the middle of the night by a firm tap-tap-tap of a cop’s flashlight. He tried his luck in Phoenix but returned before long.
The Honda’s gone now—donated to the Rescue Mission—and Sullivan sleeps on the street at the corner of Third Avenue and Ash Street Downtown. There’s a guy he talks politics with, but, otherwise, he doesn’t interact much with other homeless men and women. He says he’s been arrested for illegal lodging nine times, totaling 49 days in jail.He’s long since decided to seek part-time bookkeeping gigs; he lands one every once in a long while through craigslist. Things would be easier, he notes, if he could afford a phone.
“I want to work,” he says.
Last Thursday, he earned a pretty good chunk o’ change subjecting himself to a 12-hour athlete’s-foot study in Kearny Mesa. “I got a room with a computer while they scrape my jail feet,” he said in an e-mail in the midst of the study.Sullivan is polite and friendly and says he tries to make the best of a “miserable existence.”
A large portion of homeless people are mentally ill or substance-addicted, and he’s heard the comments: “If you’re living on the streets, you know, something’s wrong,” he says. “You have to confront that. I’m not a perfect person, by any means, but I shouldn’t be on the streets.”Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.