October 20, 1997

Finding the courage

to step inside



The Register-Guard


Mario Ortiz lifted coffee-colored eyes from his desk at the Eugene Service Station. Close by, a scruffy, tie-dye-clad, 20-something guy stuffed a sleeping bag in one of the homeless center's washing machines. The sleeping bag looked like it hadn't been through a spin cycle in weeks.

Similar encounters had worn stoicism into Ortiz's face. He approached the camper, just come from the woods, and said in a monotone, "Excuse me. You can't wash your sleeping bag in these machines. It's too hard on the machines."

"But it stinks. Smell it," said the client indignantly, pulling up a corner of the bag.

"I don't want to smell your sleeping bag," Ortiz said.

"Do you have a house?" the client asked in a condescending tone.

Ortiz grinned, knowing where the conversation was going. "What difference does that make?"

"Do you have a car?" the client persisted.

"Yeah. So?"

"You couldn't possibly understand what it's like being me living in the woods," he said, looking defiant.

"I understand exactly. I lived on the streets on and off for 15 years," Ortiz said, remembering when he couldn't afford to wash his own dirty sleeping bag. Back then, he shacked up with friends and family, slept in parks and huddled under bridges - experiences that equipped him for his job with the homeless.

Denied a washer, the camper took his sleeping bag outside to air it out. Ortiz returned to his paperwork.

When 37-year-old Ortiz unlocked the Eugene Service Station each morning for the past year and a half, it was as if he'd stepped into a carnival fun house: He never knew what was coming at him. Sometimes it was sad. Sometimes funny. Even dangerous. Rarely dull.

Before he left last month, Ortiz and Elaine Gammill ran the center on the city's outskirts for the St. Vincent dePaul Society. The drop-in center is open weekdays in a building just a few coats of gray paint from its former life as a gas station/convenience store.

Ortiz handled incoming clients at the front desk. He wore a gold hoop in one ear, an eagle tattoo on his forearm, and short, wavy black hair in a tiny ponytail.

Each day, he worked with up to 130 homeless people. Boxcar tramps and neogypsies. Day laborers, migrant farm workers and the unemployed. Flood victims and battered women. Prostitutes. Ex-cons. Alcoholics. Heroin addicts. Schemers and victims. Troubled folks and luckless folks society had given up on. Or maybe it's the other way around.

But Ortiz saw underneath the labels. He looked past the jokes and the bravado and saw the pain in people's eyes. He saw people without shelter from their stormy lives, humans chased from nearly every place they go.

Except the Service Station. There, they can take showers, use a private bathroom, pick up donated clothing, wash clothes, and eat at least one meal. Those services may mean the difference between maintaining and an act of desperation.

                               *               *                 *

Ortiz was stuck outside at midnight on a cold Portland night in 1984.

He'd just finished drinking up his plasma money. He hadn't slept in days. He had no food. He stood in his black leather jacket at a pay phone outside a closed Safeway store. His dad, a construction foreman nearing 50, would be sleeping at his house in Clackamas. He'd be bitter and cranky, as usual. Ortiz called anyway.

Hi, Dad. It's cold out and I don't have a place to sleep. Can I come over and sleep on the couch? Ortiz said.

No, said his dad.

In a frozen, drunken rage, Ortiz ripped the receiver off the phone and smashed it against the store's plate glass window, hoping to break the glass. Failing, he tossed a milk crate through.

He was dressed for breaking and entering in the jacket, a black stocking cap, dark jeans and black boots. He couldn't open the cash registers. He settled for a 12-pack of beer and 10 packs of cigarettes. Then he strolled out.

Ortiz was walking a block away when a patrol car pulled over.

Were you walking up the street? Did you hear any loud noises? asked the cop who got out.

No, I didn't hear anything, said Ortiz, knowing he was about to get busted. It wasn't the first time he'd committed a minor crime to get into jail.

The officer noticed Ortiz's hand was covered with blood.

How did you cut your hand? the officer asked.

Ortiz looked at the hand he had injured yanking the phone receiver loose. I don't know how I did that, he said unconvincingly.

Sitting in the patrol car's back seat, Ortiz blamed his dad.

If he hadn't been such a (jerk), I wouldn't be in this position in the first place. It's his fault I'm on the street. If he'd just let me sleep over, I wouldn't have broken into the Safeway.

At least now he had a place to sleep and food to eat while he sobered up.

                                            *                   *                    *

Looking back, Ortiz sees his life prepared him for where he is. He was an alcoholic by 15. During high school, he bounced around between his stepmom, his dad and his mom. His stepdad kicked him out when he turned 18 and had no job. He married at 20. He was divorced at 23.

After his divorce, for the next eight years - except for time in the Army - he didn't want anything more than to sit in a park and read. Or relax by a river and watch birds fly through uncomplicated lives.

