When homeless men come in for help at The Salvation Army's William Booth Center, and their intake papers tell of a troubled past, Chris White can relate perfectly well. After years of trouble and drug use, White came in from the cold to the Booth Center, and is now the shelter's assistant program manager.
Chris White’s teeth — the ones he has left after years of meth use, dry mouth and poor oral hygiene — are a rotten mess.
He’d wake up after grinding his teeth in the middle of the night, and, “Yep, another one would fall out,” he says. White is 43.
He eats a lot of soft foods — peanut butter and jelly or tuna sandwiches, McDonald’s hamburgers, pinching off a piece to sort of chomp on it. He hasn’t eaten an apple in, “oh, five, six, seven years,” says White.
So when another homeless man comes in for help at The Salvation Army’s William Booth Center on the southern edge of the Chinatown-International District, and his intake papers tell of a troubled past, White can perfectly well relate to him.
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Back in August 2011, White was such a person, and he went for help at the center, named for the British Methodist preacher who founded the humanitarian group in 1865.
Now, White has the title of assistant program manager at the shelter, and his days start at 6 in the morning in front of a computer, as he tracks occupancy numbers.
The three-story center at 811 Maynard Ave. S., incongruously located kitty-corner from a BMW Seattle dealership, accommodates 175 men, and provides nearly 64,000 bed nights a year. Through the center, the men are put in contact with social-service agencies that can offer more permanent housing, medical help and job training.
The Salvation Army is one of 13 charities supported by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy campaign.
White’s cellphone is constantly ringing. He deals with everything from taking mats to emergency cold-weather shelters the Salvation Army runs, to getting a new client to take a shower and separate his clothes to be washed and dried at 140 degrees to kill any bedbugs.
With insurance through the Salvation Army, he’s making plans for dentures.
White seems a considerably happier man now than how he described himself not long ago.
His boss, Angel Johnson, says about White, “He’s awesome. He’s never negative. He gets along with the guys.”
In 2011, he had been living in Las Vegas with his mom, Jennifer White, 67, a retired nurse.
By then it had been several years since he had kicked his meth habit, says White. Even with the drug use, he had managed to hold down jobs — at convenience stores, running the night desk at motels.
When he had cleaned up, White even landed a job for three years at a national retail-discount chain making sure merchandise was well-displayed, but that ended in 2008, he says, after “getting into arguments with my immediate supervisors and taking a couple of days off.”
Then White went into what sounds like a depressive state, not doing much except “hanging around the house, watching TV, playing video games.”
After three years of that, in 2011, his mother says she finally decided it was time to do something drastic.
“I was concerned. What was going to happen to him if something happened to me?” she says.
She told her son to choose a city, and she’d buy him a bus ticket and $300 to get started. White chose Seattle because he had always thought the Northwest would be nice to visit. “I love to draw trees,” he says, and soon after arriving in Seattle ended up at the William Booth Center.
The rules for staying at the center are clear.
Of the 175 beds, 125 are bunk beds in large rooms, with the men usually able to stay from a couple weeks to a year. Then there are 48 rooms, each with a single bed, where men can live up to two years; they put 30 percent of their income toward that housing.
A handout includes such rules as:
• “Agree to engage in 35 hours a week in meaningful activity … job search, education, volunteer service … “
• “Attend any 12-step group or other groups required by your case manager.”
• “The following verbal and gestural expression is forbidden … profanity, coarse joking, threats, casting insults — especially of an ethnic, religious, racial &/or sexual nature … “
For his initial meaningful activity, White enrolled in a program to earn his GED. At the same time, White found work with the center monitoring their cold-weather shelters, which eventually led to his current job with the center.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in a family in which the parents didn’t get along and eventually divorced, White says he was in trouble starting in sixth grade, when he was expelled for showing off a baggie of marijuana.
He ended up in an assortment of group homes and joined the Navy before finishing high school. His military career lasted a year, says White; he was discharged when a background check caught up with him.
Then the crystal meth started. He says, “It was a drug I thought I could function on, do more work. The meth also covered just feelings about this or that, relationships, the whole nine yards.”
But after his long road, White says he was renewed at the men’s shelter, where he says he found himself treated with dignity, something he now tries hard to show to each homeless man.
Unlike some shelters, for example, men don’t have to sign up for a new bed each day. The bunk bed you’ve been assigned is your bunk bed during your stay. You get a locker with your own lock. Any religious meeting is optional.
And, although the center has a clearly spelled-out no-alcohol policy, decisions are made case by case.
When the men arrive at the reception area, there is a simple electronic device with a big button. They press, and if a red light goes on, they must blow into a breathalyzer; green light means they don’t have to. It’s a random check.
But, says Capt. Dana Libby, 55, a former 20-year Fairfax County, Va., cop who’s director of the center, “If somebody comes in at 10 at night with a trace of alcohol, we have to make a decision of what’s the proper thing to do. Turning him out on the streets of the International District, nothing good will happen. If he’s peaceful, we put them to bed and have the case manager address the issue in the morning.”
If the man registers very high alcohol content, he’s taken to the Dutch Shisler Sobering Support Center in downtown Seattle, and then talked to when he’s sober, says Libby. Shisler, who died in 2000 at age 69, was known in downtown Seattle for staffing its first detox-van pickup service.
“If he says he was at a family gathering and had a glass of wine, we tell them that, look, you have a history of alcoholism and that’s not good for you. Maybe you need to go to more meetings, whatever support works for you,” says Libby.
Who are some of the men who find help at the shelter?
There is Tom Udhus, 54, who grew up in Ballard, spent two years in the Navy in the late 1970s and worked for years at a bakery. He says he was married and has two daughters.
But, he says, “drinkin’ and druggin’ ” took over his life.
Udhus says he quit the drugs, except pot, about five years ago, and also kept on boozing.
“I was out in the streets, sleeping on cardboard, in Dumpsters,” he says.
Then, seven or eight months ago, says Udhus, he found one of his street friends, dead, sitting outside in the cold on a chair.
“I got real scared. I called my daughter,” he says. “I’ve been sober since I got here. My goal is staying sober. I got five grandchildren. I’m getting my teeth paid for by the V.A.”
There is Telly Swain, 38, who grew up in Philadelphia and did two years in the Navy in the late 1990s.
He says he doesn’t have an alcohol or drug problem. Swain says he ended up homeless after a job as a bag checker at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was cut back.
He had a second part-time job in Bellevue at a fitness center, says Swain, but he was living in an apartment near the airport and there was no bus service that’d take him to Bellevue by 5 in the morning.
His money dried up. “I got booted out of my apartment,” says Swain. Through King County Vets, he found a place at the Salvation Army shelter.
Last month, he started a job as a night security guard in downtown Seattle.
“I’m starting all over,” says Swain. “They really helped me here.”
There is David Pelletier, 49, who was in the Army in the early ’80s.
He’s from Boston, an alcoholic, and has worked kitchen assistant jobs at restaurants much of his life.
So he’s going to alcohol-treatment meetings and volunteering at the center’s kitchen. He’s put out job feelers and gotten responses, says Pelletier.
“I just got tired of it,” Pelletier says about the drinking. “Tired of not having anything because of it.”
For White, as he hears their stories, he understands.
“Having that peace of mind, that you have a roof over your head,” he says, that is what matters so much.
Speaking by phone from Las Vegas, his mother says, “I’m very proud of him. Chris needed the Salvation Army. It helped him help himself.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org