On April 22, Walter Backstrom died homeless, in one of the shelters he had found so hard to sleep in years earlier when he conducted a five-day experiment.
Some years ago, after I had written that the all-night 174 Metro bus had become a “rolling homeless shelter,” I got a call from a longtime Republican political activist who said I didn’t know the half of it.
“I know that bus firsthand,” he said. “I rode it for two nights. Changed my life.”
The call was from Walter Backstrom, a school counselor and political gadfly who I first met when he ran for the state Legislature in Bothell in the early 1990s.
He was definitely not politics as usual. Black and conservative, he delighted in being the right-wing chocolate to Seattle’s liberal vanilla.
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He loved to tell brother-from-another-planet stories. Like the time he was doorbelling the then-mostly-white suburbs, and a kid answered the door and said, “Mom, Jesse Jackson is at the door.”
He didn’t win that campaign. Later he was elected to the Woodinville Water District board (where he had a tumultuous time, marked by racial and financial turmoil). But mostly he was known in politics as an energetic volunteer for all things Republican. And as the writer of a politics column in suburban newsweeklies, called “No Excuses,” that usually skewered liberals or political correctness.
He called to poke at me all the time, especially when I wrote about race in politics.
“Hey my brother, I see you are still obsessed with us black folks!” he would joke.
But this one time, he wasn’t joking around. He wanted to tell me about an experiment he’d conducted. He had “gone homeless” for five days in South King County to see for himself what it was all about.
“It was one of the most gut-wrenching and moving experiences of my life,” he said.
He rode the 174 for two nights, dubbing it a “Motel 6 on wheels.” The next night he tried to sleep at the airport, but he was shooed out at 3 a.m. by security. The final two nights he slept in a shelter — or tried to.
“I was given a blanket, a mat and a meal,” he later wrote. “However I was unable to sleep because of the excessive snoring and other nocturnal actions of my new roommates.”
Backstrom’s account of his immersion experiment ran in this newspaper, in August 2007, under the headline “A light to guide me home.”
In it, he wrote he was startled at the sense of dread he felt at having no place to go. Even though, for him, it was all temporary.
“The emptiness frightened me,” he wrote. “I told myself this would be finished in two days. It lessened the fear somewhat.”
Usually Backstrom had some sharp political point to make. Not this time. He had called to say we should all stop bickering and help people. That was it.
Later his columns would run in the Federal Way Mirror, and I noticed he went back to what he liked the most, lampooning the left. (Example: “Liberals always want us to have discussions about race and feelings. I have a suggestion. Let’s create a new department called “The Department of Feelings.”)
But something was going askew. In 2010 he was charged with a minor assault in a domestic dispute. He eventually pleaded guilty, but not before the court, in 2011, had to put a warrant out for his arrest because he couldn’t be found.
The Federal Way Mirror dropped his column due to “controversial behavior,” the paper’s editor said.
A GOP volunteer coordinator I spoke with said Backstrom’s phone was disconnected this spring. It was odd, because Backstrom had been selected to be a delegate to this spring’s state GOP convention, which begins May 30 in Tacoma.
On April 11, Backstrom checked into the Union Gospel Mission shelter in Seattle. Not to volunteer, as he had in the past. To live there.
He was homeless. It was no experiment. Reports the Mirror, his former paper: “Personal issues related to divorce and drug abuse may have contributed.”
On April 22, he died homeless, in one of those shelters where he had found it so hard to sleep. He was 60.
Backstrom always liked to try to get the last word in our many phone calls. So here’s one more, from the ending of his column five years ago about his nights with the homeless:
“I think what I really learned about was the human spirit,” he wrote then. “I found a light that is in all of us.
“The challenge is not to allow that light to be extinguished by our circumstance. Because there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.