The only other thing he wanted was booze. Every day. First thing in the morning. And to put him to sleep. He spent most of that time in Portland living in parks and sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges. Ortiz also lived in Spokane and Roseburg.

Like some Service Station clients, he got off the streets at times as one of the "hidden homeless," maintaining a low-income lifestyle staying with friends and relatives. "When I was drinking, I was pretty much a waste of time."

Working at the Service Station reminded Ortiz of where he used to be. As co-manager, he was paid to turn away stammering drunks, belligerent troublemakers and vacant-eyed addicts. Once, a disruptive, beefy newcomer threatened to stick a knife in Ortiz's guts when Ortiz asked him to register. Many homeless people carry knives, but Ortiz didn't see one on him. Ortiz emotionlessly explained that the man had to register for services, and the man walked out.

By the end of days like that, Ortiz's eyes glazed over and his smile disappeared. He'd managed this unpredictable station on the front lines of the local war on homelessness. He'd put himself at risk interacting with desperate people. He'd responded with empathy when he could, firmness when he had to - which was most of the time.

At home, Ortiz meditated to relieve stress he'd picked up during the day like gum on the bottom of a shoe. "Sometimes this place gets to me. Sometimes I dream about it. Nightmares. They go away."

                                           *                  *                     *

Clapping and cheering exploded as the softball rocketed into the outfield at Roseburg's Stewart Park in July 1991. Spectators jumped up from lawn chairs. Players plunged hands into ice and fished cans of beer from a cooler.

No one seemed to notice Ortiz sitting under a tree behind the lawn chair bleachers. He had his own liquid refreshment: a bottle of Mad Dog Lightning Creek wine.

Ortiz remembered playing softball 10 years earlier, when he worked for a Spokane restaurant. He didn't understand why he couldn't keep it together enough now to have that kind of life: playing softball, drinking a few beers, basking in the cheers of a wife and kids.

He walked away from the lives he was watching, back to the life he was living under a bridge.

Ortiz needed more Mad Dog. He'd been drinking three days straight. He bought booze with a bad check. Pigeons and swallows darted as Ortiz crawled up the rocky embankment under the bridge. He drank Mad Dog and watched the dark green waters of the Umpqua River drift past until they disappeared like the last eight years of his life.

Someday, somebody's going to come rescue me from this.

Cars rumbled across the bridge overhead. Bitterness brewed inside Ortiz until his anger at the world boiled out of him. He ripped on everyone who had been close to him, sure that they were the problem. Wrapped up in his Army field jacket, Ortiz leaned against a small backpack. Some nights, he drank until he passed out; then he woke up and drank some more. This night, Ortiz drank until he threw up on the dirt and rocks that had been his home for two weeks.

That's when he reached what Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as incomprehensible demoralization: He realized his life had gotten to a low point he never thought possible. It's the agonizing moment substance abusers must reach to find a way out. He was living under a bridge, too liquored up to swing a bat, much less hold a job. He owned little more than what he wore: a black T-shirt, jeans, a baseball cap and too-big Kmart tennis shoes.

Sitting in the dark, Ortiz felt something like a white-hot light slam into him through the blurry alcoholic daze.

No one was going to rescue him. Not his parents, not his brother, not his ex-wife. Especially not her. Since she divorced him for his drinking, he believed she would return. But she was married. She lived in another state with her husband and kids. And he lived under a bridge.

She's not coming back. No one's going to bail me out. I'm divorced. And no amount of punishment to myself is going to change that.

                                        *                        *                  *

Signing people in at the homeless center, Ortiz offered a service as warming as a hot shower: He listened.

One morning, a feisty regular named Frank said a Bureau of Land Management employee destroyed his camp. Ortiz listened to Frank vent as he signed up for a shower. By then, Ortiz knew that most homeless people camping illegally ignore warnings to move along. But Ortiz understood the pain of having your home destroyed, even if it was a campsite in the woods.

Having been destitute himself made him sympathetic. "Everything I've done and everything I've learned prepared me for where I am right now. This has been my lesson. This has made me who I am."

Some 650,000 to 3 million people are homeless and living in Third World conditions in this country. In Eugene, 1,200 homeless persons - one-third of them children - sought shelter on a given night last spring. That doesn't include those living in buses, cars, shacks, tents and boxcars. And it doesn't include the hidden homeless. The true number is closer to 3,600 or 4,000, said Richie Weinman, the city's housing and neighborhood manager.

Studies indicate once a person has lost a functional place in society and remained without employment or shelter for two years, the probability that person will return to the mainstream is nearly zero, local homeless activist Tom Musselwhite said.

Ortiz helped set up the Service Station in March 1996 to help people get unstuck. "Once you get into the homeless cycle, it's hard to break out of it. You don't have a job, you don't have an address, no place to shower; you don't have a car and no money for transportation. Barriers, barriers, barriers."

