Pulled toward homelessness

Once a fringe survivor, he’s fallen off the edge
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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After a life living, working and thriving on the fringes of a California economy that nurtured his creativity and free spirit, David Putnam has now dropped off the edge. A carpenter who learned how to make Japanese tea houses, a horseshoer who has ridden the Tevis Cup 100-mile ride, a musician who has played to large, enthusiastic crowds at events in the Bay Area and Grass Valley, Putnam is now living in his Winnebago in a pasture near Auburn. His goal now is to find a place in the realities of a new economy that have left many like him on the outside looking in for the first time. Putnam, 59, said he’s anticipating the Winnebago’s parking arrangement with the property owner will soon end and he’ll be forced to find parking on side streets or back roads. That means also facing the possibility of a tap on his window by a patrolling police officer. “I’m living in a ’72 Winnebago and have no place to go,” Putnam said. “I’m not going to sink but that doesn’t mean I don’t cry every day.” Like many others in the current recession, Putnam has had a rug pulled out from under him, said Suzi de Fosset, executive director of the Gathering Inn. The faith-based destination for the homeless in western Placer County, the Gathering Inn is seeing increasing numbers at its door. About a third of the people it’s serving weren’t with Gathering Inn 30 days ago, De Fosset said. De Fosset describes the growth in numbers as the new face of the homeless. “It’s no longer the guy panhandling on the street,” De Fosset said. “It’s also the neighbor who may have lost his house or people who have jobs but are unable to pay the rent.” It doesn’t take a lot of money to live in a travel trailer, and many people who have lost their homes and jobs now find themselves in RV parks, she said. But that existence also becomes tenuous as annual vehicle-license fees become due and gas becomes less affordable, she said. The Gathering Inn, which provides a place to stay for the homeless and programs to put people back on their feet, is seeing eight to 10 new faces a week. “It used to be a much gentler slope but now it’s much harsher,” De Fosset said. “It’s quicker going out.” Putnam said he was dealing with sub-freezing temperatures in the RV last week. The cold weather came at a time when the owner of the property was pressuring him to leave. Putnam said he was running out of options for the motorhome he bought two years ago after leaving France and a failed relationship to return to the foothills. He had lived in the Auburn area since 1997, after moving from Palo Alto – his home for the previous 25 years. In Palo Alto, his carpentry work was featured in Sierra Magazine. When he moved east, he took a course at Sierra College and became a farrier. “The journey to excellence is what I’ve been about,” Putnam said. His mother, Mary Putnam, confirmed the details of her son’s early life, describing him as both resourceful and very exacting about everything. Putnam spent two years in Japan learning Japanese joinery, a dedication to a craft that doesn’t surprise his mother. “When he’s interested, he researches – there’s nothing halfway,” she said. His marriage over, Putnam said he left France in 2006 with virtually nothing but his two horses. He had them shipped back to the U.S. He was able to sell a horse trailer to help him stay solvent. Putnam’s work as a horseshoer hasn’t been as in-demand as it had in the past with the drop in the economy. His horses are now being cared for by a friend. Putnam is unable to keep them with him and for the past few months has been more concerned about his own survival on what he’s discovering is an increasingly slippery slope. “I was starting to look into the black hole last summer,” Putnam said. He keeps his carpentry tools on hand but has been seeking venues to play his music. He plays guitar and banjo, and sings. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years. Over the past couple of weeks, he’s played music at lunchtimes on Fridays at Tsuda’s Old Town Eatery in Auburn. Mary Putnam, 83, lives in an apartment in Medford, Ore. and recently dipped into her savings to mail her son a check for $100 to help him out. A child of the Depression, Mary Putnam said she’s seen hard times and sees someone today who is struggling. “But he’s also someone who, if he has a goal, is determined,” she said. For Putnam, that goal in the past week is an immediate one – to find a place to live and avoid homelessness. It’s a new part of the equation for a man who has proudly followed the beat of a different drummer and always managed to survive. “I don’t want sympathy,” Putnam said. “I want a place where I can go to resurrect my life.” He said he’s heard the insults in recent weeks from other, who have never seen a bump in their road. But he’s too busy trying to move forward. “I don’t experience anger and I thank God that I don’t hate,” he said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at