One man's story of homelessness — and the value of a good pair of shoes
Rex Aston just wanted a pair of shoes.
He could have asked for a lot more, but, he said plainly, “I only take what I need."
Aston was one of about 1,000 people who made their way to CenturyLink Field on Wednesday for the Community Resource Exchange, sponsored by United Way of King County. It's a one-day festival of reprieves from the daily challenges of homelessness.
Around the room, stations offered haircuts, foot-washing, phone calls, computer use, voter registration, mammograms, art projects, even video gaming. Between the ground-level services, there was help for larger challenges: legal advisors, financial services, employment and education counseling, and the Department of Social and Health Services.
Before the day was over, 35 people had their teeth examined, 350 people got haircuts, 40 people filed tax returns, according to Jared Erlandson with United Way. But Rex Aston just wanted a pair of shoes: jogging sneakers with lime green accents, size 8.
Aston first heard about the exchange in a brochure he found at an employment program in Renton. Still, he might have missed it if people he passed on the streets Wednesday morning hadn't told him, "They're giving out free shoes!"
The event — this was the twelfth United Way has held since 2007 — is, on the one hand, a service fair: It allows people who spend a good deal of their time just finding food and a place to sleep, and who may not have access to a car, to get a lot done in a very short time.
On the other hand, it’s an opportunity for people to make connections. For the volunteers, it’s a chance to deconstruct stereotypes they may have about people struggling with shelter. For the people seeking services, said Erlandson, it's a chance to meet “somebody who cares about them.”
As he came through the cargo-sized doors, Aston was met with a sea of volunteers — some 500 people helped with the event, according to Erlandson. They wore red, blue and green T-shirts, almost tribal markers of their corporate roots: United Way employees in blue, Bank of America in red, Starbucks in green.
Each person who came through got a personal tour guide. Aston was paired with a Bank of America employee named Jan Laskie.
After he filled out a small amount of intake paperwork, asking for his name, age and place of shelter, Aston strolled through the maze of tables. His gray hair reaches just below his jawline, but he turned down a haircut. He likes it that length, preferring instead to keep his locks under a hat.
Aston is not the homeless person Mayor Ed Murray sometimes describes: He is not a victim of the heroin epidemic, nor does he struggle with crippling mental illness. He fights his own vocal chords, perhaps because of his years of smoking, but he's thoughtful and articulate.
Aston moved to Seattle in the '80s after getting out of the Army. He got a job as a truck driver, which he held until he was fired in 2007. At the same time, he went through a divorce and, after a heated fight with his children, was charged with fourth degree assault.
It is the only spot on his record, but, in the words of the late Merle Haggard, he was now a branded man. When asked if the charge made it hard for him to get a job, Aston responded, “Not hard, impossible.”
By 2012, Aston was living out of an RV, dodging angry neighbors in Magnolia and Ballard. He could find temporary work with the help of the Millionair Club, but never a “real job,” as he put it.
Aston still hasn’t found that job. He works concessions at Safeco and CenturyLink fields, but, in his late-50s, said he’s physically not up for the labor a lot of other people in his situation can do. “My ditch-digging days are over,” he said.
But he has found shelter, thanks to the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program run through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He pays $15 a month, plus $50 for the electric bill.
The place is tucked among the new condos of Belltown, and it's a point of great pride. "They call it a studio, but it's a really a loft," Aston said. In the kitchen, he makes a mean dinner of chicken or pork.
Even at the low-price, though, he still struggles to hang on. Last year, he made $6,400. He owes $4,500 for child support. "I could never go back [to living in an RV]," he said. But the possibility is always there.
As Aston moved around the floor of the Community Exchange, Laskie asked him if he’d like to stop. Perhaps, she suggested, the legal team would have some suggestions for getting past his criminal record. He respectfully declined her offers, even turning down a meal. Today, all he needed was that pair of shoes.
Sitting at a table after he finishes his tour, Aston said he understands the stigma that many people hold toward homeless people. Before he lost his home, he said, “there was a part about life that I was kind of insulated from. I’d seen the guy with the cup who’d had too much to drink. And you have this stereotypical thought about them: worthless bums.
"Well, when you get down in there and you’re living on the streets, you find out that’s not true," he said. "There are people down in this area who are there just because of circumstances. They’re like me. They’re just stuck.”