A year and a half ago, Squirrel was one of the walking dead. At age 30 he was a train tramp riding the rails drunk and angry most of the time.
Squirrel, who only goes by his nickname, saw men hauled off boxcars either paralyzed from frostbite or frozen to death. Others were taken from the tracks, cut in half by the trains.
When the alcoholic fever lifted, he figured he was next.
When Squirrel hopped off the rails in Spokane, he heard about a clean and sober club where he could get a free cup of coffee and a bite to eat. No questions asked.
Within a month, a couple he now calls Ma and Dad - Penny and Darold Johnson - helped him stop drinking, fighting and running.
Now the three-year-old club called First Step is the one in danger of going under.
Located at 1927 E. First in the East Central neighborhood, the club could close its doors at the end of the month, said Squirrel, general manager.
First Step hasn’t paid its rent in a year and half. It needs about $3,000 a month just to keep running.
“The landlord is sympathetic,” said Penny, who owns the club with her husband, Darold. “But he’s a businessman. It’s understandable.”
First Step could qualify for some federal funding, but the Johnsons want to keep the club private and avoid the nightmare of keeping records on people who often don’t want to divulge their full names.
Darold, 54, has dreams of buying the building.
“If we could get 3,000 people to give a dollar a month, we could keep our doors open,” he said. Then he’d try to find private or corporate funding to buy the $100,000 building.
“We ain’t going to give up. We’re diehards,” he said.
Benevolence motivates Darold, but so does realism.
“In order for drug addicts to do drugs, they tend to have to sell drugs,” he said. “If we can’t get them off the street sooner or later, somebody’s going to get robbed or they’ll be in jail.”
Darold knows what he’s talking about. He’s been drunk and he’s been on the streets.
He’s been sober 14 years. “Around 12, 13, I started to steal dad’s beer,” he said. “Seems like I was an alcoholic my whole life.”
At one point, he said, he owned a home, a car, and a service station, but he lost them to alcohol.
Darold and Penny were separated for a year while he wandered from bar to bar.
“I ended up on the street after I lost my home,” he said.”It was scary. I was still drinking. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t know how to get better.”
He quit drinking after getting treatment from an inpatient program at Veterans Affairs.
He freely admits, however, to exchanging one habit for another.
“I gave up one addiction - drinking - for helping.” The Johnsons don’t make an income from First Step. They live on a $600 a month payment from a rental house on East Second that Darold inherited from his mother.
The 20 or so people who work at First Step are volunteers. They’re welcome to coffee and free meals when they’re available, said Penny. But when it comes to a place to sleep, they’re on their own. That can mean sharing an apartment or camping out by the railroad tracks.
“Officially, we are not a shelter,” Penny explained. “Occasionally we do allow people to spend the night here if they’ve got a few days to go to get into a treatment center.”
First Step is also an official community service work site. The state Department of Corrections sends non-violent offenders to the club to perform community service. First Step doesn’t get any compensation for being part of the state program, but the club can refuse to accept inmates.
Grants from Allstate Insurance, the Lions Club of Spokane and St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church as well as private donations have kept the coffee flowing freely.
“They take people in that no one else wants,” said one official at the VA who asked not to be identified. “People that have been drinking can’t get into the missions, but they (First Step) take them.”
“If someone is drunk and asking for help, we’ll give them every bit of help we can find them,” Darold said. “We’ll let them in as long as they don’t cause a problem. If they do, we’ll kick them out or call the cops.’
“This isn’t a place to catch a nap until the bar opens,” said Roger Forbes, an articulate volunteer who found sobriety six months ago after attending meetings at the club.
Each day, the club holds a 2:30 p.m. meeting for alcoholics and drug addicts who want to quit.
“You don’t have to be sober to come to meetings,” Darold said.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, when the temptation to slide into a bar seat or sink into the streets reaches its zenith, First Step holds “Candlelight” sobriety meetings at 11:30 p.m.
On Mondays, representatives from the VA visit the club and provide veterans with information on how to acquire benefits, obtain discharge papers or get into a substance-abuse treatment program.
“No one is specifically trained down there in human services, but they really care, and they really try to help these people,” said Tom Reser, VA coordinator for Homeless Veterans. “A lot of the people they take in they put to work. It keeps them clean and sober.”
Every first and third Wednesday of the month, a nurse practitioner from the Community Health Association visits.
First Step volunteers also help people get food stamps, eyeglasses through the Lions Club Eye Bank, voice mail or employment.
On any given day more than 200 will enter the low-slung building at First and Napa, said Penny. They come to sit, watch television, attend a meeting or buy a 25-cent hot dog. Some leave their hungry and footsore dogs to sleep in the yard.
The club is a jumble of rooms. There are two offices, and a common room filled with couches, easy chairs, and tables. There’s a snack bar, pinball room, laundry room and a shower, where a person can sign up for the privilege of standing under a stream of hot water with a bar of soap.
Tim Miles, 33, who lives across the street from First Step Services, calls the club “a good neighbor.”
“They keep an eye on things around here. They patrol the neighborhood. I got seven kids here, and they can play outside.”
“Last summer you didn’t see the kids,” Forbes said. “When they opened down here, this was all prostitutes and drug dealers.
“We try to keep the streets as free from the misguided element as we can.”
The club has helped many people become sober. Letters documenting an upward spiral are tacked to the office walls. Former prostitutes - two who are now married, two in community college and one a nurse - stop by every so often to say hello to Darold and Penny.
“There is something magical about this building. Things happen down here,” Forbes said.
“Sometimes I think there’s an angel hanging round here.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Sober clubs Clean and sober clubs provide a meeting and gathering place for alcoholics and substance abusers. The clubs don’t offer professional treatment or counseling for addictions. They do often serve as clearinghouses for those in need of help and can refer individuals and families to community resources. First Step Services, 1927 E. First, is Spokane’s only clean and sober club open 24 hours a day. The city’s other clean and sober centers are: The Hoot Owl, 2016 E. Sprague, open 6 a.m. to midnight. The Alano Club, 119 W. Seventh, open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Our Club, 1104 W. Second, open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.