There’s an old expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Actually, I can’t remember ever buying anything because of its cover, unless you count Playboy. And I just read the articles, anyway. (Whoops, suddenly my nose is getting longer.)

Rightly or wrongly, the expression is also applied to people. Take longtime Santa Monica resident James Keyes. Until two years ago, this college educated, ex-Marine (honorable discharge 1964), real estate broker, led the good life. And more importantly, he always made time to give back to the community.

Keyes was a member of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce for 17 years, including being on the Board of Directors where he headed very successful fund-raising committees. He was awarded the chamber’s “Volunteer of the Year” in 1998 and 2002, and also received their prestigious “President’s Award.”

Jim was also recognized by state Sen. Fran Pavley for his volunteer work. He was involved with the Red Cross as a member of the Disaster Assistance Team, the Center for Healthy Aging Advisory Board, the CLARE Foundation Board of Directors, and the Brentwood Presbyterian Church where he was the head usher. (I’m tired just listing them all. No wonder he got “Volunteer of the Year.”)

Healthy, handsome and successful, Keyes’ view of his future was bright, along with that of Santa Monica, even though our city has its share of problems, including the lack of housing for the homeless. As many do, Jim saw most homeless as addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Jim’s opinion changed rather radically, however, when he became homeless himself.

How could it possibly happen? It turns out, it’s not that difficult. When the company Jim worked for lost its lease and didn’t re-open, he learned the harsh reality of another expression, “You’re only two paychecks from homelessness.”

With Jim’s homelessness came the loss of dignity and pride, which were replaced by considerable shame. Suddenly he was the one being judged by his cover. If he saw a former board member or someone from church, he would walk the other way just to avoid explaining his dire straits.

Keyes’ odyssey took him from a luxury $1,600-a-month Santa Monica apartment (shared with Cocker Spaniel rescue, Susie Q) to sleeping on a friend’s couch, or another friend’s boat or the occasional house-sitting job. The final blow was living in his car, which even Susie hated.

Jim had no choice but to find a home for Susie so he could live in shelters where he’d sleep in a bunk bed and share space with 150 others. He jokes about the time when an angry homeless woman saw him wearing his plush Nordstrom’s robe and accused him of being a “king.” But incidents like that occasionally turned into violence from which only Jim’s Marine training prevented serious injury.

To maintain his sanity, every day Jim would visit Susie and take her for a walk, only to return to his depressing existence in the shelter. This lasted two very long years. But finally let me report some good news (lest you write my editor to change my column banner to No Laughing Matter)!

Through Jim’s sheer determination, and the help of dedicated people at agencies such as OPCC, St. Joseph’s Center, Chrysalis, Step Up On Second and WISE & Healthy Aging, Jim has his own apartment again. And he’s reunited with Susie! She’s 15 now and has grown deaf but they get by with hand signals. Susie used to bark at motorcycles, which she can’t hear anymore. She still growls a little, just out of habit.

Jim’s HUD apartment is a sunny one-bedroom, with plenty of windows, near San Vicente Boulevard and Fourth Street. His share of the rent (21 percent) is taken directly out of his Social Security.

Grateful for his new life, Jim still thinks about homeless friends on the street or in the shelters. But he’s back at church and has even shared his story via a DVD documentary sponsored by Chrysalis. “Homeless But Not Hopeless,” featured Jim and four others. Three of the five are no longer homeless, so, small as it may be, there’s progress and, with that, hope.

As for the future, even though Jim has 40 years of award-winning sales experience, he can’t find a job. He longs to pay his own way, freeing the assistance he gets to those less able to fend for themselves.

Distinguished, Jim looks like he could be in a presidential cabinet. (Unfortunately, I think President Obama has already filled those positions.) With empathy for people and exceptional inter-personal skills, Jim hopes to find a job that allows him to help others. And then at the end of a long work day he can go home, fix some dinner, and watch Susie Q growl at passing motorcycles.

Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.