WHEN MANY people lose their jobs, they're lucky enough to have safety nets beneath them.

A working spouse. Family members to take them in. Home equity to live on for a while.

The unlucky ones don't have a net; they have a tightrope. And if they don't land on it just right, they fall into poverty's abyss of hunger and homelessness. When Gary Walker lost his job, the tightrope swung under him. He's been in free-fall ever since.

Last May, Walker, 58, was riding in a car with a friend in West Philly when the cops pulled them over because the taillights were out. The cops ran a check on Walker and told him there was an outstanding bench warrant on him in Easton, for passing bad checks.

Walker had never been to Easton. He thinks someone must have stolen his checks. He was sent to Northampton County jail anyway, where he was locked up for three days. He says he called Temple University, where he did maintenance and janitorial work in the facilities department, to let them know why he wouldn't be in.

After he made bail, he returned to Temple, where he got the ax for missing the three days of work while he was incarcerated. He was also told that he'd lied on his job application eight years before, by not admitting he had a record.

He'd never been in trouble with the law in his life. He says he was ordered not to set foot on campus, but he did attend a hearing between the university and his union (the Brotherhood of University Employees) at which everyone decided to reconvene later to "review the available information as well as the court's decision."

Over the next six months, as Walker's case was continually delayed in Northampton, he spiraled into destitution. By the time all charges were dropped against him in November and he was able to obtain proof that he'd never had a record, he'd been evicted from his apartment and was living on the street.

Walker was desperate when he finally brought his paperwork to Temple. He thought they'd take him back, now that he'd been exonerated. Instead, he learned that because his union hadn't been able to locate him all those months he was on the street, and because he hadn't contacted them, his termination was final.

"One year ago, I had a job, I had insurance, I had a home," he says. "Now I have nothing."

Temple told me that Walker and his union had been given an opportunity through established grievance procedures to challenge his firing but failed to provide evidence to support a wrongful-firing claim.

"Temple University acted appropriately at all times and Mr. Walker's employment was terminated in accordance with university policy," says university spokesman Ray Betzner.

Walker's union president, John Addison, had no comment.

Look, I don't know the details of Walker's employment at Temple. But if he was able to prove that those absences were beyond his control, that the charges related to it were dropped and that he had no record to begin with, doesn't he deserve a better explanation for his firing than, "We couldn't find you"?

Especially given what he's been through?

Many of his old co-workers just shook their heads when we ran into them during a stroll on Temple's campus this week.

"Gary was a pleasure to work with," said facilities employee Rob Taylor. "A hard worker, very cheerful."

Added Joe Tamaglo, "No one would ever have a bad word to say about the guy."

Their words cheered Walker, who is rattled by where the last year has led him.

He has managed to find a friend's sofa to sleep on at night, but his pockets are still empty, except for the days when he panhandles for change.

"I've always worked," he said. "Always made my own way. I didn't make much, but it was enough. Now, I don't know what's gonna happen to me."

If only the tightrope would stop swinging long enough for him to climb back on it. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: