Off the streets, on to recovery

OLYMPIA — They sold their food stamps and cashed their disability checks to pay for drugs. They performed favors for others to get free methamphetamine and marijuana.

For four years, Mike and Julie Skoczen lived on the streets of downtown. Their home was a faded Ford Taurus, packed to the windows with everything they owned. At night, they slept swaddled in blankets for warmth. They lined the windows with cardboard for insulation. They ran the car heater, when the car was working and there was gasoline in the tank.

Their addiction to drugs stopped them from seeing straight, the couple said. Family members distanced themselves.

“Drugs really mess up your short-term memory,” Julie said. “I can’t remember what I wore two days ago.”

The turning point came last winter when Mike landed in jail. The couple had grown weary of living day to day in a car, of the constant bickering, of wondering when the police would rap on their car window next.

In letters they wrote while Mike was in jail, the couple talked about quitting drugs cold turkey. They talked about getting off the streets and getting into housing. Something had to change, they said.

This is the story of a couple’s descent into drugs and a life on the streets. But it also is the story of their struggle to pull themselves out of addiction and out of homelessness.

“We wrote letters back and forth. We said to each other, ‘This has got to stop’,” Julie said.

Making a change

It took Mike, 33, and Julie, 46, a good month before they got used to the new one-bedroom apartment they moved into Feb. 8. It had been four years since they had lived someplace other than a car, motel or shelter.

“It’s a big change, moving into a place like this,” Mike said as he smoked a cigarette by the door. “It’s a big load off.”

After four years on a waiting list for housing, the couple was able to secure a housing voucher through Bread & Roses, a homeless advocacy group, and move into the apartment in the back of a duplex near the downtown post office.

The $555 monthly voucher helps pay the $650 rent and is good for a year, with the possibility of an extension. Mike’s disability checks — he was born with a nerve disorder that makes it hard to walk without a cane — combined with the couple’s paychecks from working at Labor Ready and delivering The Olympian help pay the rest of the rent, insurance and other needs.

The one-bedroom, one-bath apartment is a modest one. The entry room doubles as the kitchen nook. The television, the easy chair and the dinner table were donated by The Church of the Nazarene and other local groups.

Twin pewter wine glasses sit high on a shelf overlooking the kitchen. Julie had eyed them for four years in the window of The Finders Keepers Antique Mall downtown and hoped they’d one day be hers.

She bought them for $50 — paying in two installments — as a housewarming gift when they got off the streets.

“Something to say to ourselves ‘we can do anything’,” she said as she fingered the glasses.

The glasses haven’t been used yet. “I still have to clean them up a bit,” she said.

Having sworn off drugs, Mike and Julie are using their food stamps for food.

The difference shows in their faces and bodies. Mike gained 20 pounds in about two months, trading a 34-inch waist pair of pants for a 36-inch pair. Julie gained 15 pounds.

“And we don’t fight as much anymore,” Mike said. “We used to fight all the time. It was the dope.”

Life on the streets

Mike and Julie grew up in households with a history of substance abuse. Mike’s father was an alcoholic and both parents used drugs. He remembers when he was 12 picking his father up in alleys in a wheelbarrow. He and his brothers were in and out of foster homes.

Julie’s father was an alcoholic. At the age of 9, Julie watched her mother douse herself with gasoline, then strike a match. She didn’t know then but discovered later that her mother suffered from depression. After her mother’s death, she moved in with her uncle and aunt in McCleary.

Mike and Julie both began dabbling in drugs or alcohol at the age of 12. Julie started drinking. By the time she was in high school, she was using marijuana.

Mike never touched alcohol. “My drug of choice was pot or meth,” he said.

They grew up in separate towns in separate states but met four years ago in Olympia. Mike moved to the capital city with his uncle and had been homeless for a year. Julie, a former computer technician for the state until she forged checks and lost the job, had been homeless for about six months. They met at the old Bread & Roses soup kitchen on Cherry Street.

The couple started using methamphetamine. They sold drugs and got drugs. They funneled their food stamps and Mike’s disability checks into getting high.

It was an unstable existence. They lived in a car, hoping the day would pass without the police knocking on their windows. They moved their car from one spot to another because parking officials ticket vehicles that remain in the same spot for 48 hours. When the car’s transmission died, they’d push the car. They racked up $400 in parking tickets.

Mike got in trouble with the law. In September 2003, he was arrested on a felony count of methamphetamine possession. He pleaded guilty and spent time in jail. He faced a second count for drugs in February 2005, pleading guilty again, according to Thurston County court records.

There were times when they wanted to get away. They’d head out to Lacey, west Olympia or Priest Point Park — places the police checked less frequently.

“It was hell,” Julie said. “We were broke all the time, we were fighting all the time. It was embarrassing­ — just the looks we would get.

People would drive by, look you up and down and say, ‘How can you live like that?’ ”

It was while they were on the streets that the Skoczens met Pastor Phil Prietto of Citygate Ministries. Prietto’s group leads a growing crowd in prayer at the downtown Intercity Transit station and offers hot chocolate and clothes.

He talked to them over four years about turning their lives around. Mike was more receptive, Julie said. But the message sank in slowly over time.

Mike was in and out of jail for eight months last year.

When he got out in September, the couple asked Prietto to marry them. They were married Oct. 30, according to Thurston County records.

The couple hit rock bottom when Mike wound up in jail on a probation violation three days before Thanksgiving. Julie said she felt alone.

She talked to workers at Olympia Union Gospel Mission and started going to Capital Christian Center three times a week.

“I was praying to the Lord: ‘Just help me out of this; just get me through this,’ ” she said.

They wrote to each other, sometimes six letters a day. They talked about their frustration with living on the streets, freezing in their car and a life of uncertainty.

