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Brother remembers panhandler as quiet, intelligent

Fri., June 5, 2009, 9:49 p.m.

Matthew Johnson died Wednesday in downtown Spokane

A longtime panhandler found dead in a downtown parking lot Wednesday attended Spokane schools as a child but dropped out of society at 19 after failing in the Army, his brother said Friday.

Matthew Johnson, 44, of Spokane, spent his adult life on the streets, earning in recent years up to $60 a day panhandling at the bottom of the eastbound Maple Street exit on Interstate 90. He slept under the freeway and befriended other transients.

It was a lifestyle that left family members in fear that he would become a victim of violence, said the brother, Bill Johnson, of Seattle.

He said he eventually learned to accept his brother’s choice.

“I can’t beat myself over the head … ‘I should have done this or that.’ You kind of have to be at peace at some point,” he said.

Police said Matthew Johnson was intoxicated when they responded to a public drunkenness complaint about four hours before he was found slumped over next to two phone booths at Fourth and Maple. An open can of beer was nearby; another unopened can was in his satchel.

Bill Johnson said an autopsy revealed no apparent cause of death. A toxicology blood test was submitted, he said. Foul play has been ruled out by police.

Matthew Johnson was carrying prescription drugs for a bipolar mental condition he apparently had since his teenage years. A drug interaction may have contributed to his death, Bill Johnson said.

Matthew Johnson grew up in a family of five children on the North Side. His father is a retired bartender and restaurant owner. His late mother was a nurse. He did not graduate from high school but earned a GED.

The turning point came when the Army discharged him after one month, but he never revealed the reason. Bill Johnson said he now believes Matthew’s mental health problems led to the discharge.

Disheartened, Matthew Johnson turned to the streets and to drinking, his brother said.

A year ago, he underwent six months of substance abuse treatment in Seattle, but returned to his life on the street, clearly afraid to change a lifestyle that Bill Johnson said had become a trap.

Last Sunday, Bill Johnson was in Spokane for a nephew’s confirmation and was leaving the city when he turned his car around and drove to the exit to see if he could find his brother. He was there. The two sat and talked.

“When he wasn’t under the influence, he was a quiet, unassuming guy, very intelligent,” he said.

“Everybody has their own gifts and strengths, and Matt surely had his, and so I always loved him as a brother.”

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