A student by day, he’s homeless by night

EVERETT — It’s the day before Thanksgiving and Ryan Lindley’s van won’t start.

He discovers this early in the morning, after crawling from the brown leather sofa wedged in the rear of the van, out the back and around to the driver’s seat. He jams the key in the ignition, turns it and expects the engine’s rumble.

Instead he gets a weak RRRR, RRRR, RRRR as the engine feebly turns over. The interior lights fade in and out.

For many people, this is an inconvenience. For Lindley, it’s serious trouble.

His 1989 Dodge van is his everything: where he sleeps, where he keeps all his belongings, how he gets from here to there.

Sometimes it’s what keeps him warm.

Lindley considers the $22 in his bank account. If it’s just the battery, Schuck’s Auto Supply might charge it for free. It could be an electrical part he can’t afford.

Whatever it is, he needs to figure it out. Lindley, 26, has someplace important to go: college.

Lindley does a good job of blending in at Everett Community College.

He’s a big guy and he looks young for 26, even with a trimmed beard. He keeps clean by showering at the YMCA, where he has a $7-a-month membership. He wears jeans and a T-shirt to class and spends hours in the computer lab finishing his homework.

“Sometimes I just hang out at the college and find something to do,” he says. “This is a safe place.”

Lindley isn’t the only homeless college student.

At Everett Community College, counselor John Meyer knows of about a dozen more. Some live in cars like Lindley, and some surf from one friend’s sofa to the next. One homeless student lost toes to frostbite.

In addition to worrying about staying clean, safe and warm, homeless students also face other hurdles: finding a computer to work on or having a place to get mail.

This fall Lindley faces another complication. He’s one of the thousands of students across the state who’s financial aid was late. A grant pays for some of his classes but the financial aid also includes badly needed money for living expenses.

“The barriers for some students to go to school are monumental,” Meyer says.

How did Lindley get here?

It’s enough to say his childhood was far from ideal. He’s estranged from most of his family, and he had brushes with the law as a teenager. As an adult, he’s found it hard to land jobs he can live on. He’s worked at Wal-Mart and Jack in the Box, and for a pest control company.

On the plus side are Lindley’s brains and ambition.

He has always wanted to be an engineer. As a child, he took apart toasters to see how they worked and, even in doodles, the cars he sketched had engines with intricate workings.

He didn’t graduate from high school, but he took all the necessary tests, and found the placement exam at Everett Community College no problem.

One of his college instructors describes Lindley as the best student in his computer-aided drafting class this fall.

“I’d say he’s bright,” said Bob Osnes, an instructor and the department head of the Advanced Manufacturing. “He’s ahead in the program, and he has skipped ahead to advanced material.”

He didn’t know Lindley had been living in his van.

“That’s a higher hurdle to overcome,” Osnes said.

***

Most people don’t like the homeless or think they’re lazy, Lindley said. He also doesn’t feel welcome within the homeless community because he’s trying to forge a different path.

He has lived on his own since age 19. For most of those seven years, he’s slept in a string of cars and vans — some he owned and some loaned to him. For awhile, he inhabited a drafty 1974 Ford van, another time he used an old Volvo he slept in, sitting up.

In the back of his current van he keeps a pile of blankets, purchased for $1.50 each from the thrift store. The clothes he owns are stashed here, as is the week’s allotment from the food bank: jars of generic peanut butter, boxes of off-brand mac-n-cheese, mishapen cans of Bartlett pears — the ones not good enough for grocery store shelves.

Most homeless people are drug addicts or criminals, he says. For that reason, he doesn’t feel safe staying at a shelter or living under a bridge.

So he lives in his car.

This leaves Lindley perpetually frustrated with the law and police. He’s been ticketed for parking illegally in Everett more than a half-dozen times. He’s had two cars impounded, and he can’t afford the $63 fee to argue his case in front of a judge.

He knows that living in a car is illegal in Everett and so is parking a car in the same place for 72 hours.

Lindley has broken these laws out of necessity, he says. Much of his life is consumed by finding safe places nightly to park his van. The best spots are in front of unoccupied homes.

“People tend to get mad when you park in front of their house,” he says.

It’s hard to know if these are problems of Lindley’s own making or a circumstance of being homeless — or both.

Whatever the cause, they are impediments to something Lindley wants badly: a better life.

***

Lindley gets his van running.

He expects his financial aid to arrive any day.

When it clears, he’ll get a loan for living expenses and, hopefully, find a room somewhere to rent.

Lindley has dreams. He wants to get a job and support himself. He wants to buy a house. He wants to sleep someplace other than the streets.

In the meantime, he grasps every small success as it comes.

Wednesday one does come.

He gets his first A on a final.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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