They decided to accept God into their lives and vowed to quit drugs. Mike said he used drugs for the last time just before he went to jail Nov. 21. For Julie, it was Christmas Day.

On the verge of housing

In January, the couple stood in the parking lot of Union Gospel Mission. Mike had just finished the orientation to become eligible for work at Labor Ready. They were eagerly waiting to hear whether they would get housing. Julie had applied for a county job as a flagger.

“We don’t like being here in the situation we’re in,” Mike said. “We’re trying to get out.”

On the dashboard of an old Dodge van, which Citygate Ministries got them after the Ford Taurus died, was a picture of three of Julie’s grandchildren. She hasn’t seen them since her eldest daughter ceased contact last year. She has asked for a reunion but the answer has been no.

She holds out hope. Julie’s youngest daughter has been telling her sister that their mother is putting drugs behind her. At one point, her eldest showed signs of relenting. Julie could see her and the children if she stayed sober, she said.

The next few days brought good news: housing. The couple moved into the one-bedroom apartment 13 days later.

‘It’s every day’

On a Tuesday night in March, Mike and Julie joined two dozen others at the Capital Christian Center’s Celebrate Recovery program. They are in the company of peers. Everyone is recovering from an addiction and reaching out for support.

This is Mike and Julie’s weekly ritual, but tonight is different. Tonight is their testimony. They will tell their story to the congregation.

Julie is nervous. She reads and rereads the pages she has prepared.

She mulls over whether to include that painful part in her past when she watched her mother set herself on fire. She asks Prietto for advice. Saying it out loud might help her heal, he says.

The trio bend their heads together and pray, Prietto’s arms encircling Mike and Julie.

The congregation assembles in the pews for the evening’s prayer and worship. Mike holds Julie’s hand as they stand and sing, at one point leaning over to kiss her cheek.

Sharma Drake, a ministry team leader for the Celebrate Recovery program, takes the microphone to introduce Mike and Julie. Drake, a former drug addict, has been sober for 25 years.

“If I can, you can too,” she says. “It’s every day, one day at a time. You don’t just get a couple days sober. You have to continue on.”

It is Mike and Julie’s turn. They take their place on stage. They tell their story, taking turns recounting their childhoods. Julie finds the strength to open up about her mother. They talk about life on the streets and on drugs. They talk about how Jesus has helped them free themselves of their addictions.

“I am four months sober today,” Mike says.

“Praise the Lord!” the congregation cries.

“Being on meth, it was awful,” Julie says. “We were on a different high every time. Things are looking up for us and we don’t ever want to go back. We thank God for this.”

Reaching for normalcy

On the road to stability, there are setbacks.

Julie didn’t get the county flagger job she wanted. A visit to the doctor found Mike’s blood pressure to be high enough to warrant medication.

Julie learned from her youngest daughter that her eldest might move to Southern California, where her husband just got a job. Julie is praying for a reunion with her daughter and grandchildren before they move.

“If they leave without me seeing the kids, that’s just going to rip me apart,” Julie says.

There are some bright points. Mike and Julie remain clean, they say.

Julie says she hasn’t had cravings, even though the couple has been approached on the streets with the promise of drugs.

Mike worries about slipping. He talks to Prietto at Citygate Ministries for strength.

“I do worry about it every day,” he says. “I’ve only been clean five months. It takes a long time for you not to really desire it anymore.

There’s times I do get cravings but I don’t let it bother me. I ask God to come into my heart.”

He regrets the things he’s done — the drugs used and sold — and the eight months in jail last year that left Julie alone on the streets, he says. He expects to be off probation July 21.

The Skoczens continue to go to Family Life Skills Center every week for counseling and to Capital Christian Center.

They see Prietto regularly. Mike has two sponsors; Julie has one. This is their support network, they said.

They have settled into a routine. They go to bed at 9 or 10 p.m. so they can wake up at 3 a.m. to deliver newspapers to 138 homes on weekdays, 170 on Sundays. They go back to bed when they’ve finished their route and wake up later in the morning. On the weekdays, they might get a call for work at Labor Ready. On Sundays, they head to church.

In their spare time, they ride their bikes — Mike needs the exercise to stop his nerve disorder from getting worse — or play pool.

They are looking for additional work. Someday, they hope to own a house. They’re starting to budget and save money.

“The next big step is to gain more financial independence, to get off food stamps,” Julie said.

They run into the homeless people they knew from the streets. Some still sell and use methamphetamine. Mike and Julie talk to them about turning their lives around. They invite them to church. They want to show them that they can get off the streets too, that the difficult is not the impossible.

Sometimes, they drive the streets where they used to park their car. They see cars packed to the windows with belongings. It reminds them of their past.

“When we reflect back on four years living in a car, I didn’t even know how we could stand it for one year,” Julie said. “I don’t ever want to go back.”

About this report

Olympian reporter Katherine Tam and photo editor Steven M. Herppich met Mike and Julie Skoczen last fall while researching a story on car camping. The couple was living in a car on the streets of downtown Olympia. Tam and Herppich did not know then that the Skoczens eventually would secure housing.

For six months, the photographer and reporter followed the couple on the streets, to their new apartment, to the clothing bank, the food bank and church and on their early morning newspaper route.

Some facts, including those about past convictions, were verified through court documents and other records.

Camping in cars

A city review of unpaid parking tickets last year found 19 cars that were abandoned or being lived in.

Parking officials wrote 438 tickets, totaling nearly $10,000 in outstanding fines.

There is no city law against car camping. The idea was raised three years ago but outcry from advocates for the homeless killed it.

Cars are ticketed if they are left in the same spot for 48 hours. But car campers move their car from spot to spot. If the car isn’t running, they’ll push it to another spot. The tickets are tied to the vehicles, not to the owners, so if people don’t re-register their car, the tickets go unpaid.