Randy Ferris, 62, has a huge smile. He likes to reflect on his days with fellow Marines, and adventures on the streets of San Diego, punctuating those stories with that big grin, and a pause for a toke on his pipe. “Attitude is everything,” he said, leaning against the tall wooden door of a boarded up theater downtown. “I choose to have a good attitude.”
Born in Rhode Island to a military family, he remembers moving constantly. The instability made it hard to keep friends, and the sense of disconnectedness created an instability that affected his ability to focus in school. He was always a little ahead or a little behind the curve. After going through ninth grade twice, and have a rough start with tenth grade, he decided to join “the toughest of the tough,” and signed up with the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17. “You learn better by living life that you do reading about it,” he said.
His father and uncles had been in the military, so they approved. Randy has an older brother who later joined the U.S. Navy, a younger brother (“he went to college, thought he was better than the rest of us!”), and two younger sisters. After a stint at Camp Lejeune, he was on a ship in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Vietnam for a long tour during the years of 1972-75 when the Nixon Administration was bombing Hanoi, then evacuating the last American troops from Saigon.
Ironically, he received an undesirable discharge because he was singled out for smoking marijuana, which, technically, was against the rules, but was everywhere in the military, especially in Vietnam. He was 21 when he was discharged, and just a little angry about life, especially considering the way returning veterans were treated at the time in America.
He tried to strangle someone who got on his bad side, and spent 15 years in prison thinking about how to better manage his temper. “I used to just act without thinking,” he said. “I’m not like that any more.”
Since getting out of prison, he’s been on the streets in San Diego. He lived out of a van for many years, loving the proximity to the beaches, the mountains and desert. Life was good, until he got pulled over and police found marijuana in his glove box. So it was back to prison for Randy, and the loss of his license. He hasn’t driven for 14 years at this point. He figured it’s better to avoid the potential of being pulled over again while under the influence. He carries a medical marijuana license now.
“I had to curb my attitude and my smoking weed because if I get one more felony it’s prison for life,” he said, that big grin dimming for just a second. “I’d rather be homeless than go to prison for doing something stupid.”
An avid music lover, he quotes lyrics by Pink Floyd, Robin Trower, The Doors and Humble Pie. He related a story about a group of migrants that came through their camp one night, thirsty and hungry and wanting directions to Los Angeles. “We gave them water and some food, and pointed them north,” he said laughing. “They really freaked us out at first, stumbling into camp late at night. Don’t know where they came from, but we told them how to find L.A.”
He feels secure in the camp he’s established with another veteran. He has no desire to go indoors, even if there is a program for veterans specifically to help with that. “Veterans out here, we watch each other’s back. I’m so used to being out here, what do I need a house for? I just want a check so I can buy a new van.”
Randy said he feels city government is just treating homelessness like a game. “The rich get richer off federal dollars, and the poor just get poorer,” he said.