This is the first in a series of stories that profile people who are homeless in Turlock, their daily struggles and efforts to improve their lives.
He says he was born in Minnesota, grew up in San Jose, and ran businesses in Los Angeles. He says he played professional baseball in Philadelphia, a shortstop who once faced off against Nolan Ryan.
He says he had a great life going.
But now, Kent Kelley is homeless, drunk, and a frequent target of violence on the streets.
“It’s hard to describe why I’m in the situation I am,” Kelley said. “I love people so much, and bad things happen sometimes.”
It all started when Kelley went to Las Vegas, back in 2005, he said. Kelley ran a furniture store there – one located right next door to a bar.
Before long, Kelley spent most of his days in that bar.
Kelley said he moved his family to Turlock in hopes of getting away from that life, away from the drinking which quickly took over everything. But the drinking didn’t stop with a change of scenery.
These days, Kelley sleeps in front of a local church with a friend. When he wakes up, he starts drinking.
Kelley says he doesn’t drink much — only a half pint a day, or so. But he can’t stop.
“That’s what alcohol does – it captures you,” Kelley said. “I don’t want to do it, but I have to.”
He wakes up, throwing up. Kelley said he’s embarrassed. He doesn’t want people to see him like that, especially not his friends. So he keeps drinking.
Kelley is a man intensely unhappy with himself. Sometimes, he “punishes himself” by sleeping outside, staying out of the shelters even in the coldest days of winter.
It’s because he feels like he’s disappointed people. Kelley says he “doesn’t want to hurt anyone” – the most oft-repeated phrase in Kelley’s repertoire, repeated at least six times over the course of an hour.
His self-sacrificing nature landed him on the streets. Kelley says he became homeless on purpose.
“I decided to walk away from my life,” Kelley said. “… I don’t even understand why I left.”
Kelley said he didn’t want his wife and children to see him as he’d become. He didn’t want them to know him as a drunk.
So, one day, he just disappeared to the streets, living where he thought he wouldn’t hurt anyone any longer.
“I had no idea what it would be like living on the streets, but I didn’t want them to go through what I was going through,” Kelley said.
An uncertain past
“It’s never been about me,” Kelley said. “Actually, that’s wrong. It used to be all about me.”
Kelley’s talking about his days as a ballplayer. Back when kids used to tell him they would have done anything to see him play.
When he describes Ryan’s “scary stuff,” you can almost see a younger Kelley, now 59, standing in the batter’s box.
But like many of Kelley’s stories, the line between truth and fiction are hard to discern. There’s no record of anyone named “Kent Kelley” ever taking a major league at-bat.
Kelley says his dad, a World War II Silver Star recipient, was killed by a train when Kelley was 11. Kelley says he was an amateur boxer by age 15.
Kelley says he fought in Vietnam, but he’s hesitant to talk about it. Kelley says he had to do stuff he didn’t like, working in military intelligence. Kelley also said he fought in the 33rd Infantry – a unit which was not activated for the Vietnam War.
Kelley says he graduated from San Jose State University, where he put his son and daughter – both now in their 30s – through school.
His passion about all of these subjects is plain to see. He speaks about each one as if it were the absolute truth. And maybe it all is, jumbled in a mess of alcohol.
But when it comes to his children, Kelley speaks more passionately than ever.
“I really hurt about some things,” Kelley said. “I love my children, and sometimes it really, really, really, hurts.”
A target, a focus
Kelley is looking for something. He roams the streets of Turlock, no particular destination in mind.
“I’m a wanderer,” Kelley said. “I wander anywhere.”
But while he’s out looking, other people are looking for him.
Kelley’s become a target for the more violent elements of the homeless population. When the Journal spoke to him, he still had staples in his head – a remnant of a hospital visit following a particularly brutal beating.
“There are mean people out there,” Kelley said.
Kelley said people think he has money, so they beat him up to take it. Kelley said they’re wasting their time – he has no money, outside of what he scrounges up for alcohol.
But Kelley doesn’t fight back, he says. He lets them fight. He’s had enough fighting. And he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
Kelley won’t go to the Veterans Affairs office for any help. He says it reminds him of the bad times.
But Kelley has started to find respite in the Turlock Gospel Mission’s new Homeless Assistance Ministry. It’s given him a safe place to be in the daytime. A regular schedule, when he’s feeling good enough about himself to make it through the doors.
He’s trying to drink less. To get his life back on track.
“I have to go back to work, simple as that,” Kelley said.
Even the notion of work is hard for Kelley to hold on to, facing the constant challenges of life on the streets. Just a few minutes later, his focus has changed.
“I have to get back to something,” Kelley said, “but I’m not sure what that is.”