Each day brings a new goal for Jonathan Arevalo
Jonathan Arevalo has no steady job, but he makes money Dumpster diving in the early morning hours. He collects old cans and glass bottles to sell to a recycling plant.
“I met these guys that collect cans and you’d think that they’re just bums. But they work their asses off. And they have a structure, they have a system. ... They have a route that hits apartment buildings mainly. Really the bars are where it’s at. Especially on weekends,” said Arevalo. “We have to work early before the garbage men come.”
He and his partners receive 50 cents a pound. It’s not much, but Arevalo cares about the environment and with no stable housing, he finds himself in direct contact with it.
Every morning he wakes at 6 a.m. to clean the Capitol Hill parking lot where he sleeps.
“I get up and police my area, meaning I pick up all the garbage from everybody and I put all my stuff away. I pack my [stuff] and I’m gone by 6:15.”
Then he gets started on a goal. It may be a doctor’s appointment, a trip to the nonprofit Saint Francis House for a new set of clothes or applying for Social Security.
“I set one goal, one official thing that I need to do to get my life back together. And then I accomplish it.”
It’s with this discipline that Arevalo hopes to find a way out of homelessness.
“It’s a lot of work trying to survive when you have nothing and no means [of getting there].”
At 43, he has lived on the streets for much of his life.
Arevalo grew up on Bainbridge Island and joined the military at 17. He served for two years in the infantry strike force at Fort Lewis. But the short gig introduced him to drugs and provoked old memories of an abusive childhood.
“I should have gone elsewhere because being so close to home, it just brought me problems. I was always running up here [to Seattle] doing nefarious activities,” he said. “I absolutely hated my time in the military.”
His abusive past made him constantly afraid and socially inept.
“They wanted to teach me how to kill people…” Arevalo said. “But it ended up screwing with my head and I ended up being bipolar through that and excessive drinking and drug use.”
He believes that his time in the military and the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that he experienced shortly thereafter, triggered his bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by mood swings.
Music, old memories and segments of conversation can sometime spark periods of severe mania or depression.
“I’ll start crying uncontrollably and I mean I can be at a funeral and start bursting out laughing. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll think of something silly and just start laughing.”
When he was younger, Arevalo moved constantly, everywhere from Santa Barbara, Calif. to Phoenix, Ariz. His bipolar disorder made it difficult to find a job and settle down.
“I didn’t have my medication for a long time and I would self-medicate with alcohol,” he said. “Now I’m kind of strung out on it ... That’s such a miserable feeling.”
In the meantime, Arevalo gets by with a bottle of medication his mother sent him. After being extradited from Canada for expired traffic fines and drinking while riding his bike, he says he wants to demonstrate to his mother that he is now staying out of trouble.
“She helps me from time to time. But she already raised me once, that’s not fair.”
Arevalo holds himself accountable for his own decisions.
“I’m getting back on my feet here, by myself, whatever it takes.”
Though he is close with his mother, Arevalo has difficulty forming relationships with his peers on the streets.
“I don’t like relationships with other people. I don’t like relationships with anybody, because I always get hurt. ... I have a soft touch and I want to do things for other people and I get taken advantage of.”
Arevalo explained that he is sometimes embarrassed by his bipolar disorder. When he can sense the onset of a mood swing, he’ll remove himself from the situation and “take off in the opposite direction.”
His mental illness has also forced him to make some changes. He says of his days of doing drugs: “I gave that up. I can’t afford it anymore, not financially but mentally. ... I could have it all back in a second, but I refuse to do that to people. I’ve seen the big picture. And I’m not that person.”
He has learned to diffuse these darker moments with humor and light-heartedness.
Arevalo recalls one volatile encounter with the owner of a clothing store near where he sells Real Change. When the owner asked him to leave, Arevalo refused because he knew that as long as he remained within the confines of the sidewalk, he was irreproachable. To shake off the confrontation, he began dancing to the techno music playing outside the store.
“I just started boogie dancing. And I cannot dance, it’s just a horrible sight,” he said, dryly. “But it makes people laugh and that makes me so happy. And I don’t care what people think of me. People started reaching out to me.”
Standing outside Peet’s Coffee & Tea on Capitol Hill, he phones his mother to let her know that everything is all right. At his feet are his bicycle, a backpack and a folded sleeping mat.
Arevalo hopes that one day he’ll be able to find the right medication to make him more employable. When asked where he sees himself five years from now, Arevalo is very pragmatic. He explains that he must first apply for Social Security. Using his benefits check, he’ll then purchase several vehicles at a car auction, fix them up and sell them for double the value.
Though Arevalo’s bipolar disorder makes it difficult to hold down a job, it hasn’t kept him from cracking jokes. He insists that humor is the best way to connect with people, even when his illness can create barriers.
“Do you know why blind people don’t skydive?” he jests. “Because it scares the hell out of the dog. That cracks people up to no end.”
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