Even if 1996 had never occurred, James would be an extraordinary man. A Navy veteran, he wed the love of his life and enjoyed 18 years of marital bliss before she died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. He fathered a boy born with physical disabilities and extreme autism, and cared for him for almost two decades before being forced to place him in the violent ward of a psychiatric hospital.
James has two bachelor’s degrees and taught special education for 22 years, despite being one of the few men in the field. For a time, he even worked with profoundly intellectually disabled children—that most severe, 1-2 percent of the mentally disabled population with IQs of less than 25, for whom even basic communication is sometimes impossible.
But in 1994, James’s life started on a toxic, horror-movie decline. First, he was legally separated from his second wife. The next year, a hurricane completely destroyed his Florida home and almost claimed his life. And in November of 1996, a brutal car accident tore James apart, hospitalizing him for months and brutally rearranging his body. The Veteran, Special Ed. teacher, saintly father and heartbroken widower was now jobless and homeless, with a damaged body and even more hurt spirit.
Incapable of returning to the classroom or his normal life, James entered a homeless shelter in Panama City, where—despite still being on crutches—he worked as a security guard and deskman for four years. Once free of the crutches, James decided to set out on his own. He went to Colorado Springs, hoping to get a restaurant job, but quickly learned that he was “too old, too slow and too hurt” to be hired.
So James traveled south to Santa Fe, and found a job selling newspapers at the intersection of Osage and Hopi (where you can still see him today). He took up residence in a small room at the Thunderbird Inn, and things were looking up until his hip gave out—for the second time since the accident.
He sold papers on crutches for three more years, mostly thanks to an concrete archway just off the street that he’s able to lean on to rest his hip.
“I’ve very motivated, I tell you,” James says with humor.
Then he hurt his back, and despite his best efforts, James found himself struggling to make ends meet.
Cue Santa Fe Need and Deed. The organization, which SFR has previously highlighted, is relatively new to the city. Its first meeting was this February. But in just half a year it already has much to brag about. James connected with Need and Deed and was paired with Carol DeCosta, a Santa Fean who understood James’s plight better than most.
DeCosta had her own devastating car accident in 2004, which left her unable to continue her 30-year career as a paralegal. She also developed severe rheumatoid arthritis, and soon found herself struggling to pay the rent. Thankfully, her “landlords were saints”—their cooperation and DeCosta’s experience in the legal field allowed her to postpone paying her debts until she got back on her feet. With such a background, it only made sense for her to join Need and Deed.
“I read the first story that the Reporter wrote and was inspired, so I went to the first meeting [of SF Need and Deed] back in February. It spoke to me, and I realized I had something to contribute,” DeCosta says. “The problem [of homelessness] is huge and nationwide. But this is where we live.”
DeCosta is now the manager of the LLC, and works regularly with James, not only as a sponsor, but also as a trusted adviser, occasional chauffer and a friend.
In their time together, James and DeCosta have collaborated to get him a cellphone and para-transit license. He is also getting tooth replacement surgery for gum disease. And in 2013, James will finally get the hip replacement surgery he has needed for 16 years, since that fateful day in 1996.
What’s next for Need and Deed? The group is raising awareness and trying to expand their network to meet more needs. Decosta is also working on “getting our legal ducks in a row,” which improves their funding prospects.
“Our goal is to help people get back on their feet. If they can take over having their life work, and benefit in the long term, we’re happy. It’s very rewarding,” says DeCosta.
“Carol [DeCosta] took me to about six of these low-income housing projects around town. We found one, and I’m hopefully moving in on [August] 31st.”
“He is moving in. There’s no probably,” interrupts DeCosta. “It’s a handicap-accessible apartment with energy-efficient appliances and his own washer and dryer, and only $590 a month for the rent. ”
“And it’s all because of Carol,” says James with a grin.
Santa Fe Need and Deed meets Wednesdays at 4 pm at Christ Church Santa Fe, and welcomes interested Needers and Deeders. You do not have to attend meetings to donate or to be on the email list. Call 920-2227 for more information. And as DeCosta says “No matter how bad the circumstances are, there’s always something to give back, even if it’s just a smile.”