WOODLAND, Wash. – Chris Becker has been in and out of jail. Not because of blatant criminality, but because Becker’s bipolar disorder triggered behaviors that brought out police. One time, he called police himself because he was getting deeply paranoid; but when the “wrong” officers showed up, he said, he protested violently and got himself tossed in the clink.
Becker’s stays in county jails and at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility for criminals with mental illness, were nothing short of brutal, he said.
“Gladiator school” is how Becker, 40, described one holding cell at Western State. “It was one of the most violent places I’ve ever seen,” he said. If you were one of the smaller, more-scared guys in the mostly unsupervised room, he said, good luck. After being repeatedly assaulted by a fellow inmate, Becker told an orderly he was getting ready to unleash one knockout punch; the orderly asked Becker to wait until the next staffer’s shift because of the inevitable paperwork.
Becker pulled himself together and got out of Western in one piece, but he never forgot the hapless folks whose problems were only made worse behind bars. He spent years as a state-certified peer support counselor with various Clark County social service agencies that work with the mentally ill homeless; now, he’s joined forces with friends in Woodland, Wash., to launch a multifaceted nonprofit agency that reaches out to people in jail – as well as people on the street.
“I have always had a heart for helping people. It’s just the right thing to do,” said Mike Rindahl, Becker’s buddy, who is president of the board of StreetReach NW.
StreetReach is based in Woodland, but it makes weekly runs to the concrete landscape beneath the Steel Bridge in Portland, where its volunteers serve hot meals to the needy, no questions asked. As many as 160 people show up on a given Saturday night, Rindahl said.
“These are people who’ve lost their jobs. These are people with alcohol and drug issues,” said Becker. “These are the people it’s easy to dismiss. I know because I’ve been one of them.”
Rindahl pulls a trailer each week that’s stuffed with good home-cooked food; a caravan of other volunteer vehicles usually follows him down so there’s a small handful of people serving.
“I want to branch out and do Vancouver, too, but I don’t have resources,” said Rindahl, 50, who is earning his GED certificate and working for Goodwill Industries now.
Actually, he’s got some: Woodland business Walt’s Meats recently donated 162 pounds of hamburger. And Columbia Sportswear handed over many boxfuls of nearly new returns. The boxes are stacked in Rindahl’s garage now, but before long they’ll find new homes with Portland’s neediest.
“If you go down there and it doesn’t touch your heart, you haven’t got a working heart,” said Odell Hayes, 75, another of the dedicated StreetReach volunteers – who describes himself as more or less homeless, too. Hayes stays with friends and family here and there, but has no fixed address in the area.
The plight of the hard-core homeless “really opened my eyes to alcohol and drugs,” Hayes said. “If you were in their shoes, what would you do to live through a day?”
Faith and fun
For the folks who have already fallen from the street to the cell, Becker and StreetReach NW are publishing The Centurion. One hundred copies of the newsletter are sent to the Clark County and Cowlitz County jails every couple of months. Becker hopes to settle into a regular publishing schedule and start up a Multnomah County edition, too.
“My idea is, somebody winds up in jail and loses everything. Maybe it’s a woman who’s been in trouble. She has no husband, no money, nothing and no place to go when she gets out,” said Becker. The Centurion, he said, is a free resource that can help that woman get plugged into services immediately – so she doesn’t land back in trouble, so she can reunite with her children, so she can get a roof over their heads right away.
It’s called The Centurion, Becker said, because that’s the biblical name for a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers. The first issue of the newsletter relates how Jesus was impressed by the Romans’ faith, which was greater than the faith of his own followers at the time.
The first two editions include a big plug for Clark County’s Center for Community Health and a long list of resources available there, from the grassroots Consumer Voices are Born peer-to-peer counseling center to crisis intervention services and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Readers will find out about the Veterans Incarcerated Project, aimed at military veterans who have committed nonviolent offenses, and Lifeline Connections, the county’s only private substance abuse treatment center.
Also publicized in The Centurion are a variety of resources and services such as a class on how to clean up your credit, services for the homeless, youth programs, medical and mental health services, job and housing opportunities and clothing resources.
Plus, there’s fun stuff such as reviews of movies, restaurants and even computer games. There’s even some original features reporting about the Portland Timbers, Camas history and personal growth and shopping on a budget. Becker is also trying to drum up contributions from local services of all sorts – anger management to YMCA – as well as incarcerated writers who just want to sound off about their personal passions, such as fishing and cars.