Bruce Jessepe first heard about SAVE Inc. about 12 years ago through the Topeka AIDS Project.
That phone call led him to life-saving housing, managed by SAVE – first, an apartment at Stepping Stones for a year, and then, for the last 11 years, a one-bedroom apartment at Cropsey Terrace, 31st and Harrison Streets, Kansas City, Mo.
Jessepe said, “I used to live in San Francisco for nearly 13 years and had a blast. That’s how I caught HIV. I was messing around.”
Jessepe said he left San Francisco about 1995, returning to the Midwest because the high rents on the West Coast made survival difficult, especially while he was battling HIV/AIDS.
“I’m originally from Topeka, born and raised,” he said. “Graduated from Topeka High in ’74 and went to KU. I’m 62 now, and I’ve been living with this B.S. ever since. I’ve been pretty sick three times with that killer pneumonia. The last attack was a couple of years ago.”
Jessepe said the medications have gotten so much better that the last time he suffered from pneumonia, he was out of the hospital in only a few days.
Like many residents of the SAVE homes, which are located in Midtown, Jessepe doesn’t own a car and uses mass transit when needed.
“I’m basically a walker,” he said. “I walk from downtown, and when I’m in a rush or have an appointment, I take the bus. But mostly I walk. Midtown is my territory.”
Jessepe says he’s a recovering alcoholic. He lived with his family temporarily after returning to Topeka, but he said his alcohol use drove him out.
“I was drinking a lot there and getting into lots of trouble. I needed to get out. Anyway, I stopped drinking for two years, three months and four days. And then … I picked it up again.” He got sober again, and has remained sober for years.
“I still do a lot of stinkin’ thinkin’,” he said with a laugh, referring to a pattern of negative thinking that can derail those in recovery. He credits his sobriety now to inner strength.
“I started going back to church,” said Jessepe, who was raised as a Roman Catholic. “My mom and dad did their very best raising us kids. We went to church regularly. My dad and I became best friends in our later years.”
He said he stays active and credits much of his good health to his regimen of walking and staying sober.
“People tell me I look good for 62,” Jessepe said.
Back in San Francisco years ago, he said, it was easier to find partners. Much of the interaction was in the city’s many gay bars.
“I would walk down the street, and a guy would tell me ‘hello, handsome,’ out of the blue.”
The job that brought him to San Francisco was in the National Guard, he said. One time, a TV crew was filming in one of the gay bars and, Jessepe said, he didn’t run from the cameras, unlike many others who ran upstairs. This, he said, didn’t sit well with the National Guard when they discovered he was gay.
“They found out and made my life miserable,” Jessepe said.
He was not forced out of the Guard, he said, but he left on his own a couple of years later.
Jessepe said that his family is Native American – members of the Pottawatomi tribe.
“When you know other Indian people, they always have royal blood in them. Us Jessepes in the old days had council leaders in the tribe. My family is very proud of that,” he said.
His family name, he said, means “bad water.”
“We used to have Michigan and the Chicago lakefront as our territory,” he said, “and when they moved the tribes here to the Midwest, our ancestors crossed the Mississippi with no boats or rafts, and the ones that made it claimed that name.
“My dream is to live on the reservation, to move back to the country. I think about that deeply now. I’m glad I live in Kansas City, but living in Kansas City has taken me away from all things tribal.”
He said his father was the one who first told him about how the “two spirit” designation in Native American culture revered homosexual people. (In Canada, it is more common to see the acronym LGBTQ2, where the “2” is included for Native homosexuals.)
“My dad personally came to San Francisco to see me. I told him, ‘Dad, I’m gay,’ and you know what he told me? He said, ‘I knew you always was.’ And that’s when he mentioned the two spirit. In the old days, men and women who had the two spirits were considered holy.”
Jessepe said that sometimes he found it difficult to be gay. “This is a confession. I was always never happy being gay. I was never sexually happy with being attracted to men. At the age of 62, I should be a grandpa by now in our tribe. I should have some grandchildren by now. But I was always attracted to guys.”
He said that aside from his dream to return to a reservation, he would have no reason to leave his comfortable apartment in Cropsey Terrace.
“I see no reason why. I’m pretty satisfied here. 31st Street is the DMZ of Kansas City, as far as I’m concerned,” he said with a laugh.
Jessepe credits SAVE for his sobriety and his life. He said that without his apartment, “I’d be drinking. I’d be drinking heavily. I’d be dead. I was on my way to being self-extinct.”
Jessepe has gratitude in his voice when he speaks about SAVE.
“I think they’re a wonderful organization, and I’m so glad that the Topeka AIDS Project sent me to them,” he said. “They treat me fairly and like I’m special. They always have.”