I had a restless night in the Lighthouse Rescue Mission. Surrounded by strange men snoring and coughing, rolling and talking in their sleep, I felt uneasy. At one point I awoke with dreams of being attacked by one of my roommates.
At 5:45 a.m., lights brightened the dormitory. “Good morning, gentlemen,” said a tired voice.
Bleary-eyed, I trudged through the morning devotional and ate breakfast, before meeting with Forest Stuart, 31, and Tom Freeman, 55, in front of the Mission. Forest and Tom, I’d been told, were two of the most enthusiastic job seekers in the homeless shelter. I asked to join them on their daily job search.
It was a clear, chilly morning as we walked east along the Boulevard to Fred Meyer, which has a small cafe where shelter residents warm themselves in the morning.
At Fred Meyer I bought Tom a cup of coffee, while Forest grabbed two cans of Starbucks “Double Shot” energy drink. Another group of shelter residents sat nearby; they appeared to be in their late teens and were also drinking cans of energy drinks. Forest explained they get about $200 a month in food stamps, which pays for lunches outside the shelter. Because many of the guests are addicts, caffeinated energy drinks are also popular.
We warmed up, and Tom and Forest told me how they get discouraged living at the shelter.
Tom likes to flirt with the women working at Fred Meyer, and one woman in particular had been returning his flirtations. He wanted to ask her out on a coffee date, but he didn’t have the money.
“I told her I’ll ask her out when I’m ready, but she’ll have to drive,” Tom laughed. “I keep asking myself, ‘What would a woman see in me? What do I have to offer?’”
The two men encourage each other to get out and look for work each day. Some days that’s not so easy. Other men from the shelter spend their days walking around Karcher Mall or sitting at the library, Forest said, but “you’re not going to find work if you’re not out there looking for it.”
Both men wore backpacks and sneakers. They often walk more than 10 miles a day around Nampa looking for work.
Our first stop was a hardware store downtown. The woman at the counter explained that she already had a stack of applications — motioning with her hands about two feet apart — and wasn’t planning to hire any time soon. Forest and Bob took business cards, which they could later show the shelter managers as proof they’d been job hunting.
We crossed the train tracks and headed north on Garrity. We visited a pawn shop, a tire store, a cafe, a grocery store. Most were not accepting applications. If they were, the clerk told us they weren’t actually hiring. Still, Forest and Bob diligently filled out the applications. One business seemed interested in hiring the men. A mobile phone company was looking for door-to-door salesmen, but the job would require a car, which neither man owned.
We walked to an industrial area on King’s Road west of the Nampa Municipal Airport. They filled out applications at a company that rebuilds pallets and another that wields steel beams. We sat on a beam that had been placed along the roadside and ate lunch.
Tom told me that he worked as a lineman for more than 30 years until he had a bypass heart surgery and wasn’t allowed to climb poles any more. Forest said he worked as a house painter with his ex-wife’s family, then later worked with his brother applying industrial epoxy on construction products all over the Northwest.
We walked back to Garrity, and continued toward the interstate.
They filled out applications at a gas station, and Forest counted up the tally for today’s job search. They’d been out walking for about five hours, and they visited 30 different businesses.
In all, Forest had applied to more than 300 jobs since he started his search.
“You have to wake up and make yourself get out there,” Tom said. “You can’t just sit on the curb and cry.”
After spending another night in the shelter, I met Tom and Forest for coffee at a fast food restaurant. They were, once again, filling out job applications and preparing for their daily walk around Nampa. We talked about my experience staying in the homeless shelter. I told them how I had expected more of the homeless men I’d seen on TV — hard-bitten drunks pushing grocery carts — but I was surprised by how normal everybody seemed.
Sure, many of them had some bad decisions along the way; alcoholism was obviously a problem, and many of the men had spent time in prison. But there also seemed to be plenty of plain bad luck in the form of failed marriages, lost jobs, sickness and disease.
I asked him what he had expected when he ended up there. He told me he’d had the same expectations. He never thought he’d be living in a homeless shelter, he said, and neither did most of the other residents.
“We’re just like anybody else,” he said.
As I walked away from the restaurant, back to my car and my home, I thought about a conversation I’d had Marty Mather, a 54-year-old who had been at the shelter for eight months. Marty’s knees were ruined from arthritis, and it hurt him to walk. Before moving into the shelter, he worked as a janitor and lived in a garage that had been converted into an apartment; but he lost his job and couldn’t pay the rent.
Three months earlier, while waiting in line at a grocery store with a burrito, chips and milk, somebody behind him grumbled, “These damn homeless!”
“I just walked outside and cried. I knew I was homeless in my head but not in my heart,” Marty said. “Most of us don’t meet the stereotype of the wino on the street. We just don’t have a place to go.”