Keith’s Story

“There’s the place I slept the first night when I was on the street,” he said. We were at 12th and Yamhill, at 5:30 a.m. It was Sunday morning, and we were filming the places where Keith used to unroll his sleeping bag and spend the night. His story is a wonderful example of the possibilities for transformation.
We only saw three other people that morning as we visited several doorways and overhangs where he regularly slept. When Keith was released from prison, he had nowhere to go—he was homeless, without resources of any kind.
Keith came from a background of criminality and violence. Many members of his large family spent time in prison. His grew up with violence. In his world, most disagreements were ultimately settled through physical confrontation. Sometimes with weapons, sometimes with common items close at hand, used as weapons.
During the sixteen years he spent in prison, he had many violent encounters. He bears multiple scars as a result of those encounters. He was experienced in dealing harshly, always able to take care of himself.
He wanted to turn from his past and live a more peaceful life. For the first several months after his release, he was trying to find his way back into a more normal life. But he wasn’t able to connect with help. Because he didn’t have addiction problems, he didn’t have any mental illness, he did not qualify for most services and programs for ‘the homeless.’
He couldn’t find work because he had a criminal record, no recent employment history, and no permanent address. He was old enough to qualify for housing help from Northwest Pilot Program, but because he had no income they couldn’t place him anywhere. He refused to panhandle, but instead collected cans for a few dollars.
Some months after release Keith became very discouraged because he couldn’t get a foothold anywhere; no job, no place to live, no services to help him. He was seriously considering doing something that would send him back to prison. Then he heard about Julia West House. He became a regular guest. We got acquainted with him and heard some of his story. He was determined to change his life.
He volunteered to help however he could at Julia West. We discovered he was reliable and consistent. We worked with him in getting his ID, then introduced him to a local cafe where he washed dishes in exchange for food. But he was still sleeping outside, with a group of other campers.
At Julia West, we have some part-time staff members we call ‘Kitchen Commandos.’ This is an entry-level job, taking care of setting up the kitchen at 6 a.m., bracing for the onslaught of guests

when we open at 6:30, then keeping the coffee brewing and the cups available, and handing out sugar and creamer. It gets a little hectic early in the morning.
When one of our Kitchen Commandos moved on, we offered the job to Keith. He has proven to be a most reliable, consistent, conscientious employee. As a result of his fifteen hours per week job, he was able to qualify for Northwest Pilot Project assistance within a week of getting the job. We helped him move into his own small apartment, just a few blocks from Julia West.
Keith has transformed his life. He said he learned about living peacefully at Julia West. We have established JWH as a civil, safe, supportive place. He has said, “Julia West saved my life.”
This is why Julia West is such an important outreach. We are focused on helping those people who ‘fall through the cracks.’ There are many resources in Portland aimed at helping people who are regarded as chronically homeless, people with addictions, people with disabilities. As we have learned, there is not much help for people who don’t have those issues, who just need a little help to reestablish themselves.
This story ends with filming out of the window, looking to the street, towards the streets where he used to sleep. Not all stories have such a positive outcome. But many do. His story is just one of the many stories of transformation we are privileged to witness at Julia West House.