Take Five!  Q & A with Richard LeMieux

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Expert Q & A | January 29, 2009

Richard LeMieux
Formerly Homeless Individual
Author of Breakfast at Sally's

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
More and more hard-working Americans across the country are finding themselves in the same place I was seven years ago: homeless, living in their car, in the woods, or in abandoned homes, feeling lost and afraid with little or no hope. Families, including women and children who felt they were living the American Dream, are becoming an increasing part of the homeless population, not just in cities but in rural areas. This comes just when it appeared that city, county, state, and national programs were reducing chronic homelessness.

This growing tragedy has been a blight on our nation for some time now. I know from first-hand experience. I became homeless in 2002 and spent two years living in my van and another nine months living in a church in Bremerton, WA.

Once a vibrant, successful and well-respected businessman, I lost it all during a change in the business world. I made a series of bad business decisions that led to my becoming homeless.

During that time I was taught how to survive by chronically homeless men who begged in front of 7-Eleven for alcohol, raided dumpsters at night, and slept in the woods.

With no intent to create a book, I began writing “Breakfast at Sally’s,” documenting my journey into homelessness with my little dog Willow. These papers became a full-length book that now allows readers to see what I saw, feel how I felt, and understand how others are living. Many have said to me that “Breakfast at Sally’s” puts a face on homelessness.

In the past seven years I have seen homelessness grow daily, especially among the rural population. Unfortunately, the situation has been amplified by a financial crisis that has led to record foreclosures and devastating loss of credit for the families being evicted.

Soup kitchens are overwhelmed. So are the food banks and shelters, as people like me, who never dreamed of being homeless, are forced to utilize these services. The newly homeless families who gave to food banks not long before are now in line. And they are finding what I did seven years ago — that there is not enough help. There is food, clothing, and a few dollars here and there, but there is little or no housing when you are homeless and without credit.

President Barak Obama has stated repeatedly, “The government in Washington is broken.” It appears that the problem runs even deeper than this. Wall Street, the auto industry, the healthcare industry, and of course, the existence of affordable housing have all degenerated while individuals collect millions in personal wealth.

I believe it is time for each American to ask what they can do to make the lives of all Americans safe and secure. Every congressman and corporate leader should put themselves in the shoes of a homeless person and ask themselves if they, their wives, or their children should live like that in this country. Maybe then they will take every step necessary to make sure no American does.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
Many people are becoming homeless; even those that you don’t think could lose their homes.

On my 50th birthday, when I was traveling first class in Italy, France, and Paris, the prospect that I would become homeless just eight years later would have caused me to double over with laughter. Even at age 55, with my own business crisis looming, I could not have guessed this would be my fate. I considered myself a self-made man, successful by my own hard work and good judgment. I was confident and believed I had an answer for almost everything.

When my publishing business began to fail because my clients began utilizing websites and internet communication, I believed I could succeed by working harder and being more innovative. But soon I was borrowing more and more to survive while living in denial of my steadily increasing problems. Eventually everything caught up to me and I became deeply depressed, stopped answering phone calls, and lost interest in the things around me. It wasn’t long before I lost my three cars, my three boats, my wife, my friends and my children. I had lost my identity and was headed toward self-destruction.

I have met so many others with similar stories. They became homeless because of economic, social, or emotional catastrophes beyond their control - former firemen, fishermen, nurses, soldiers and others who led productive lives. They became homeless with no hope of returning to a home and the life they once knew.

I was more fragile than I ever thought – something more and more people are discovering — shocked, alone, and lost. I thought I had a safety net for bad times. But I found I did not really have a financial safety net, family safety net, psychological safety net, or spiritual safety net. Now, with our ever-changing economy, even more holes are popping up in the safety nets people thought they had, and many people are falling through those holes into despair and homelessness.

How did you start writing about the field of homelessness (or housing)?
I had worked to build a dream life for myself and the ones I loved. I never expected to be homeless. When I was 50 I was wealthy, carefree, and surrounded by those who loved me and my lifestyle. But on Christmas Day, 2002, at age 58, I was homeless, alone, and living in my van. I was lost in deep depression and considered jumping off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State.

