Recycled Angel

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comDecember 17, 2013 

Murlin Witcher leads a simple life. He doesn't need much. He lives in a fifth-wheel on a friend's property, drives an older vehicle that gets him to where he needs to be, has clean clothes on his back and has enough money to feed himself. It's not much by most people's standards, but more than enough for Witcher. Actually, he considers himself one of the luckier ones.

"People are going through such difficult times," Witcher explained. "I'm not — so who am I to deny anyone anything that I have. It's just so hard to see people in need and not do anything to help."

He splits his time between giving to others who have less than he does — usually without being asked, co-running Anderson Recycle Center in Coarsegold, and dealing with prostate cancer. With his thick-white beard, positive outlook and generous spirit, he's like a modern-day Santa.

On more than one occasion, he has pulled over to the side of the road, removed his coat and offered it to a homeless man shivering in the cold. Witcher then heads home to retrieve something warmer for himself to wear.

If he sounds like the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back — well, he quite literally has — and more than once. "That's why I keep an extra five shirts in my office," Witcher joked.

Those in the know drop off food and clothes at the recycling center, which Witcher collects and disperses to the needy at the Food Bank give-away the second Tuesday of every month at the Coarsegold Historic Village & Peddler's Market.

He was given a food basket, which Witcher passed on to someone who had no food. A distraught woman, who couldn't afford her necessary prescriptions was given $100 bill to cover her medications. To a family of six, with four children and both parents unemployed, Witcher gives money so that the oldest daughter can attend a dance, and makes sure the children have presents under the Christmas tree.

He keeps a list of 56 non-profit organizations, so that anyone turning in items to recycle can choose to have their monies donated. Witcher always makes sure to add another 15% to the total before passing these donations on to the designated recipients.

One may consider Witcher a soft touch, someone easily taken advantage of, but that's not so.

"I can say 'no' if I have to," he said. "I've had people come to me saying that they've got food stamps and want cash for them. I tell them to go home and feed their kids — that is what those stamps are for."

On his days off, when he spots homeless aimlessly hanging around in Oakhurst, he makes an impromptu food-run to McDonald's, purchases a dozen or so hamburgers and passes them out. "I won't give the homeless money," Witcher said, "because they will just buy alcohol."

On being homeless

Witcher should know. He was homeless, living on the streets of Shafter (near Bakersfield), for more than three years.

It was a choice he made following a bad break-up, where his ex-girlfriend left with his youngest son, Hunter. Witcher walked away from his five homes, his antique business, and his job as an electrician's assistant to live the life of a homeless person digging through garbage for cans to recycle for cash, drinking beer, and huddling around make-shift campfires for warmth on cold nights.

"Living on the streets wasn't so bad," Witcher said. "I guess it depends on what you make of it. Someone gave me an old registered motor home that ran, so we (he and his seven homeless buddies) would collect cans all day, receive the cash for recycling them and then buy a gallon of gas to pour into the gas tank. Once we had enough, we would all pile in the motor home, drive to the Kern River, take our soap, and float down the river bathing ourselves."

It was usually a couple of weeks between bathing. In between, Witcher would visit the area laundromat — not to wash but to collect.

"When you're homeless," Witcher explained, "the best people to get to know are the guys who run the laundromat. That way you can get plenty of clean socks because people always leave socks behind. Another good place is mini-marts just before closing. If there's any food left over, you can clean the sidewalk in front of the store in exchange for food."

Even though Witcher had family living nearby at the time — a sister and an older son, Todd, who would visit him occasionally while he huddled with other "bums" on the streets — he didn't ask to go home with them, and he said they didn't offer. If they had, he would have refused.

Change of scenery

His decision to leave the homeless life behind resulted from a surprise visit from his son, Hunter (then 10), who he hadn't seen for years. The boy's mother (Erin) returned to Bakersfield with her new husband, and took Hunter to visit with Witcher on the streets. The next day, Witcher was told to grab anything he thought he needed because he was moving to Coarsegold with them.

Unfortunately, the good life in the Mountain Area didn't last long. Erin's new marriage ended, and both she and her husband took off in different directions, leaving Hunter behind with Witcher.

"I had no job, no car, and a 10-year-old boy to take care of," Witcher continued. As fate would have it, quite by chance, he purchased a weedeater, which led him to Hendreika Anderson. He refers to her as his and Hunter's salvation.

"She needed some weedeating done," Witcher said. "We became fast friends ... Hunter and I moved onto her property and she gave me a car. I hadn't stepped into a church for 45 years, but went with her to a service at Yosemite Lakes Community Church."

"Even when I was homeless, I never felt abandoned by that Guy up there," Witcher added, pointing upwards. "He didn't put me on the streets. I did."

After dropping Hunter off at school one morning, Witcher was overcome with a feeling of despair. "I had no money and no weedeating jobs lined up, so I pulled off on Road 400, pulled my weedeater out of the trunk and started weedeating along the side of the road."

That single act of desperation led Witcher to five regular clients, including Bohna Arena. Still, he was all too aware that weedeating was not a dependable revenue resource, and so, out of the blue "when we were running on our last leg, I said to Hendreika 'why don't we open a recycling center?"

That was nine years ago. "When we first opened, we thought it was going to be a little mom and pop operation. But the last time I worked alone, 84 people came in to recycle bottles, plastic containers, or aluminum cans. It's a lot of work." Because the recycling center is open on Sundays, Witcher is now only able to attend his YLP church on Friday evenings to celebrate his recovery.

In 2010, Witcher was told that he had an advanced case of prostate cancer, which breeds off male hormones. He's currently undergoing Hormone Ablation Therapy to kill-off and prohibit the production of these hormones and to keep his PSA numbers down — at a cost of decreased strength, loss of muscle mass, loss of bone mass and extreme fatigue.

His doctor wants him to move on to radiation therapy, but Witcher is dragging his heels, calling it both cost-and-time prohibitive.

"The VA will reimburse me for gas," Witcher said, "but they're five months behind. Over those two months, it will cost me about $1,000 to drive down to Fresno for a treatment that only takes 15 minutes each day."

"Besides, I worry about not being here, of not being open. Hendreika, who has always been there and done so much for me, is going through tough times herself. I don't want to put any more strain on her."

Witcher, 69, will have a bone scan to determine if the cancer has spread. If it has, radiation won't be much help. What the future holds for Witcher is uncertain, but he doesn't take the time to worry about it. He's more concerned with the welfare of others.

"Murlin is such a wonderful person," long-time friend and recycling volunteer Gail Harris reflected. "He's my day-time husband. I've known him and loved him a long, long time. He will do just about anything for anybody."

"Don't go making me out to be more than I am," Witcher advised. "I'm not anyone special. I'm just Murlin."

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