The terrific volunteers at Churchmouse Yarns & Teas on Bainbridge Island knitted these wool hats. They then gave them to me to take to the people on the streets of Seattle. What big hearts!
The students at Odyssey School on Bainbridge Island collected socks for Extreme Sobriety for me to hand out downtown. Here’s the next Generation helping out folks they will never meet.
I was just downtown and talked to a guy that I’ve been seeing for a while. He was raised in Seattle and has been living on the streets for four years. He says he’s ready to get off the streets. I told him about the places where he can get help. Friday he’s going to be on 1st Avenue. I’ll check up on him then to see how he he’s doing.
Eventually, I made it to the retreat center near Tucson, AZ. While there, I learned about love and tolerance through joining the monks in serving the homeless in the area. We opened a warming center for these folks to come in at night. People were waiting all day for the shelter to open up. I volunteered three or four nights a week – serving hot soup, hot cocoa, and making sure they got a good night’s rest. A nearby gourmet chef volunteered his time every night to make the soup. I flipped to learn that 70% of the homeless are mentally ill, and that they don’t have anybody.
I continued on to Indiana to spend some time with my family and to figure out what to do next. For a year and a half, I traveled to several more states and kept myself busy. All the while, I was feeling a growing sense of restlessness. Again, I was a man without a home. I missed my community, my church, and Bainbridge Island. Eventually, I was invited to speak on Bainbridge. I got on a plane and headed back. As I shared my story before a group of 30 or so people, I learned something very important: the families and friends of the homeless and addicted are as desperate for help as the ones they care about. These people want to help, but don’t know how. Often times they end up enabling the very behaviors they’re trying to correct. The response from the group that evening was powerful. I figured out that the work I needed to be doing had to be done from my own community.
I packed the rest of my things and came home.
Steve’s been planning this trip for a year now. He recently took off for a silent retreat at The Desert House of Prayer just outside Tucson, AZ.This will be a great way for me to be alone and get centered. I went last year, and that is when I believed God told me to do the work of reaching out to the homeless, he told Extreme Sobriety. His itinerary includes a detour into Death Valley where he plans to spend three days, seeing the Racetrack Playa in California’s Mojave Dessert.
That’s what Steve says when the weather is foul or he’s having a bad day. It’s how he gets perspective for pulling himself together and pressing into whatever the trouble is. Most times the issue takes care of itself and he just needs to ride it out. As the song in the following video goes, everyone needs to escape into something. He hops on his bicycle, grabs his paddle board, and punishes the problem by getting physical.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
Henry David Thoreau
Free food, free bed, free booze. It seems like a pretty good offer. Yet, the nights are cold and he is a million miles away from his family and a home of his own.
Why does he stay on the streets? Read what Steve, someone who has been there, has to say about the man on the street.
When I was on the street, I used to go to a laundromat up by the Pike Place Market. I was sitting there one day when this big guy comes in, chose a machine, and put his quarters in the slots. As the water was filling the washer, he took off his shirt, then his undershirt, then his pants. He then stood there, naked, with a big mooner, not far from my view. He had discovered a way to wash his hair and the rest of himself. After he was done with his bath, he sat down next to me and asked for the sports page. Maybe he hadn’t heard about Urban Rest Stop, where he could have saved his money and gotten a truly refreshing and private shower. Next time I see someone taking a bath in a laundromat, I’ll tell him to keep the change and go to one of the free shower/laundry spots nearby. http://www.urbanreststop.org/
With the generous help of the gals and fellas at Destination Harley Davidson of Silverdale, Steve has collected around 200 pairs of boots in three years. The shoes have then been distributed to various places in Washington state, including Grays Harbor College, The Millionair Club Charity in Seattle, and the homeless folks in Aberdeen. “You can’t keep it unless you give it away,” he keeps saying. Seems Steve can’t give enough.
Thank you, Harley Davidson and helpers. You’re providing for a lot of warm feet this winter, as well as for displaced men getting back to work.
Steve just delivered a van load of toys to needy families in Aberdeen, a town on Washington’s southern coast. These folks are locals who are going to school, getting help, and trying to make a better life for themselves and their kids. When he gets to see the cheer on their faces as they receive the toys for their kids, HE feels like the lucky one. You can’t keep sober unless you pass it along, he keeps saying. This is one way he does both. Thank you, everyone, who helped and gave.
Merry Christmas to the good people in Aberdeen and to all who read this – from the volunteers at Extreme Sobriety.
Steve’s just back from Canada. Read the unpredictable turns his visit to a Vancouver area transition center took. It just goes to show that you can never know what will happen next.
