It will never be known whether Kim Steel found a new direction in her life during Christmas week.
The 42-year-old homeless woman with a history of substance abuse died Dec. 28. But at the time of her death, she had resolved to turn her life around, thanks to the help of a former cellmate.
The two were reunited by chance on a frigid night last month under the Maple Street Bridge. And even though her friend is gone, the former cellmate – now active in Off-Broadway ministry – remains grateful.
“Thank God she didn’t die homeless under a bridge,” Marcel Smith said. “She was here. She was clean. She was sober. She was thinking right and wanted to do the right thing.”
It was not the first time Steel had pledged to change her life, but she was never able to conquer the demons that had led her to the brink of ruin under the downtown Spokane bridge Dec. 21, a night when the temperature plunged to 4 degrees.
It was there that Smith found Steel, toothpick-thin and hobbling on crutches two months after surgery to put a rod in the leg she had broken in a fall.
Smith and other members of the Off-Broadway Family Outreach ministry were distributing donated hats, gloves and scarves to those in need when they spotted Steel.
“I said, ‘Kim, get in the truck,’ ” Smith recalled.
Steel, who had been staying at the Hope House, declined at first. She had bought some liquor and wasn’t planning to go back to the women’s shelter that night.
“Is that alcohol more important than a warm place to stay tonight?” Smith asked Steel.
It was then that Steel recognized Smith, who had been her cellmate in September at the Geiger Corrections Center, where Steel had been sentenced to 28 days on a felony assault conviction for kicking a cop while she was drunk. Smith was serving 40 days for failing to pay a fine for a 20-year-old conviction of her own.
Steel had no previous felonies, but she had three citations for driving under the influence in Whatcom and King counties, according to court records.
When Smith got out of Geiger, she returned to her new life with the ministry, preparing a West Central home to become an emergency shelter for women and their children. She and other Off-Broadway members had spent the autumn fixing up the old house at 2008 W. Sharp Ave.
She believes it was providence that led Steel – who had lived on the streets since getting out of jail – to become the first guest of the Women’s Lighthouse of Hope.
Steel came to Spokane from Bellingham for substance abuse treatment, Smith said. She was never married and had no children. Her parents, who are divorced, still live on the West Side.
“She had a hard life,” Smith said. “She told me in jail she wanted to stay clean.”
On Christmas Day, Smith gave Steel a stocking filled with nice things – a body spray, some lotion. Steel told Smith she wanted to go back into treatment.
Two days later, Steel complained of pain in her upper abdomen and asked Smith to call an ambulance. At a local hospital, she was X-rayed, given painkillers and sent home, Smith said.
On Sunday morning, Steel woke up with pain that her pills would not quell, and she again asked for an ambulance, which took her back to the hospital while Smith went to church.
Smith regrets the decision not to go to the hospital with her friend. Steel died early that afternoon of a heart attack.
But Smith believes Steel had finally found her way.
“It’s a hard life to live when you’re homeless,” said Smith, who came close to living on the streets last spring when Off-Broadway put her, her daughter and her daughter’s children up in a hotel.
Knowing Steel, she said, has strengthened her resolve to help others.