About 30 years ago, Chuck Johnson decided to live out of his car.
The World War II veteran still remembers the date.
“I lived in my car since Sept. 8, 1988,” said Johnson, 90. “It’s a terrible thing, because it’s very inefficient, it’s unhealthy, it’s impractical – you have to go someplace to wash your clothes, someplace to get the books you want – everything is someplace else.
“But I chose that because I wanted to see what was going on in America.”
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Johnson traveled the country he had once served. He was newly divorced in 1988 and living on $700 a month.
He would park his car. Using a cane with a nail attached to the end, he picked up cans on the side of the road, then recycled them for money. At just 3 cents a can, he did not make much – even though he said he walked the equivalent of the distance from here to Washington, D.C., on secondary highways – but he always saw his bag of cans half-full.
“I brought in 160 pounds, and that translated into $98,” he said. “And when you don’t have anybody you can go to for help and you’re out of money, 3 cents a can looks pretty good.”
For the first time since Sept. 8, 1988, Johnson now has a place to call home.
Last week, Wichita police Officer Robert Bachman found Johnson living out of his broken-down car. The department’s Homeless Outreach Team helped connect Johnson to Passageways, a transitional housing program for veterans in Wichita.
“He has lived in his car for 30 years, so I asked him ‘why now?’ ” said Jennifer Garrison, CEO and co-founder of Passageways. “He said, ‘I think it’s time I actually settle down and just stay.’ And I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ ”
Passageways finalized the purchase of its house – which can accommodate nine veterans – on Thursday. The organization has received more than $125,000 in donations from the Wichita community, along with mattresses, couches and other furniture.
“It is so exciting. We just can’t wait to see what is on the horizon,” Garrison said. “We want to grow and help more veterans.”
Typically, veterans stay at the Passageways house for about two months as the group helps them find their own place, a job and other benefits.
The organization, with the help of the Salvation Army and the Veterans Affairs Department, plans to help Johnson find a furnished apartment of his own.
Life in a car
Johnson, originally from Minneapolis, Minn., served stateside during World War II, keeping record of manuals and technical documents. He was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, before he was transferred to Fort Ord, Calif., where he was discharged in 1947.
Now he enjoys keeping record of nutrition and health information – which may be the secret to his good health at 90. He said he has studied nutrition for more than 1,000 hours.
He can tell you about the different vitamins and minerals found in Kansas wheat and why magnesium is so important to help his face “shine like an angel.”
When Johnson’s car broke down in Wichita, he had no money and no license nor other type of identification with him. He said he had been scammed in Oklahoma and had been traveling to get a new license.
People in the area of Central and Ash brought him sandwiches and water while he sat in his car – without a shirt on – in 90-degree weather.
He recalled living out of his car in freezing temperatures as well, such as a time near Liberal.
“That was – oh, I’ll never forget the weather – it was vicious,” he said. “Thirty-five, 40 days around Christmas time, the wind was so strong, and I didn’t have enough food to stay warm, I didn’t have enough blankets to keep warm – it was a tough time, you know. But it’s over and I’m happy. I’m still above ground.
“The nice thing about life is you know it’s going to be tough at times, but if you say to yourself ‘this, too, will pass,’ then you can keep a strong attitude. This is what veterans need to do.”
Ready to help
Now Johnson enjoys sleeping in his own bedroom, showering daily and savoring plenty of sandwich bread.
He also likes having ready access to a computer.
“You won’t know what it means to look at a computer, so I don’t have to go to the library to get information,” he said. “To be able to do it here saves so much time, and there’s so much information you want to know … so I’m grateful for that.”
His car has been fixed, thanks to the Wichita community who helped pay for the parts and to Peniston Automotive, who provided the labor for free.
“For whatever reason, those people took it upon themselves to pay my bill,” he said. “I don’t know why. All I did was keep my mouth shut, kept the place neat and clean, and that was it. I guess that’s enough for some people.”
Johnson said he hopes to help other veterans re-establish themselves.
“There has never been such a time in the history of this century when our country is so alert and so willing to help people get off the streets and get them into stable living conditions. Not only living, but work and establish them. This is what the veterans coming home don’t find, and it’s why 7,000 of them commit suicide each year. I could cry.
“When it comes time to help people here, I’ll be so glad to help them, because I received so much help from so many people over the years.”