By listening to their stories, Ortiz has come to believe every homeless person is scarred psychologically. "All have suffered abuse in their lifetime from someone they trusted. That's a lot of pain to carry around."

                                 *                  *                   *

Ortiz grew up in Southern Oregon, in a family where drinking and violence were as common as childhood summer days spent picking beans. He was 8 when he drank his first beer. It eased the pain and anger and frustration in his head.

One day, Ortiz was packing for his grandma's house. He was taking money his father gave him that year for A's on his report cards. Dad walked into the room. He roared when he saw the cash: he was scrounging for beer money, and the boy was holding out. He gave his 10-year-old son a beating he would remember the rest of his life.

At 15, Ortiz loaned his dad $200 he had saved for his first car by working in the trailer park where they lived. His dad wanted a truck. He said his son could have it when he turned 16. But his dad sold the truck. And Ortiz never saw the money.

For years, I would never let myself get too much. Because I knew I was going to lose it.

                           *                      *                     *

Research shows up to 40 percent of homeless people suffer from drug or alcohol dependence. Everyone's road to sobriety is different. Yet, for all who look, there are road signs and mileposts, rest areas and good Samaritans. Ortiz got help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 1991, a month after the revelation under the bridge.

The VA placed the former Army mechanic into a transitional house in Eugene. He knew no one here, so he had no one to fall back on if he wanted to drink.

Eugene is also where Ortiz adjusted his attitudes about everything from work to spirituality. He tells people now that recovery is as much about changing attitude as it is about quitting drinking.

Struggling, Ortiz got sober for a year, then in 1992 slid into six months of drinking binges and homelessness. He slept under bridges and on drinking buddies' couches, or checked into the "drunk tank."

One night, two men at a friend's apartment sliced his head open to get his backpack, food stamps, food and shirts. The one-time high school wrestler couldn't stop them. In the hospital, he realized he could no longer handle life on the streets.

I could not take it anymore. I was just getting too old. I didn't want to drink anymore. I didn't want to live under bridges anymore. Ortiz also worried the child from his failed marriage might try to find him. I don't want my daughter to come looking for me after 20 years and find me under a bridge puking Mad Dog out of my nose. I don't want nobody to see me like that.

A week later in May 1993, he downed his last drink - a 40-ounce bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Then he checked into Centro LatinoAmericano's men's recovery house. Ortiz had to attend a daily support group at the VA clinic. Ten other recovering alcoholic vets sat in a ring of chairs as Ortiz described his relapse. He waited for feedback. The vets let him have it.

You're a low-life piece of (crap). You don't know how to stay sober.

You're not going to make it.

You've only been sober a week, and already you're not going to any meetings.

You're not doing anything we are to stay sober.

You're just scamming the program, looking for a way to get off the street for a while. You have no intention of staying sober.

If you don't do what you're supposed to, you're going to die.

Ortiz looked at them with arms crossed.

He was at a low point in his life, overcome with the weight of his failure.

Maybe that's what made their words sink so deep: their voices echoed his own.

There were times in years to come when their words seemed to be all that stood between Ortiz and another drink.

He protected himself for years playing a tough guy before he felt safe enough to be himself.

"I had this rough exterior. But I had the tenderness, the pain in here," he said, holding his hand over a heart that once refused to recognize emotional wounds. "I feel them now. I don't try to run away from them anymore.

"I look back at that and see a whole 'nother person. I don't see me. Because that was another life," he said.

Drinking had made it easier for Ortiz to accept homelessness. Fear he couldn't be anything else held him back. Sobriety cleared his head enough he began to want more. On May 4, 1997, he celebrated four years sober.

                           *                     *                     *

Ortiz was manager at Centro LatinoAmericano for two years when he heard St. Vincent needed two people to set up a homeless center. During his interview, Ortiz explained he wanted to help open the Service Station so there would be a place where homeless people could be safe, get cleaned up and start a new life. He had a lot to offer - personal experience, bilingual skills, expertise with Latinos and veterans. His interviewers shook his hand straight-faced and said they'd let him know.

Ortiz was in his office when he got a call the next day from Jake DuDell, St. Vincent's emergency services director.

We've decided to hire you. You have to schedule a urinalysis. You have any problem with that? DuDell said.

No. The only drugs I do now are caffeine and nicotine.

DuDell explained that Ortiz would be co-managing the center, and the best they could offer was 50 cents an hour less than his current pay.

I'll work with it, Ortiz said, hanging up the phone. He clenched his fist at his side and said, "Yes!" Smiling, he walked out.



In September, Mario Ortiz quit his job at the Eugene Service Station to return to Roseburg, where he hopes to work with the VA to open a daytime facility for homeless veterans. He is working as a cook and intake counselor with a Douglas County-run alcohol treatment center. He now lives in a mobile home in the country with his girlfriend and her children.