Sobriety eluded Charles Yost for more than three decades. From 1979 until 2011, he travelled across the United States, never staying in any place for more than a few months. He worked with carnivals, held jobs as a dishwasher or janitor, making just enough money to move on.
“I was drinking the entire time,” reflects 58-year-old Yost. “I never knew how to stop drinking. I never knew about the programs you could get into to stop drinking. I didn’t really care. Alcoholics Anonymous has finally convinced me that it’s the worst addiction on earth.”
Often, Yost traveled by hitchhiking on the vast, American highways. He considered himself a vagabond during this period in his life.
“I wasn’t comfortable in cities. I stayed away from them most of the time. It’s not safe on the streets in a big city. It’s probably not safe anywhere, but I was more comfortable in the towns,” he said. “The interstate system was my sanctuary because, when I wanted to travel, it was like getting on a Greyhound bus. I could stick my thumb out and catch a ride.”
Yost arrived in Portland in 2000 and sold Street Roots for the spring months. As soon as he had enough money, he left the city to spend the summer at the picturesque Oregon coast. This became an annual ritual for Yost: return to Portland each spring, sell Street Roots, leave for a summer on the coast, move south for the winter, and continue traveling across the country.
“It was always a fantasy world,” says Yost. “All of those years because of the travel I do, it was a geographical escape. And I was getting paid to do that, I was making money.”
In 2006, Yost moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, found a job as a dishwasher, got a dog, moved into a trailer. It was his first stable home in 27 years. He also found Alcoholics Anonymous, and reunited with his family. But it didn’t stick. Soon after, he succumbed to his addiction and returned to the travelling lifestyle he knew best.
In July 2011, Yost returned to Portland without plans to stay and was reoriented as a Street Roots vendor. He began selling Street Roots and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“It got to a point,” said Yost, “where I was either going to get drunk or sell papers.” He chose the latter, and still attends AA meetings several times a week. Yost has been sober for more than 15 months.
In December, after four months in a Portland shelter, Yost signed the lease on his first apartment since 1979.
“This is a big thing for a guy who has never been permanent,” Yost said in a matter-of-fact tone as he signed the lease and related documents. Three decades of drifting were finally ready to come to an end.
The apartment, in a LEED-Gold certified building, is a small studio but fully-equipped with all necessities to make a home: a bed, bathroom, kitchenette and large picture window to let in light.
“It’s hard to believe this is happening,” Yost said when he first walked into the apartment. “I’m shocked.”
In the year since he moved in, Yost has made the space feel like home by planting a garden on his windowsill. All summer he harvested and cooked his own tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant and herbs. He says he keeps his windows open all day to get fresh air, and since he’s been sleeping inside, has gotten over his dislike of cities.
Recently, Yost completed an outpatient treatment recovery plan, and he remains an active member of AA.
“It seems like every time I stay out of addiction good things happen. And I’m not looking for a lot. I just want to stay in sobriety and stay clean,” he said.
Two things keep Yost sober: willpower and the feeling of reality he experiences now. He still sells Street Roots a few times a week. While the paper helps him pay rent, there is a simpler and more powerful reason he continues to be a vendor.
“It keeps me busy. It’s something I can look forward to doing every day for a couple hours. I go to meetings, then I look forward to going out. I get to talk to a lot of people. It keeps me out of isolation. Isolation is a bad thing when you’re in sobriety; that is the main thing that will take you back out there quick.”
As far as his plans for the future, Yost is content where he is: “I have plans but I don’t want to talk about them right now. All I have is today and that’s the way it’s got to be. One day at a time is the way you’ve got to be.”