Eds Comment: Unmentioned in this story is Dan Winters is the subject of Brian Lindstrom’s 2006 documentary Finding Normal.
With some stories, it’s difficult to see where a story starts and ends. In this case, pick a day in the fall of 2006, call it the beginning and let the story unfold.
“What I remember about that day is that it was cool,” said Tom Patzkoski, warehouse manager for the ReBuilding Center, a North Portland outpost that resells building material.
He’d been sent to collect doors from the Estate Hotel, then a rundown Old Town property featuring small bare rooms with concrete walls and floors. Even so, the place was a beginning for tenants collecting pieces of their shattered lives.
Central City Concern, the Estate’s owner, contacted the ReBuilding Center, which daily collects roughly six tons of building material from the metropolitan area. Workers sort, price and sell it, recycling what would otherwise end up in the dump. By the end of that October day, 200 wooden hotel doors were stacked on the sales floor.
A few sold from time to time, but a year later more than 150 remained when leaders decided to panel a ReBuilding Center wall. In keeping with the spirit of the place, crews were told to wander the floor and randomly pick any 14 doors to serve as paneling. The Estate’s distinctive doors caught someone’s eye.
By the summer of 2007, the doors were hung on a back office wall.
In one sense, that’s the ending of the story.
But it was also just the beginning.
Shortly after the doors were in place, a Central City Concern employee named Daniel Winters showed up with some volunteers he was supervising.
Besides giving people a place to live, Central City starts them anew with education, counseling as well as drug and alcohol treatment programs. Part of the transition to a new life is a mission to give back to the community through the center’s Community Volunteer Corps. Teams of clients — people in center programs — are sent into the community to work with 12 area nonprofits, the ReBuilding Center being one of them.
Winters, who escaped the streets with the help of Central City, was leading a group planning to pull nails from incoming wood and help sort truckloads of donated items dropped off all day at the ReBuilding Center.
Before getting started, Patzkoski gave the group a tour. When they passed through a back room, Winters stopped and stared at a wall of doors.
He pointed to one.
That’s my door.
Light blue, a vintage five-panel door with plastic numbers — 402 — and a decal of an American flag off to the side. Winters told the warehouse manager that he’d lived behind that door at the Estate for 11 months. In that apartment, he said, he began a new life.
In the weeks following the tour, ReBuilding Center officials made some checks, looked at records and made a few calls.
Word came back that it was true.
“It’s incredible when you think about it,” said Shane Endicott, the center’s executive director and co-founder.
About that time, people at the center began calling door 402 “Daniel’s Door.”
Now, on every tour — whether it’s with schoolkids, volunteers or construction crews — employees make a point of stopping and talking about the day a man walked in, pointed at a door on the wall and said it once was his.
While the door is now part of the center’s lore, no one knows Daniel Winters’ backstory and why that door carries such meaning in his life.
Winters, 42, doesn’t look like the kind of guy who appreciates nosy questions.
He stands 6-foot-1 with nearly 230 pounds of hard muscle. Much of his body is covered with tattoos — too many to count, he says — that are a graphic history of a life he once led. Back then, he was a tough guy, a hustler, a man who knew all too well the cramped back seat of a patrol car, the sound of a courtroom gavel and a jail cell’s fetid air.
“I was born in a small town to an illiterate and drunk mother and father,” he said bluntly. “I was passed back and forth between broken families. All were addicts. I spent most of my childhood in Spokane and dropped out of school in the 11th grade.”
He drifted to Seattle and started using drugs.
“I was trapped in addiction for 24 years,” he said. “I was sent by court order to treatment centers. I was in jail. All of it stemmed from addiction. I tried to run. I was in Minneapolis and San Francisco for a while.”
He arrived in Portland in 2003 on a bus. In time, the way it always happened, he was picked up by the cops and sent to the Hooper Detoxification and Stabilization Center, which is run by Central City Concern just across the east end of the Burnside Bridge.
“I was taken there in handcuffs,” he said. “When you’re an addict, you’re engulfed in crime. It’s about low self-esteem. I was born into this disease. Those were the cards I’d been dealt.”
After a short stint in the center, he was released. Soon, though, he was back to his old ways. Then one day he hit bottom.
“Desperation is what it’s all about,” he said. “I had nothing. No place to live, no job, no money. I was sick and tired. I was going to die a dope fiend.”
Winters called himself a “garbage can junkie.
“I used anything that was around,” he said. “I was a chronic alcoholic, smoked and shot cocaine, and used heroin and meth.”
He’s not sure what happened to him, or even why, but he decided to try one last time.
In late 2003, he had a friend with a car drop him of at the Hooper center, where he voluntarily checked in for treatment. Nine days later he was released.
By chance, he ran into a Central City worker who offered to help him. Eventually, he met with a counselor and enrolled in an intensive drug treatment program. But the beginning was when he was given a place to live, an apartment to call home: room 402 at the Estate Hotel.
“I unlocked the door and it was gritty,” he said. “It looked like a jail cell. But I had a bed.”
He sat on that bed the first night and took stock of his life.
“I looked at the key in my hand,” he said. “Room 402 was mine.”
Winters spent 11 months there, laying the foundation to stay clean. He took classes at Central City’s employment access center, learned how to use a computer and how to become a leader, which was why the director of Central City Concern eventually selected him to be the lead Community Volunteers Corps liaison.
“I love helping people in the same situation I was in,” Winters said. “You have to figure out how to live life. ”
He’s married now, and earns a paycheck running the volunteer group.
“Addicts, and I was one of them, take from the community,” he said. “We’re a burden on taxpayers. Volunteering is a way to give back. This helps them build up skills. They learn how to pack a lunch, show up on time and dress right. The goal is to be self-sufficient.”
Every other month, a group graduates in a Central City ceremony.
And then a new group begins.
In time, the volunteers end up at the ReBuilding Center to work. But first they get a tour. And Winters always takes a moment to go look at his door.
“I want to remember where I came from,” he said, “and where I’m going.”