I arrived at the US/Canadian border and showed the agent my passport. He looked me up in his system and, instead of sending me through, directed me to the Border/Customs Office. I wasn’t surprised. I had a record that would raise all sorts of red flags. I parked my van in front of the building and went in. After 15 minutes of impatiently waiting in line – and I was the only in line – the chick behind the counter took my passport. She typed my number into her computer and told me to sit down. “I’ll call you,” she said. I was ready to turn around and go home if they wouldn’t let me in. I had done my best by trying. She returned to her window a little later with two guys and some papers. The papers were my rap sheet and it was long. As they questioned me on the details and my purpose for the trip, I relived the years I had left behind. “I’m coming into Canada to speak to the people at a treatment center about my 15 years of homelessness and alcoholism.” “Fifteen years? This list dates back to 1971!” came the informed reply. The eight DUIs and everything I’d ever done were all there. We talked for an hour, with them looking me over the whole time. They searched my van. I wasn’t nervous. I knew I was clean. Finally, satisfied enough, and after a call to the director at my destination, the officials gave me a 24-hour pass. I left feeling really good.
The Center was more like an old farmhouse just outside of Vancouver. (There are 200 treatment centers and shelters in the greater Vancouver area.) The staff met me with open arms. We right away connected. I felt loved. However, as I shared my story with the 16 or so residents and as many staff members, I had difficulty staying focused. Every 15 seconds one of the young men, new to the center, burst out with a string of vulgarities (he had Tourette syndrome). Others were laughing at him and at me in my frustration. I was trying to keep it together while my motivation was starting to go downhill.
I finished my story fast and then opened the remaining time for questions. The staff figured it out real quick and asked the right ones. That’s where I shined. I nailed them with hard answers. Things got quiet. It was like a pin dropped. The man with Tourette’s had left. I went right to the core of my message: God. HE saved me from a life of addiction and homelessness. I pray every night, asking God to keep me sober; in the morning, I pray again, and then let go of it. The men didn’t understand. It was odd. They couldn’t connect. Haven’t they ever talked to someone who has the time? I’ll be lucky if one guy relates to what I shared.
Later in the day, I spent some time with a few of the men. I kept driving the message: “You have to have something to sober up to.” It seemed to me that they weren’t paying attention, much less taking anything I said, seriously. I was pissed and let it go on a few guys. Why were they even there? Why were they in the program? As it turned out, those fellas that I visited were all meth addicts, and they weren’t looking for help. One guy had two black eyes. I can’t relate to that. Arrested or just out of jail, the court had appointed them to a transition center; they were there because they had to be. They were just playing the game.
But I’m glad I went. The staff were good, God-loving people. I valued sharing my story with the men in their program. I hope that one person heard me and was helped. I’m also glad to be home. I took a chance in leaving the US, and then hoped I could get back in. Having cleaned up my record, I felt confident that it would work out. It did.
The students at Saint Cecilia’s Catholic School didn’t mind sharing their lunchtime with Steve Rhoades. Wearing a jazzy-looking helmet and bright red and yellow bicycle gear, he parked his bike, complete with a compact trailer, in the center of their lunchroom. He had their attention.
Steve was there to talk about bicycle safety. He was also there to talk about a lot more. For the next half hour, he shared with the young students his experience of riding to California and back, down Hurricane Ridge in 27 minutes, and across the United States. They were keenly interested in his upcoming ride in Death Valley, Arizona, and New Mexico. “Have you ever been hit by a car?” one of the students wanted to know. “Twelve times,” Steve answered. “When I was a bike messenger in Seattle, I was hit once every year, seriously enough to send me to the hospital. I always wear a helmet. If I didn’t have a helmet on, I would have been killed. Once, my helmet was broken into 27 pieces.”
Steve continued to answer questions about his bicycle, how fast he can go, and how much water he drinks, yet didn’t forget to bring the subject back to them. “Safety never takes a vacation,” he cautioned. “Wear a helmet, eat right, and stay healthy.”
Steve had another message for the kids at SCCS. He told them that when he was thirteen years old, he started drinking and taking drugs. “My father was in the military, so we moved often. Every time we moved, I had to make friends at a new school, and that was hard. I got bullied a lot. The kids picked on me because I was small and thin. The only ones who talked to me were the ones who smoked pot. If other people had reached out to me, I might have not gone down that road. Then it was hard to leave the drugs. When I was older . . . I couldn’t quit. They got a hold of me and I couldn’t quit. I had no idea that taking drugs would eventually make me a homeless person. I had a cocky attitude. My best thinking got me living on the streets in garbage cans. One day I prayed and asked for help. I am here today because God saved me.
“There are three things that will happen to you if you do drugs. You will kill yourself; you will kill somebody else; or you will end up in jail. I’m here to tell you that you’re God’s creation. Your ego is not your amigo. Your ego is out to get you hurt. Thirty-five of my friends have died, and only two of them died in Vietnam. The rest of them died because of drugs and alcohol.”
“What about the kids who feel like they don’t belong somewhere?” asked a teacher who was listening and watching. Steve directed a firm answer to the kids. “Talk to your teacher or principal. Get the help from those who can get you through the journey. You’re worth it. If you feel lost, talk to your mom or dad, teacher or principal. They’re here for you.”
You can contact Steve Rhoades at email@example.com.