When first learning to walk again, 41-year-old Tracy Walker realized he needed to shift the weight in his hips and land each step on his heel.
It’s the gait of a man who over the past eight years had 19 surgeries on his legs, which included the amputation of his toes on both feet due to complications with Type 2 diabetes. But finding ways to be mobile was only one of Walker’s recent obstacles in life. The surgeries kept him from working for extended periods of time, and without a steady income, Walker, along with his mother, Suzette Solis, and his great aunt, Carol Moreno-Solis, became homeless.
Sleeping in makeshift rooms at the homes of relatives in Bay Point and Concord was the norm for the trio for several years. Most of what they owned — clothes, toiletries — sat in storage units near their temporary accommodations. It was a drastic change for Walker, who said he held a full-time job and had his own place to live for much of his life since graduating from high school in 1996, a huge source of pride.
“The best way to describe what was happening to me was that it was like moving out of your parents’ house to live by yourself and then all of the sudden you’re living with your parents again,” Walker said. “It’s no longer just the house rules you make. They’re everybody else’s rules. You can’t just do what you want. Or for me, do the things that I always used to be able to do because of the surgeries.”
Walker never stopped searching for a place of his own during the surgeries and stretches of unemployment. He maintained a list of affordable housing units sometimes exceeding 50 addresses in the Bay Area. Many were too expensive, he said, while others were in high demand with wait lists of three to four years. Nothing seemed to be working.
The Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund works year-round to prevent homelessness and hunger in the nine-county Bay Area. Donations to the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund help thousands of people in the Bay Area throughout the year, with administrative costs covered by The Chronicle and the Walter and Evelyn Haas Jr. Fund. Assistance is in the form of grants paid directly to the supplier of services, such as a landlord.
Through the fund, Walker and his family were able to pay the deposit for a new apartment in Walnut Creek. They moved there in September. The fairy tale ending to the housing search was a long time coming, said Lisa Hicks, Walker’s caseworker at Independent Living Resources, a Bay Area-based nonprofit focused on helping people with disabilities.
“I’ve never seen someone go through so many surgeries and still have such a positive outlook,” she said. “Other people would just lay down but that’s not who Tracy is.”
More than 30 million people have diabetes in the United States, according to 2017 data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some diabetics like Walker can develop peripheral arterial disease, which reduces blood flow to the feet and may lead to amputation.
“Originally, it was my left foot that had problems. Eventually both feet had problems and now the toe lines are gone on both feet,” he said. “I don’t have arches because of the way they cut my feet off. I can’t walk for miles or do a lot of the stuff I used to do anymore.”
Walker’s situation is also a reminder of how many Bay Area residents regularly face the issues of housing insecurity and homelessness. Of those who have housing, many find the high cost to be a burden. In these cases, as it was for Walker, only a missed paycheck or two separates them from living under their own roof versus living on a family member’s couch, or in the worst cases, living on the streets.
Walker grew up in Denver and was a high school football star whose play as a defensive lineman garnered some interest from a cadre of small colleges, none of which he attended. Walker said he just preferred to join the workforce early and college would have delayed the process. He was in the telecommunications industry until 2004, when he switched to working in property management.
In 2011, Walker found out he had Type 2 diabetes. His health quickly spiraled downward and the surgeries began in 2012, some of which resulted in infections that then led to additional operations.
Through it all, Walker remained hopeful. He attributes his optimism to his athletic background, often evident in the sports-related comments that pepper his daily conversations. He calls his close-knit family a “team.” Each member has day-to-day responsibilities, such as driving to the store or cooking breakfast in the morning.
“My great aunt stays at the house and there are things she can’t do that I can take care of, or if I can’t then my mom will handle it. We all work together,” he said. “We don’t see it as a negative. What we’re doing is catering to each other’s strengths.”
The new apartment in Walnut Creek has hardwood floors, which Walker said he loves. The space is far nicer than what Walker and his family were expecting. As for Walker’s feet, he said he’s still figuring out ways to be more comfortable without toes. It remains a daily challenge but one lessened by having a place to call home.
“Life isn’t preplanned or predetermined. If you’re driving, you might run into some construction or traffic. It’s just that if you let those things stop you, you’ll never make progress on anything,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is finding a way to impact the people around me. If people can see me and hear my experiences and if it can help anyone else then I know I’m doing the right things in life.”
Help your Bay Area neighbors today by donating to the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund: https://seasonofsharing.org/donate-now/. All administrative expenses are covered by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the San Francisco Chronicle so 100% of your tax-deductible donation helps Bay Area residents in need.