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He’s a felon who was homeless. He just won two prestigious national writing awards

Frank Kensaku Saragosa felt a bit uneasy as he walked past the tents that lined the sidewalk along downtown San Diego’s East Village.

“I used to stay over there,” he said, pointing to an embankment off Commercial Street near Interstate 5.

Saragosa, 56, was anxious that some of the homeless people in the sidewalk encampments might recognize him from the four years he spent on the street.

But Saragosa is being recognized for something else today. Early in September, he was named the first-place winner in two categories of the prestigious PEN America literary awards in the prison-writing category.

“Life. In Pieces” earned him first place in the fiction category and “Caught Crossing, Caught Between — A Tale of Two Cities” earned first place in the essay category.

Both are true stories, but Saragosa said he did not trust his fuzzy memory of the time he lived as an addict on the streets of San Diego, so he entered “Life. In Pieces” as fiction.

His work stood out among about 800 entries from 300 writers who wrote and submitted pieces while incarcerated. Saragosa had a bit of an advantage in the field, having taught American literature as a college professor before his life fell apart.

While labeled fiction, “Life. In Pieces” reads like truth, with imagery out of a Tom Waits song and stream-of-consciousness prose reminiscent of William Burroughs.

Its opening describes what he calls San Diego’s skid row, the heart of darkness, known by its inhabitants as The Bottoms, where junkies shoot up and homeless people follow the code on the street to never call 911.

“It’s not dirty there, it’s grimy,” he wrote. “But for people like me, it’s the place to go.”

Excerpts from his and other winning entries can be read at https://pen.org/prison-writing-award-winners-2022/. The complete pieces will be published in “Variations on an Undisclosed Location,” which can be purchased at https://pen-american-center.square.site/.

In his essay, Saragosa writes in a more conventional style than his fiction piece as he describes his previous life and downfall.

“In a former life, I taught American Literature at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and at Soka University of America in Orange County, California,” he wrote. “I lost my academic career when I was convicted of alien smuggling in 2006, a crime I committed because of my addiction.”

Sitting in the patio of a bakery just blocks from where he once lived on the street, the Omaha, Neb., native said those who knew him growing up would never have suspected the turns his life would take.

“If you’d ask anybody in my high school graduation class, ‘Who’s most likely to end up a drug addict, homeless and in prison?’ I would be the last person they would pick,” he said. “My nickname in high school was ‘The Professor.’ They expected me to be a professor, but nobody expected me to live the life I did.”

Saragosa never touched alcohol until after high school and was 28 before he took any illicit drug.

“But I guess I’m one of those people where once I started doing something, I very quickly went whole hog at it,” he said.

He was teaching at Soka University for about a year when he began using meth. His judgment began to falter as his addiction took over. His money went to drugs and hotel rooms he couldn’t afford, and his bank balance was negative as soon as paychecks were deposited.

“It was awful,” he said. “At that point, I was just so lost in my addiction that I didn’t know what was happening.”

Saragosa was at a downtown motel known to be a hangout for addicts one day in 2005 when someone approached him in the parking lot and asked if he had a valid driver’s license and identification. He was offered easy money. All he had to do was take the keys to a car, drive over the border, get out and wait for a few hours and then drive back.

He had been solicited by a human trafficker, preying on the most-desperate to take the biggest chance, and to take the fall if things went wrong.

“After this experience, I realized we were disposable,” he said. “We were like human Kleenex. There’s always a bunch more who were willing to do this.”

Saragosa crossed the border a couple of times a week for about a month before being caught with a couple of people hidden in the car. He served nine months in prison and in February 2007 was released to San Diego, which became his new home.

He stayed clean and sober for nine years, building a second career in services and holding jobs as a vocational specialist for mentally ill homeless people. But he took his sobriety for granted, and began to slip.

Writer Frank Ken Saragosa, who was formerly homeless, poses for photos near the intersection at 17th Street and Imperial Street.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The wheels went off the wagon pretty fast,” he said. “I was unable to pay rent. I lost my job. My car got impounded. It was just bad decisions, stupid things.”

Saragosa tried to get sober, but kept relapsing. In 2017, he was in a residential rehab program and just one month from graduating when he ran into someone at a bus stop selling dope. He bought the drugs, got high, and realized he could not go back to the program. So he went to The Bottoms, where he knew he could get more drugs.

“What people don’t understand about a drug addict is the craving for drugs feels like a matter of life and death,” he said. “I don’t crave drugs like somebody may crave chocolate. I crave drugs like I need it or else I’ll die. It completely disrupts the entire survival instinct.”

Saragosa would go days without sleeping while high on meth, wandering the neighborhood with other addicts who take over downtown streets at night.

“It’s like the changing of the guards,” he said about the transformation.

One day, he ran into a friend on the trolley who was on his way to Mexico. Saragosa was recruited to smuggle drugs over the border, which he did for a while before getting arrested in June 2020 with about 7 pounds of meth taped to his body.

The crime carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, which was reduced because President Biden had called for the elimination of mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes. He was released in August.

He works at the Playwright Project, a nonprofit that helps writers develop their craft. He said he would like to develop his short award-winning fiction piece into a book.

Reflecting on what society can do to solve homelessness, Saragosa had no easy answers, but did have a suggestion.

“I do know one of the places to start is recognizing homeless people are people, because right now it’s like they’re human vermin,” he said. “It’s all about their misery and their pathology and diseases. Sure, that’s part of our experience on the street, but people have hope. These are loving people. They form relationships. They do their best to build lives. They do their best to form communities.

“I just think you start with understanding you’re talking about people and communities, and then go from there.”

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