The Lighthouse Rescue Mission sits among used car lots, pawn shops and chain restaurants on Caldwell Boulevard. A modest one-story building, the mission could easily be overlooked if not for the imitation lighthouse that protrudes into the sky, far from any ocean, with the words “Jesus Saves” in faded red letters along the side.
On a recent Monday afternoon, I entered the nondescript door on the eastern side of the mission and stepped into the main lobby. The lobby smelled faintly of disinfectant, dirty socks and cigarettes. A wooden cross was bolted to the far corner of the room; two holes were drilled into the arms of the cross with dark stains running down the wood. To the right of the cross hung a picture, a three-dimensional cut-out of Jesus on Calvary hill; to the left words were painted on the wall: “Jesus said I AM THE WAY THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE. NO MAN COMES UNTO THE FATHER BUT BY ME. Jon 14:6”
Adrian Thomas, a slight 49-year-old with a small silver cross around his neck, welcomed me. He explained that the shelter doesn’t allow men to come in from the streets until 4 p.m. It was only about 1:30 p.m., but Adrian offered to show me around the place and introduce me to the others enrolled in the New Life residential drug rehabilitation program.
He directed me to the northern half of the shelter, where he and the other “programmers” live.
The Lighthouse Rescue Mission houses two groups of men: the “guests” — the homeless men who stay at the shelter temporarily, and the New Life “programmers,” who have enrolled in a strict one-year regimen of prayer and counseling aimed at getting them on the path to a sober, godly life. The programmers’ rooms have three or four beds, and are decorated with personal photographs and inspirational sayings; they resemble tidy college dormitories.
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About eight months ago, Adrian was living in Middleton, where he and his mother had recently relocated from California. Two years earlier, his father died of diabetes complicated by heavy drinking. And a year later, his older brother crumpled dead on the bathroom floor from alcohol poisoning.
Adrian had been a drinker all his adult life, but after his father and brother died, he started drinking more heavily.
“I could function. I worked and had side jobs. I didn’t believe they knew, and most didn’t. I thought I had them all fooled. I never got a ticket, never went to jail,” he recalled.
Adrian kept a job as groundskeeper of his church in Middleton, even though he’d begun drinking half a gallon of vodka a day. Then in early August, his pastor found him passed out on the church’s ride-on lawnmower and brought him to the Lighthouse.
The next two weeks were a blur, as he suffered through detoxification.
“They brought in a counselor to watch me and make sure I kept breathing. They said with all the alcohol in my system, the heart usually stops,” he said.
• • •
Adrian guided me through the programmers’ quarters, which consist of several shared bedrooms, an industrial kitchen, a dining room, a computer lab, a meeting room and a small outdoor weight gym. Everywhere we turned was a reminder of Jesus’s presence, whether a cross, a Bible, a framed line of Scripture or the evangelical rock music blasting from the kitchen radio.
In the program’s early stages — there are five stages altogether, which usually take about a year to complete — programmers lead highly restricted, routinized lives. They can’t leave the building or talk to family without permission, and every minute is scheduled with counseling, prayer groups, homework and chores. When they aren’t working on their own sobriety, the programmers run the shelter’s front desk, cook food for the guests, do their laundry and host the evening prayer sessions.
If they falter in their duties, the programmers can lose what little freedom they’ve earned. Adrian told me he once got written up for sneaking a Jolly Rancher candy. Another time he was placed on restrictions for 30 days after he walked across the Lighthouse’s parking lot to see a friend’s newly bought Ranchero.
Adrian told me — and this is something I heard again and again from other programmers — that he would be dead if he hadn’t found the New Life program. Adhering to the rules, no matter how petty or arbitrary they may seem, are all part of giving up personal control, giving your will to God.
“You can’t do it on your own,” he said. “Without God you don’t have a chance.”
• • •
At 4:30 p.m. Adrian and a couple of other programmers were manning the front desk as I signed into the shelter.
Homeless visitors — called “guests” — must check in between 4 and 5:30 p.m. or they won’t be allowed to spend the night. As a new guest, I had to show my driver’s license and sign several pages of rules for staying at the shelter. Adrian informed me that I must shower daily and help with tasks like cleaning the floors and taking out the garbage. Weapons, laptops, foul language, pornography and many other things are prohibited. If I wanted to stay longer than seven days, I must get tested for tuberculosis.
