Ten weeks after Jeff Burrell was born in rural NE Ohio his Welsh-Apache mother handed him over to his French-Canadian father and left.
His father was a womanizer, and over a lifetime of 14 marriages total, according to Jeff more than once hewas married to three different women at once. Jeff, now 62, has several step-brothers and sisters, but he earned the role of “punching bag,” for everything that went wrong in his father’s life, mentally, physically or financially.
When his father was between wives, Jeff went to live with his paternal grandmother, who taught him to respect other people, especially women, and to love reading. Jeff’s school grades were always good. He loved sports, excelling in both football and springboard diving. His father was jealous, Jeff said, having always gotten Ds in school and never doing well at any sport.
When Jeff was 17 he wanted to enlist in the military so he could leave home. The Coast Guard offered him the first possible entry date, so he went there. His father sign off on it. His high school let him graduate early.
He spent three years and four months, mostly on an icebreaker in northern Alaska or the Antarctic. As an engine man, it was often 110 degrees indoors, but subzero outside. He was glad to get out because, “the only females out there were penguins.”
Arriving home after his service, when exiting the airport a kid throwing a snowball knocked his dress cap off his head and he decided right then he needed to live somewhere warm. He flipped a quarter and ended up near Tampa, Florida driving a forklift in warehouses as well as driving sanitation truck, until a rat as long as his forearm crawled up his leg. “We called it a Scandinavian Wolf Rat. It was big enough to put a saddle on and ride.” About that time his father needed heart surgery so he went home for a while, to help the family make ends meet.
In the blizzard of 1978, when people in Ohio were stranded for days, he crawled out a window, found his way to the Red Cross center and offered his services. His knowledge of shortcuts through the city’s streets were useful in delivering emergency medicines and food. He was teamed up with another volunteer, whom he later married. They had two children. Though the marriage broke up after 13 years when she got pregnant by another man, he stays in touch with his children and five grandchildren through Facebook.
About his wife cheating, he said, “Discretion is the better part of valor. I needed to put some real estate between us.” Out came that quarter again. This time he ended up in Missouri at a poultry packing plant. Until a record ice storm killed all the breeding hens. Company officials said it would be six months before there was any work, so he kept moving and came to California.
Jeff kept in shape doing martial arts. Admitting he has a temper and a Napoleon complex, “I used to fight people just because they were on the same side of the street I was on,” he said. “About 99% of the time I could beat a bigger guy because I understand how to use leverage. They called me Jeff ‘The Wrath’ Taft.”
In San Diego he found work quickly driving a forklift. Things were going well until he was in a car accident in Mexico. His boss wanted paperwork from the doctor, which Jeff couldn’t get because he didn’t have the money to pay the doctor and the doctor wouldn't sign any paperwork without money. So, along came an illicit offer to smuggle people and pot across the border. He quit his job and gave it a try. But that only landed him in the first of two federal and two state prison sentences. The other infractions were for grand theft auto, where he’s steal cars in Pacific Beach and sell them in Tijuana for parts.
It was in prison that he learned the prescription drugs he was taking to handle a diagnosis of environmental stress, were not only heavily over-prescribed, but that the diagnosis was wrong. He is actually bipolar, and the new medication has made him a calmer, less angry person.
Out of prison he went to VVSD, the Veteran’s Village of San Diego, where he fell over a table one day in the cafeteria, suffering from clogged arteries. Revived, the doctors discovered not one but three blockages. He ended up with triple bypass surgery in 2011. Physically recovering from the surgery and finishing his two-year program at VVSD, the VASH housing program tried to set him up with HUD-funded housing. But Jeff was always too late to get to a landlord’s door to file his application, he said, since he was limited to public transportation. His case worker said he was now someone else’s case and she couldn’t help him. “I felt ostracized and abandoned by the VA, like I was between a dog and a fire hydrant,” he said.
He did end up finding a landlord who would give him a chance. But when that landlord died and his wife took over management, Jeff was out. She didn’t like that he had female visitors after hours, he said, while cutting an empty water carton into a water dish for his dog Billie Jack.
He’s been living on the streets, under a tarp in The Bottoms, for two years now. “I’ll do anything I can to get me four walls and a roof,” he said. “I hope that comes soon.”