Homeless Student Embraces Adversity

Photo: Kayla Cytron-Thaler

22-year-old Cabrillo student finds value in homeless life


What are the stakes you’d be willing to gamble to transform? How far can someone push themselves? How daring are you willing to be?

We all watched teary-eyed as Emile Hirche, who portrayed Christopher McCandless in the biographic film “Into the Wild,” paid the ultimate price after roaming out into Alaska to find his ultimate truth. The Beatles went to Reshikesh, India, in 1968 to study transcendental yoga; that resulted in their wildly innovative “White Album.” Jack Kerouac’s path led him “On the Road” –  escaping what is comfortable to discover something new.

James Seckelman, 22, has spent nearly a year-and-a-half living in his car on the streets of Santa Cruz, he said. He’s taking 17 units in his first semester at Cabrillo, aiming for a double major in computer science and business at Cal Poly or San Jose State.

He posted a flier to gather students who are homeless, and the Voice met Seckelman there to ask about his life.

Seckelman said his case differs from other students he met at the meeting. “For me, I have the luxury of returning home anytime I want.”

Seckelman is homeless by choice, he says.

“The entire purpose of moving was for maturity. And to experience things I hadn’t attained yet,” he said. After leaving his upper-middle class life in San Diego, he spent a couple months up in Portland, Oregon.  He made his way down to Santa Cruz. That first night in his car was hell.

“I remember I was in tears,” he said. “I had to park because my headlight was out. I didn’t want to risk getting pulled over by the cops. … I parked in a Wal-Mart, and it was somewhere up north. The temperature dropped to, like, 23 degrees. I didn’t have a blanket or a pillow. It was a really hard night, and the following day I drove to Santa Cruz.”

Seckelman quickly learned how to adjusted his life to make it somewhat easier, but first he took the help offered. “When I first came to Santa Cruz, I had about $200. I needed resources that would provide me food. So fortunately, I came to the right place because there is so many homeless.” He went to places like the Homeless Service Center in downtown. “The services they provide are amazing. If you need blankets they give you blankets. If you need shoes – whatever you need.”

Seckelman made a survival bunk out of his 2006 Toyota Matrix.

“I bought a little camp-set-stove,” he said, “I built, out of wood and nails, a little cooking station in my car. Prior to that, I went to a fabric store and bought black nylon and cut it into the shape of my windows in my car, and sowed magnets too, so they’ll clip onto the sides of my car windows, so I have more privacy at night.”

Shortly after arriving he got two jobs to support himself. “It’s very inconvenient to go to McDonald’s or Macy’s to shave your face, but you do what is necessary.” Seckelman got work at the Gap and Laili Restaurant with a 25-hour work week.

“As long as you’re presentable no one can see past that – it’s like an illusion,” Seckelman said about maintaining his appearance to keep a job. “If they ask where you live, I have a set address. But because I couldn’t be like, ‘You should come over and crack open a few beers or something,’ it’s been difficult to make friends.”

Seckelman finds this a great challenge with his lifestyle, he said. “I mean it would be nice to have a girlfriend or something, but you got to take the girl out, got to spend time with her…”

Time is something that Seckelman is constantly battling. “Everything at this point is on a set schedule. My entire week is planned around it. Certain times to study, certain times to shower – down to the hours to eat and hours to sleep.”

That rigid confinement has taken a toll on Sechelman, he said, socially and emotionally.  “You feel like an outcast; even though this is Santa Cruz, you don’t think they’ll be understanding. They kind of frown upon that lifestyle.”

A feeling of “inadequacy” and “incompetence” stalks Seckelman’s new lifestyle. “I have to try incredibly hard to maintain good grades while I see my other classmates with an easier time achieving what I need to work harder for,” he said.

So why doesn’t he just rent a room? “I don’t want to live in a house because I hate the concept of rent. I think it is pointless. … I don’t think that half of our month’s income should go towards rent, or even a third. I think that’s bullshit, so I guess I’m rebelling against that,” he said.

Yet, for Seckelman, it is not just about saving money. “When you have to survive, all these things become more relevant, and actually, you do want to commit to bettering yourself.” Seckelman said he’d felt unmotivated and “apathetic” in his “privileged,” “sheltering” home life, he said.

“It is through the struggle that you realize that outside the sheltered life of your parents, this is how the world really works, and to get out of this situation you have to try harder.”

And though he has spent more than a year homeless, Seckelman said he isn’t quite where he wants to be, mentally. But after this semester, he is returning home.

“I have a much greater appreciation for my parents, my family and the things I take for granted, like a sink and a proper stovetop.”