That night, after failing to end my then miserable existence, I found my way to The Salvation Army (a.k.a. Sally’s) in Bremerton, WA and slept in their parking lot.

In the morning I awoke to the sound of people talking. They were in line for breakfast at Sally’s. Still cold and wet from the previous night’s failure, I stepped into line. I, who had been living the American Dream, who had never had a conversation with a homeless person for more than 30 seconds, whose biggest contribution to ending homelessness had been to toss coins into a hat on the pavement, would spend the next three years having many conversations with homeless people at soup kitchens all over town.

It was then that my eyes opened, my heart opened, and my mind opened. In time I would learn the events and circumstances that led to these people becoming homeless – sometimes self-inflicted and sometimes caused by others and circumstances they could not control.

As one of “them,” I found them confiding in me. They shared meager resources with me, protected me, and respected me.

As I learned to live with little or no hope from day to day I found myself entwined in the lives of the homeless people who had befriended me, and soon I began caring about them. I even found myself laughing, something I had not done in a long time.

Sitting in my van under a street lamp each night, I began writing down the events of the day. At first I wrote in longhand on scrap paper and paper bags. Later on I began sitting at picnic tables in city parks, typing on a used portable typewriter I had gotten for free from a second-hand store.

Six years later I am being told that my book has put a face on homelessness, and that over and over it has changed hearts and minds. I am humbled to hear those words. My book is no longer my book. It belongs to homeless people everywhere.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
When I lived on the streets I met many “angels” who fed and clothed me and many others like me. I have known groups of women who have walked fearlessly down paths into the woods to bring food to homeless people in camps. Those women took dirty clothes out of the woods, washed them that night, and brought them back the next day with milk for homeless children, diapers for babies, even money for showers at the YMCA and YWCA. Those women took sick homeless people to the ER and arranged for emergency dental work.

I have known Salvation Army people, tired from the rigors of the day, somehow finding enough energy at 10 p.m. to open a shelter when the temperature was intolerable and life was at risk.

I am inspired by those who understand that homeless people are just people who need help. They look forward, understanding the mistakes of the past but building on the future, investing in people and giving hope to the hopeless in word and deed.

I have also been inspired by those homeless people who, despite living a meager existence themselves, find a way to share small resources, smile, and encourage others when times are dark and there is no hope in sight.

Without that help from the homeless people I knew, I may not be alive today.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
I know that it is possible to end homelessness when people invest in people, because I have seen it happen, to me personally and to others.

In my case, after nearly two years in my van, I stopped at a local church to ask for gas money. After several days of cold rain my dog and I were wet and shivering. The pastor took pity on us and not only gave us $20 for gas but also money for one night in a motel. The next day I went back to thank him and he told me that I could stay and sleep that night on an old sofa in the hallway until the weather got better.

I stayed in the church for nine months. The congregation accepted me and my dog and helped us survive with food, blankets, and other necessities. After those nine months a few people in the congregation helped pay the first and last month’s rent on an apartment and also guaranteed to pay any rent when I could not. Because of my ruined credit they vouched for me. And, while I have worked to finish my book, over 300 people have helped to keep my van running, bought me medicine, and provided many types of aid.

And I am not the only one. I know first-hand of people who were homeless who are now safe in a home because of an organized effort to invest in them. I know of a man and woman who, after nine years of living on the street addicted to cocaine, are now free of that addiction, have jobs, and are buying a home because a group of people invested in them.

There will always be a small population that wishes to remain homeless. Many times it is because they do not trust anyone to help them or they believe such help will quickly end. They have been burned before. They feel discarded and have found a “family” on the streets that does not judge them.

Others prefer the freedom that homelessness gives them to any “restrictions.” They have discovered a simple life that is cheap and requires much less effort than most of us would accept.

However, for most of humanity housing is absolutely necessary to preserve sanity, security, and sobriety. I believe that if our government leaders, faith-based leaders, and civic leaders at all levels make ending homelessness a priority there will be no more homelessness in America.

We live in what we call the greatest country on earth, yet we choose to let men, women, and children live on the streets, in the woods, and in parking lots as if they were living in a Third World country.

Seven years ago I wanted to end my life. Now I want to live until I see every homeless man, woman, and child safe and warm in a home.

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