Jim Thompson has walked the streets of Skid Row for decades. Starting in 1971 when he was a letter carrier and delivered mail to SRO Housing Corporation offices and continuing today as he walks, slowed by lung disease, through the community that has been his home since 1995.He takes a moment to glance out the window of the community room in the Florence Hotel. It is SRO Housing Corporation’s first residential property and the home where Jim has settled in and started over. The streets of Skid Row roil beyond the window. Traffic hums, a near-constant westward flow, the sidewalk is crowded with loiterers: drug users, hustlers and street-dwellers as well as a promenade of community members from nearby service providers. Inside, it is quiet and Jim is in a thoughtful mood.
“For more than twenty years, I carried mail while I was smoking drugs. Cocaine was my drug of choice. When you’re down here, you get what’s available here. It’s walking distance, you get it.”
Jim admits that the deepest regret of his life was the end of his career with the postal service, “My union was trying to help, but when you’re a user, you don’t care. They fought for my job but I started using again and I couldn’t go back. I gave up. I retired at 55. It was not what I wanted to do. I felt so bad about that. By the grace of god, I was never arrested. I’m proud of never having been in jail.”
Instead, Jim spent years imprisoned by his drug habit, using during the day and sleeping in Skid Row missions at night, “I didn’t have a place to be during the day but I never, not one time, I never slept on the streets. I didn’t want to have someone coming up and killing me. Sleeping in the mission was bearable. I had a roof over my head, I had a bed. I didn’t mind sleeping with a lot of people as long as we weren’t in the same bed.”
He struggled through failed attempts at sobriety and shudders at the memory of the state he was in when his family found him to inform him of a death in the family, “I would have lived on the streets and died there but my daughter and my ex-wife came looking and found me.”
Finally, he was ready to make a change. He spent a winter at SRO Housing’s Panama Hotel in the cold weather program, then moved to the Florence Hotel where he has been ever since. “It’s better than being out there. I haven’t used for nine years. I stopped smoking cigarettes too. I have COPD.” Jim pauses to catch his breath before shuffling down the hall to climb a short flight of steps from the community kitchen and TV room to his room on the 2nd floor where he will place a call to his son later in the day, “My son still loves me. Now I have a phone and I call him like we’re around the corner. I never alienated myself from my family. I would rather die than do anything to hurt them.”
Family remains important to him. One of two sets of twins and six children raised by a single mother, Jim puzzles at his son and daughter who have not yet had children, “They’re heck when they’re little but when they’re grown, you want your kids to see you.”
It was not always that way. When he was using drugs, he isolated himself from family, “For me, my Christmas was…I didn’t talk to anybody. You do a lot of thinking on Christmas when you’re alone in your room. I am not a religious person, but I didn’t do this on my own. God helped me. God let me live long enough to get clean.”
Jim is enjoying his sobriety with the benefits of Vietnam-era military service in the Air Force. He avoided combat duty by serving in the Philippines and at March Air Force base, “If you signed up, you didn’t have to go to the front lines. I served a full four years. I enjoyed it very much.”
Despite his past challenges and ongoing health problems, Jim is enjoying his life at the Florence Hotel, “I have a bad heart, I have COPD and still I have to say I’m feeling a lot better now that I have VA benefits and I qualified for Social Security.”
With a laugh, and a subtle cough, he smoothes the shopping bag at his side, “I got myself some shoes today and I got a haircut.” He plans to slip into the shoes and try them out with a walk down the hallway as he thinks about his goals for the future, “I want to keep living until I get real old so they can keep giving me my Social Security money.”
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