On street few tales end well – Transition trip has hazardous detours

From The Oregonian – November 27, 1987

John Armstrong lighted another cigarette and held it in the air in front of him.

“This is the one addiction I refuse to deal with,” Armstrong said with a smile as he sat in his tiny living room in the Rich Hotel.

Don Clark in 2009

Don Clark in 2009

The room also serves as an oasis of quiet in his often hectic day. At 35, Armstrong is a graduate of college and the streets. He is a recovering alcoholic and a former methamphetamine addict.

He also manages the Rich Hotel in Old Town, a 42-room hotel on 205 N.W. Couch St., and the 156-room Estate Hotel next door for Central City Concern.

“Even though I don’t have much at this point, it’s better than the street,” he said.

His is a success story in a book not exactly full of happy endings.

Officials at social service agencies that deal with the diverse homeless population say it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of programs that try to help people leave the streets. Also, the lack of jobs and the fragile nature of sobriety in a world lubricated by alcohol limit the chances of those who do try to change their lives.

Don Clark, executive director of Central City Concern, which manages both hotels, said more than half of the agency’s 120 employees are recovering alcoholics.

In addition, Clark said 40 percent of the 400 people a year who get into the agency’s alcohol and drug-free housing program find jobs or job training and remain sober for six months. The six-month period of sobriety is a requirement for working for Central City Concern.

“But I don’t know what happens to them after that,” he said.

Jean DeMaster, executive director of Burnside Projects Inc. [now Transition Projects], said the success rate was higher for individuals who are singled out for special help. These are people who have job skills or who are entitled to benefits they are not receiving, such as Social Security or veterans benefits.

“We had a person who was an insurance agent, and also an alcoholic for eight or nine years,” DeMaster said. “He sobered up and tried to re-enter the insurance business, but he could not adjust to the changes. Here was a professional person in his 50s with no (other) job skills.”

The agency eventually found the man a clerical job with an insurance company.

But finding jobs for people is frustrating, she said. At any one time, there may be 70 or 80 people living in alcohol-free housing who can’t find work.

And if they return to the street, it is almost impossible not to drink.

Many of those who come to night shelters are the products of what social workers call “dysfunctional families.” Many lack a high school education. They may not read or write well enough to apply for a job.

Armstrong didn’t come from that mold. He was raised in a middle-class family in Pittsburgh, where, he said, “I never saw a street person, I never saw a mission.”

He got his first taste of drugs in Alaska while working double shifts as a medic in the Army. A co-worker introduced him to methamphetamine, also known as speed.

“It didn’t take long to find out that not only did it keep me awake, but it made me feel pretty good, too,” he said.

After the Army, Armstrong worked as an emergency room technician, and then enrolled in San Bernardino Valley College in California, graduating in 1980 with a degree in general studies with an emphasis on sociology.

His good grades earned him membership in the National Honor Society — “my last significant accomplishment” — but he couldn’t find a job after college.

“Looking back on it, it was probably alcoholism and addiction” that derailed his life at that point, he said. But he really didn’t try too hard, either. It was easier just to hit the road.

He went first to Washington state where he spent a week in jail for stealing a pack of cigarettes and a beer from a grocery store in Olympia. “The judge told me never to come back to Olympia.”

He crossed the country twice over the next year, staying in missions and living on handouts.

“Wherever the ride went, I went,” he said.

Armstrong took speed when he could afford it, but more often he simply drank.

He applied for work, too, in every city he passed through but employers weren’t interested in hiring someone with no permanent address.

Eventually, Armstrong landed in Portland, a city of rivers and bridges and rain, similar in many ways to his native Pittsburgh. “I decided this has got to stop,” he said.

His wandering stopped, but not his drinking or drug taking. Not right away, anyway.

“The hardest thing is you get that belief system in you where you believe you deserve it. You think, this is where I belong, so you kind of give up,” Armstrong said.

Mary Hammons, social work program manager for the Burnside Community Council, which operates the Baloney Joe’s emergency shelter and other services for the homeless, agreed that building self-confidence was one of the hardest things about helping people get off the streets.

“They feel like failures,” Hammons said.

She said a program called New Start, run by Burnside Community Council, has been operating out of a Southeast Portland home since January. It’s an intensive 90-day program aimed at “transitioning” people off the streets.

The program’s first graduate was a hairdresser who is now working in the Northwest neighborhood, Hammons said.

But, she said, follow-up at Baloney Joe’s or other crisis-oriented facilities is rare.

“They need shelter, we give them shelter. They need food, we give them food. They hurt and we put on a Band-Aid. Lots of times we never see them again,” Hammons said.

In the last few months, however, the agency has instituted a case-management system designed to keep track of the people it serves.

After living on the streets of Portland for several months, Armstrong got a job with Burnside Projects, and stayed sober for six or seven months. Gradually, though, he went back to his old habits.

He met Richard Harris, head of the Hooper Detox Center, and learned about the disease of alcoholism.

“I thought, ‘That fits me, but I’m not going to tell anybody,’ “ Armstrong said.

He was assistant manager of the alcohol treatment program at the time, and he eventually became manager, but he still had not dealt with his own problem.

“I was told if I want to keep the job, I’d have to go to treatment,” he said. Armstrong did get treatment, and in April landed the job with Central City Concern.

He had advantages other street people don’t have — a college education, bonafide job skills — and his alcoholism hadn’t progressed to the chronic stages. “I hadn’t destroyed all my brain cells yet,” he said.

And he had an incentive. “I didn’t want to go back to the streets,” he said.

In August, he married a woman who is also a recovering alcoholic. Christie, 34, recently received her General Education Diploma, the equivalent of a high school diploma, and plans to begin winter term classes at Portland Community College, Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he would like to go into some kind of professional policy planning for homeless issues, but he said a doctorate was needed for jobs like that.

In the meantime, he and his wife are thinking about finding a motel management job — “a normal one” — maybe at the coast.

Armstrong appears to be one of the lucky ones. For those who don’t make it, even after going through the available programs, the future is bleak, although not hopeless.

“Most end up back in the night shelter. We work with them to try again,” DeMaster said. “(We tell them to) keep trying, keep trying, keep trying. One of those times it will work — or you will die from kidney failure, or liver failure, or life on the streets.”