Meet Jay Wilson
Years in Tracy: Four
Years on the streets: Seven
For years, Jay Wilson was sick enough to die.
His liver was failing, his pancreas was diseased and his weight had plummeted to skeletal lows. The 57-year-old wanderer just wanted to rest.
But for one of Tracy’s uncounted homeless, daylight offered little reprieve.
Each night, Wilson waited in the shadows for the last employee to switch off the lights and lock up the Sleep Train Mattress Center on Grant Line Road.
As the last car pulled out of the parking lot, Wilson unrolled his sleeping bag under the eaves in a wind-sheltered nook to sleep.
Days before the New Year, though, things started to look up for Wilson. For starters, he finally found a place to stay.
His years on the streets had connected Wilson with volunteers from Tracy churches. A few years back, the homeless Tracy resident started going to Bible studies and attending Sunday services.
Then the Thursday after Christmas, Peggy Arnold, a woman he met through church, noticed a visible change in Wilson. His skin waxed whiter than usual. His hands shook.
The sun set early, and the church group that met in Arnold’s living room started filing out the front door. Outside, 40-degree winds whipped through leafless trees along Kavanagh Avenue.
Wilson readied the dolly that carried his every worldly possession, firmly strapped down by bungee cords, and started toward the door.
Arnold stopped him.
“It was so cold outside, and I knew he was sick,” said Arnold, a single grandmother, as she sipped hot tea alongside a fresh-scrubbed Wilson a week later. “I couldn’t imagine him going out there like that.”
Normally, Wilson would refuse help, especially from friends. But that night, his strength failed him.
He accepted her offer, and his stay marked the first time in seven years the sickly man had slept indoors — clean and warm, but deathly exhausted.
He slept almost straight through those first few days under a roof, Arnold said. She took him to the hospital after he woke, where he was treated for pancreatitis and a blood infection that had started in his sinuses.
Just a week later, three tree-toppling storms hit the valley. Arnold said she thanks God she took him in, or Wilson could have come down with pneumonia.
Meanwhile, with timing Arnold and Wilson credit to divine intervention, an East Coast appeals court this month overturned a ruling made four years ago by a San Joaquin County judge who denied Wilson’s request for Social Security income, alleging that the homeless man was not sick enough to merit that kind of support.
Wilson got his first check for $870 in the first week of the New Year, and, with it, subsidized health insurance — four years after he applied for and was denied coverage, which left him drifting in and out of county health clinics and emergency rooms.
With a fixed income, a pastor’s co-signature and a good word from several members of Grace Christian Center, Wilson has a few pending applications to rent studio apartments in town.
Though his situation’s shy of secure, prospects look brighter for Wilson than they have in decades.
Born to a middle-class family in Stockton, Wilson’s upbringing was, at first, hardly out of the ordinary. He graduated from high school on time, spent a couple of years at San Joaquin Delta College and transferred to California State University, Long Beach, to study sociology.
That’s where, he admits, his demons got the better of him.
College, Wilson said, was one long drug and alcohol binge. He dropped out a year short of graduating and moved back to Stockton with his high school sweetheart.
Wilson succumbed to his addictions for years. He held odd jobs here and there and bunked at friends’ apartments when he got the chance.
His parents died, and he lost touch with his brother and sister more than a decade ago.
A car accident in his early 20s left him with a crippled back, which worsened his addictions by adding prescription pain pills to the toxic mix of meth, booze and depression.
“It’s hard to remember everything then. It was all a blur,” said Wilson. “But I lost every material thing I had. And then I lost my health. I felt weak. I hurt inside.”
Unlike many homeless, who wander the streets because they stay slave to their addictions, Wilson hit the streets after giving his up a few years ago, physically sickened by them.
He was too weak to work and spent most of his time scouting for a place to sleep or begging for food money outside the Tracy Wal-Mart.
He avoided other homeless people and the crowded Stockton shelters.
“I just can’t relate to other street people,” he said. “I’m not criminally minded. I just tried to stay out of the way. I kept to myself.”
Business owners around town knew Wilson as a harmless loiterer and rarely called authorities on him. They knew, when he sat under the lights outside his favorite grocery and tire stores, it was because he needed the light to read his daily chapter in Proverbs.
“He’s a voracious reader,” Arnold said. “I even started reading a chapter a day like he does.”
Weeks have now flown by since he was taken in, and Wilson still sits in Arnold’s home. His yellow-white hair is clean and cut, his clothes are washed, and his gnarled hands are nimbler than usual after hours of guitar practice.
Arnold and Wilson are fast friends. With his time freed from scouting out an after-dark campsite, Wilson composes hymns on his guitar, his gravelly voice met by Arnold’s whispered prayers.
“I feel like I have a family now,” said Wilson, who writes songs about his pastors and other people in the congregation.
It’s where he says he belongs. In the church directory, Wilson’s photo is listed alphabetically, with everyone else’s.
“He’s got a great story, a great testimony,” said Michael Serrato, one of the church’s pastors. “He’s got three years of college education, but because of circumstances in life and bad decisions, he wound up on the streets. But he’s getting back on his feet again.”
The thought of having a place of his own is almost too much for Wilson to comprehend, he said.
“I won’t know the feeling until it happens,” he chuckled, rubbing a scabbed knuckle with one hand. “I’ve learned to live without for so long.”
In the Spotlight is a weekly profile in Our Town. This week’s interviewer was Our Town Editor Jennifer Wadsworth. To nominate someone to be In the Spotlight or to comment on this week’s column, call 830-4225, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.