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Best of 2011: Climbing out of homelessness, to Mount Rainier

Participants in Seattle Union Gospel Mission's recovery program reached the peak of The Mountain.

Fabulous 5

Fabulous 5 Jeff Lilley

Martin, Jackson, Jones, Harmon, and Sowle back down to earth

Martin, Jackson, Jones, Harmon, and Sowle back down to earth Photo: Jeff Lilley. Courtesy of Seattle's Union Gospel Mission

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of human effort and achievement.

A team of five homeless men from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) climbed Mount Rainier this summer, achieving a goal they had hardly imagined for themselves.

A few days after their Aug. 13 ascent to the peak, the triumphant group gathered around a table in the empty mission dining room with Mike Johnson, the UGM special projects director who led the men’s training and roped up with them for the climb. “Mike Johnson, he had a vision, and I became a part of it,” said Marcus Jackson, who got involved early. But Jackson had misgivings. “I’m 58 years old. Could I do it?”

Age and health were factors to ponder. So was the utter strangeness of the idea of climbing a mountain. Addicts learn on the streets to consider themselves different and distant from people living a normal life, whom they call 'normies,'  Johnson said.

Rolls Martin explained, “Climbing a mountain was something other people did.” This felt doubly true for the black members of the group. “Black people don't climb mountains,” laughed Lee Harmon. “We were the only three black people on the entire mountain.”

Harmon, 39, told some of his story. After serving 16 years in the Marines and then being employed in law enforcement, he lost his job. “I got so bitter afterward it was almost, like, ‘You want to see bad? I’ll show you bad.’ I experimented with crack for the first time in my life. Pretty soon I had a full-blown addiction.”

The worst part, said Harmon, was the way people viewed him when he was down and out. “I was sleeping at a bus stop on a bench. Here I’d done two tours in Iraq, I had a B.A. in criminal justice, and look how degraded I was. The core of me still said, 'I'm somebody,' but not being able to express that, people looking at you as uneducated and just wanting a handout, not knowing how you are inside — this was the most frustrating, and it made me want to be what they thought.”

Jackson nodded. “If you're here you've got a crisis in your life. My life was out of control. I have an awesome family but I wasn't supportive of them. My kids, my grandkids — I wasn't there for them.”

The lives of the other men had been equally unmanageable. Martin said, “I was so caught up in my mess that ‘normal’ to me was isolation and stress, running, being afraid.” For seven years he hadn’t been allowed to see his daughters, because “I was always leaving their lives, going back to the streets, going to jail. My ex thought it was better just to keep me away.” Scott ("Scooter") Sowle had contracted Hepatitis C from unclean needles. Lamar Jones, born in Seattle and a 26-year-old newcomer at UGM, summed up all their stories when putting his own in a nutshell: “A lot of things didn’t pan out, so I took the wrong road.”

The recovery program at UGM has a success rate of 80 percent, measured by participants remaining clean and sober for a full year afterward, Johnson said in a followup conversation. It's a 13-month program.

“To treat addictions as if they were in some kind of category of their own and didn’t grow out of somebody’s abuse and abandonment and trauma and neglect — these are very rough stories — the program will fail. Maintaining sobriety means giving them a chance to recover from what has broken them.” So besides lasting over a year the program, called New Creations, includes weekly individual therapy.

Johnson went on: “Guys who are actively homeless on the streets of Seattle have grown up in chaos. There are certain developmental steps a child has to take, that can’t be taken in chaos. UGM provides a replacement family experience, with stability, support, education, accountability, and love." It’s not just a matter of “dusting them off, getting them back on their feet, and putting them back in the game. They never had a game to begin with. If we can give them what they didn’t have, they will be able to go back into the community, and give back, too. They're just as smart, just as capable as anyone.”


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