July 27 2011 10:49 AM

What kept a homeless man on the street until his death?

Illustration by Adam Vieyra
Marvin Bradshaw's death on May 8 wasn't too out of the ordinary. According to the county Medical Examiner, he was one of more than 30 homeless men and women who've died in San Diego County so far this year. At 52, he was roughly the average age of homeless decedents in the county over the last 18 months (49) and his cause of death (heart disease) is that group's most common killer (alcoholism and acts of violence come in second and third, respectively).

Neither is Bradshaw's reason for being on the street unique: medical bills. His mother's only living known relative, Bradshaw quit work as a voiceover actor sometime in 2001 to care for her when she started losing her sight and hearing. Alta Bradshaw died, records show, in 2003.

“She left behind a bunch of medical bills that Secure Horizons and Medi-Cal didn't cover,” Bradshaw told a group of SDSU graduate students in 2009. “I wasn't going to leave my mom with any type of a bad name.”

Bradshaw sold his car, maxed out his credit cards and sold off all his investments, he told the students. He ran out of money and became homeless in 2005.

In East Village, it takes only a few minutes to find someone who knew Bradshaw. Walk past the two guys sleeping along 16th Street on a warm Thursday afternoon and another guy who's been homeless for only a week and is still learning who's who and what's what. Around the corner, on G Street, Kevin and Thelma are standing near their camp.

They knew Bradshaw, they say, but Thelma points to Sean, who sits less than half a block away. Sean, she says, knew him even better. Barefoot, Thelma walks carefully to avoid bits of broken glass over to where Sean—who declined to give his last name—and Randy Kirkland are sitting.

“A gentle giant,” is how Kirkland describes Bradshaw.

“It was a true honor to know the man,” Sean says. “He would give you the shirt off his back, though you might have to cut it in half because you could make two. He was such a caring and giving person.”

Bradshaw was indeed a big guy. He stood probably 6-foot-3, maybe a little taller, and weighed around 240 pounds. The Medical Examiner's office determined his death to be the result of hypertensive cardiovascular disease. It appears that he died in his sleep under the C Street bridge, near City College.

Sean notes the significance of May 8. “He went and saw his mother for Mother's Day,” he says.

“That was a beautiful thing.”

In April 2009, Erika Hess and Adriana Villa, who were working on their master's degrees in counseling at SDSU, invited Bradshaw and Rufus Hannah to speak to their class. (Hannah was one of the stars of the Bumfights videos, but he's since gotten sober and works as an advocate for homeless rights.) Hess, who's now a mental-health clinician, says she and Villa initially planned to survey folks on the street about their experiences with social-services programs and use that information to find out how programs might be improved. But there was something about Bradshaw that brought them back more than half a dozen times to talk to him.

“He was kind of like a community organizer,” almost a spokesperson for other folks on the street, Hess recalls. “He was just so willing to talk about everything and anything.”

Hess and Villa filmed the class session with Bradshaw and Hannah and posted it to YouTube in a series of 12 10-minute videos. Bradshaw does most of the talking. A voracious reader, he told the class the same thing he'd tell me (I first met Bradshaw in 2008) when I asked if there was anything in particular he was looking for, book-wise: “If you come across any paleontology or quantum physics….”

It wasn't unusual to find Bradshaw, sitting in his green chair, with several guys nearby, all reading books. Some of the guys were former addicts who'd sobered up under his watch.

Richard Salmon says he often wondered what someone like Bradshaw was doing without a home. Salmon and his wife, Pauline, a retired couple, hand out water and snacks to homeless folks.

“The mystery always, to me,” Richard says, “why anyone who was loaded down with so much talent, why he would be on the street.” He describes Bradshaw as having a “razzle-dazzle kind of eloquence and the voice to go with it. And in that sandwich, he had that intelligence.”

“Anyone who wants to get off the street can get off the street,” Bradshaw told the SDSU class. “Nobody's going to change and not be homeless unless they want to. It doesn't make any difference how much help comes out there. It's up to that individual person that wants to change.”

Bradshaw told the class he wanted a place of his own where he could get a good night's sleep and read his books. He wanted to get back into voiceover work, but since he'd had to cut short contracts when his mom got sick, he worried he'd been blacklisted. He had a job at Target for a short time, working as a cashier, and a bed at Father Joe's Villages.

“They make it so hard for you to hold a job,” he said of Father Joe's. “You have to jump through a lot of hoops and a lot of red tape to get what they call a ‘curfew waiver' so you can be out past the bed-check time…. My counselor told me that the job I was doing was not a steady job and I needed to find some other type of work where I could make more money and have steady hours.”

But he quickly qualified his criticism of Father Joe's.

“They handle a lot of caseloads, so I think sometimes there may need to be a little bit of a more of a need for some fresh faces in there, ones that aren't already burned out or maybe stressed out on the job.”

Hess went back and reviewed the video before being interviewed for this story, and she notes the paradoxes in what Bradshaw told the class: It was easy to get off the street if you wanted to, he'd say, but at the same time, homelessness was, he said, “a trap.”

“He would talk about other people, but he was also talking about himself, about not having the motivation to get off the street,” she recalls. “It's interesting looking back—he was talking about how he wanted to get on with his life…. He was thinking about it but not really ready to act on it.”

“We all need something to get us out of that bed, to get us going,” Bradshaw told the class, “to feel like you're worth something, to feel like you're needed.”

Richard Salmon thinks that, ultimately, the folks on the street were the family that Bradshaw had lost and the people he needed around him to keep going. (The Medical Examiner's office has tried for the last two months to find a next-of-kin before it has to turn Bradshaw's body over to the Public Administrator for cremation.)

“His definition of home is where the family is, and his family was on the street,” Salmon said. “He brought light to the streets; he was the captain of a rudderless ship.”

Write to kellyd@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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