Pablo Rodriguez has endured enough life battles to make anyone bitter. He escaped his home country of Cuba as a young boy, served in the Army for five years of active duty and slept on the streets of Vancouver after becoming homeless earlier this year.
Yet through all his ups and downs, Rodriguez keeps smiling.
“Why would I be bitter? I’m happy,” said Rodriguez, 36. “Everything’s a learning experience. I’m still here. I’m still young and healthy and strong.”
Rodriguez said he started off this year feeling good about his life. He was living in his RV and owned a car. He made about $2,000 per week as an independent mail courier in Vancouver, where he’s lived for the past three years.
Then it all fell apart. He crashed his car, leaving him with only the RV. When gas prices rose over $5 per gallon, he sold his RV and bought a smaller car and slept in it. But the car broke down in June, making his mail courier job impossible.
“I was trying to do the best I can, and everything just kept going wrong,” Rodriguez said. “After my car broke down, it’s like, that’s it. I grabbed everything I could in a backpack and I had to just leave it there.”
He ended up in Esther Short Park without even a blanket to sleep on. “I was literally sleeping on the sidewalk, which is very painful,” he said. But he never complained. “It wasn’t too bad for me because I’m just a survivor. I always knew I was going to figure something out.”
Rodriguez was right not to worry. In August, Vancouver Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli helped him get a spot at The Outpost, a shelter community operated by the nonprofit organization Outsiders Inn.
With guidance from Spinelli and the Outsiders Inn staff, Rodriguez found a job with Vancouver’s Downtown Association earning $20 per hour cleaning up litter and graffiti. In his first seven weeks, he removed more than 1,300 pounds of waste from downtown.
“Pablo’s out there four days a week, eight hours a day. He’s been remarkable, and downtown is so much cleaner,” said Michael Walker, the association’s executive director. “I think having that familiar, friendly presence on the street is important. It shows that somebody cares.”
Rodriguez said the job is a constant battle, as people continue littering in places he just cleaned. Kind comments from passersby make the job worth it, he added, noting that people tell him things like, “This is why I love Vancouver.”
He recently moved into St. Paul Lutheran Church Men’s Shelter, operated by Outsiders Inn, to be closer to his work. He appreciates the tools Outsiders Inn has given him to succeed. “There’s a sense of community,” he said. “It feels like everybody’s there to get their life back on track.”
Rodriguez became a survivor at a young age growing up in Cuba. “A lot of times, we didn’t have food,” he said. “The communist regime also was pretty bad. They would raid your home and lock you up just for having meat or something.”
One night when he was around 8 years old, he boarded a small boat with his father and pregnant mother to try to make it to Miami. “We had to escape under the cover of darkness to avoid persecution,” he said.
The boat never made it to the U.S., instead stopping at the Cayman Islands, a British territory less than 300 miles from Cuba. From there, he and his family were sent to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, where they were held for a few months, Rodriguez said.
Despite Guantanamo Bay’s history of human rights violations perpetrated by the U.S. government, Rodriguez remembers having a great time there. “It was just fun,” he said with a laugh. “They fed us real well. All the soldiers were very professional.”
His family eventually got visas from the U.S. government. They were flown to Miami, where his parents still live.
Rodriguez’s interaction with the U.S. military didn’t end there. He joined the Army at 17, serving in Germany for five years. His military experience sleeping in foxholes and camping in freezing weather later prepared him for surviving on the streets of Vancouver, he said.
Lessons from the streets
Rodriguez understands that homelessness can happen to anybody. Still, there are things he now knows to do differently.
“The main lesson is, take care of your finances and be prepared,” he said. “Because when you’re making a lot of money, you’re not even thinking about losing everything.”
Rodriguez said he doesn’t do drugs or drink, but he often saw how addiction contributes to homelessness. He noted Vancouver’s high number of homeless veterans, which he — based on his own military experience — thinks is related to PTSD, mental health issues and drug use.
“I’ve had friends in the military have PTSD, like go crazy, if you will,” he said. “Then they get addicted to drugs and prescriptions.”
To better address homelessness in Vancouver, Rodriguez said, law enforcement needs to provide more incentive for people on the streets to get healthy and housed.
“You have to have consequences for your actions,” he said. “If you just give them free rein, how’s that gonna help?”
Rodriguez is now working with Outsiders Inn to find permanent housing and is waiting for an affordable place to become available. In the meantime, he’s saving his money earned at Vancouver’s Downtown Association and one day hopes to start his own company. He said he plans to exploit his talents to the fullest and not waste any more time.
“I’ve seen a few things, but I have a different mentality,” Rodriguez said. “I just think positive, and I like being happy and laughing. That’s the main thing. I just want to be happy.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.