Adrian handed me my bedding and directed me to my dorm room, which had six bunk beds and a stack of metal lockers. As I unfolded my sheets on the twin mattress of my bottom bunk, the other guests welcomed me.
“I see they’re giving you special treatment,” said Mike, a small goateed man with combed-back hair who reminded me of the actor Al Pacino. Mike explained that bottom bunks are a hot commodity and most newcomers are relegated to sleeping on a pad in the hallway.
In addition to Mike, there was a heavy man with thick glasses named Bob. He chewed tobacco and drank instant coffee as he told me the story of how he ended up at the shelter, which involved working on the line at a meat processing facility for a number of years before being laid off. Alcoholism somehow played a role in his troubles, but he didn’t elaborate, insisting he’d been sober for nearly a year.
Another man in his 20s lay in an upper bunk, his head peeking from under the covers. He was not supposed to be in bed until 9 p.m., when lights are turned off at the shelter; but he’d been feeling dizzy and sick to his stomach all day. He said he ran out of his medications for depression.
“I’m not going to visit the doctor until I start to feel really suicidal,” he told me. He explained that he landed in the homeless shelter after getting out of prison for a fraudulent check cashing scheme.
The only other man in the room was Hispanic, in his late 40s.
“No speak the English,” he told me, though I later heard him conversing fluently with Mike.
As I settled into my bunk, Mike gave me the run-down on the shelter. They wake every morning at 5:45 a.m., attend a morning chapel and eat breakfast before being turned out at 8 a.m. They can return between 4 and 5:30 p.m. Chapel is at 6, followed by dinner at 7. After dinner, you can do your chores, take a shower and sit around and chat.
“They treat us like children. A lot of people here need that guidance. You have to treat them like children because they can’t take responsibility for themselves,” he said.
• • •
Every evening at 6 p.m., the guests drag plastic chairs into the lobby of the shelter and sit for chapel, usually delivered by a guest speaker and musician. That evening, I took my seat at the back of the room. I could smell the odor of sweat and alcohol. A small man sitting in front of me had bloodshot eyes and seemed to be swaying in his chair.
Chapel began with requests for prayer and praise.
Several men asked for reconciliation with family, for mending of relationships with ex-wives and girlfriends. There was a prayer for a sister suffering from alcoholism, for a mother in the hospital, for two brothers who had been staying at the shelter but left to attend a funeral in Texas. The men offered praise for God’s mercy and love, praise for family, praise for donors to the Lighthouse, praise for sobriety.
A programmer — a man in his early 20s recovering from heroin addiction — wrote down all the prayers and praise, and asked everybody to bow their heads as he recites his prayer.
• • •
The guest speaker, a thin man with a worn face and curly hair, carried himself to the pulpit with a broken humility. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, and showed none of the confidence of somebody who is used to speaking in front of large groups.
He read several lines of Scripture and explained what they meant to him: the endlessness of God’s love, the need to surrender body and soul to God’s will, the addict’s powerlessness. As the guest speaker presented his testimony, the small man pointed toward him, and made the motion with his hands of somebody taking a swig from a bottle, suggesting that the guest speaker was no stranger to alcohol. After the testimony, a large man with his hair combed forward, played guitar and lead the audience in Christian folk songs. Meanwhile, a basket passed from man-to-man, collecting pocket change.
• • •
We ate a dinner of chicken nuggets and French fries, then the guests completed cleaning tasks, sweeping floors and emptying trash baskets. Some read books. Others played cards or stepped out for a smoke or took a shower or just lay in their bunks and stared at the ceiling. By 9 p.m. everybody was tucked into their beds. A programmer came into the dorm holding a clipboard. He checked our names from a list before turning off the light and leaving.
In the darkness, mattresses groaned and men cleared their throats as they settled in for the night.
“Tell me a bedtime story,” Bob said.
“Once upon a time ... I lived in a house,” replied a young man in an upper bunk.
For more on the Homeless, not Hopeless special report visit: idahopress.com/homeless