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‘I need good news’ — Father struggles when unable to provide for family
Florida foursome living in van, unable to overcome obstacles, misfortune
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From right, Kellyn, Jose, Laticia and Jasmin Garcia stand outside their van in the parking lot of the RaceTrac gas station on E. E. Butler Parkway on Friday. The family has been living in the vehicle since May, and the van broke down in the past week, leaving the girls unable to get to school and Jose Garcia missing his medical appointments. - photo by Nick Bowman

Jose Garcia would prefer to end his life.

The 42-year-old has come to that point after two years of joblessness, five months of homelessness and constant pain from illness and injury.

He stood next to his immobile maroon van last week in the clean concrete parking lot of the RaceTrac station on E.E. Butler Parkway, talking about how he had arrived at his decision.

The vehicle’s alternator died last week — the latest in a series of defeats for Garcia and his family. Under steely overcast skies, he ran through his youth as the Florida-born son of a migrant worker married to a citizen of El Salvador, his injuries that led him to stop work, and how his life and the lives of his wife and daughters have suffered as they fell into persistent poverty.

They subsist on the equivalent of about $1,200 a month, a combination of food stamps and Supplemental Security Income. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,300 a year, or an income of $2,025 each month.

He’s been denied Social Security disability three times, he said, despite his illnesses preventing him from keeping a job. As with other heads of households in chronic unemployment, Garcia struggles to find peace in a life where he can’t provide for his family.

He doesn’t share the Christian faith of his wife, 35-year-old Kellyn Garcia, who leaned against the passenger door of their van and read from a white leather Bible as he spoke to The Times. Instead, he lives what he calls a spiritual life focusing on feeling out the energy of others and the world around him.

It’s been cold comfort amid his emotional and physical distress.

“I’ve got chronic arthritis with spurs in both of my shoulders; I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis down my spine; I’ve got a damaged disc in my L5 (vertebrae), damaged nerves in my left leg,” he said, quickly running through his series of maladies.

Garcia’s using low-income medical services to treat his physical problems. He’s been prescribed painkillers from a private practice and is a client of both Avita Community Partners, which sits near his broken-down van, and The Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville.

The pain medication hasn’t done him much good, as Garcia avoids taking it to prevent the side effects of the narcotics, which left him dazed and unable to drive his vehicle before it broke down Wednesday.

The physical discomfort is made worse by his living conditions. When the girls, 15-year-old Jasmin and 11-year-old Leticia, aren’t at school, the family lives, cooks and sleeps in the van. The girls take the back seat, which folds down; their mother sleeps in the passenger seat and Garcia takes the driver’s seat.

It wasn’t always this way.

Before Garcia injured his back years ago, he worked in landscaping, insurance, industrial management and a series of other jobs stretching back to his childhood.

“If I could do it, believe me, I would do it,” he said of returning to the insurance world, the easiest of his former jobs. “I’m not the type of person that’s afraid of work. Growing up, if I was willing to work picking asparagus, which pays 14 cents a pound up in Dowagiac, Michigan — believe me, walking around with a satchel and talking to people, filling out applications ain’t no big deal.”

He began working at 4 years old, one of more than a dozen children of Augustine Garcia, a Mexican national who moved the family about every three months.

“I’ve worked everywhere from Michigan, Ohio, Nebraska, Wyoming, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina,” Jose Garcia said. “Every single produce that there is in the produce section of Walmart, we picked it, planted it, grew it, harvested it — the whole nine yards.”

He was living in North Carolina when he damaged his back hauling a waterlogged rug in the midst of cleaning it. He last worked a steady job in 2014, the year before his injury.

The family had a home in Gainesville on Rosecliff Terrace through an arrangement Garcia made with the property manager. With the help of others, he made improvements to the home in exchange for rent.

During this period, he got involved at Gainesville High School, where his daughter Jasmin is a student.

“I was last year’s chairman to the (Gainesville High) School Governance Council. I’m on the School Governance Council this year, but only as a parent,” he said. “When we were living in a home, I was trying to see — since I couldn’t work — I was trying to see if there was anything I could do to contribute. ... It gave me a sense of value, because it’s hard when you’re the provider and you get hurt and you can’t provide anymore.”

His daughters and their accomplishments are his last source of strength and pride. Garcia talked at length about the lessons of hard work and determination he teaches them.

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Leticia Garcia, 11, holds a kitten in front of the Garcia family’s van with her older sister, Jasmin Garcia, 15, in the background. The Garcia family has lived in their van since May, and the vehicle broke down this week. With no ability to work and little help, the girls’ father and mother. Jose and Kellyn Garcia, are at a breaking point. - photo by Nick Bowman

At one point, he pulled from a plastic sleeve the college pamphlets Jasmin, a straight-A student, has been receiving at school. At another, Leticia jumped in to say she brings her dad notes from her middle-school teachers when she has a good day in class.

“That’s the fuel that I need. I need good news,” Garcia said of the notes. “I need her to show me that she’s helping herself. At least that way I know that if a bad situation goes to worse, if something happens to me, they’re off to a good start.”

Now, the girls are likely going to be pulled from school. They missed class Thursday and Friday after the van broke down, and Garcia said if he can get it running again he hopes to leave Gainesville and head to Texas, where his mother has a home.

While Garcia draws hope from his daughters, it is becoming essential that the family find some relief.

“If I knew both of my daughters were grown up, on their own and had already started their lives, I would call it a day. I would take a bullet in half a second, because I’m tired of this. I’m tired of my back, I’m tired of my legs, I’m tired of my neck, I’m tired of my shoulders,” Garcia said as a truck a few parking spaces down roared to life and backed out of its spot.

“I’m tired of all of this.”

Read more stories in the series.

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