Some people blame homelessness on addiction problems. But George Sidwell had been clean and sober for 17 years when he found himself out on the street.
He’d just had his first a minor stroke. “I wound up having to go through rehab, learn how to re-walk. I didn’t have money for insurance.” When his house had an electrical fire six weeks later, he had no way to rebuild.
George had been doing all the right things. “I grew up in Yakima. I had tried recovery before and just couldn’t do it. I was around it too much. I talked to my sponsor, and he said, ‘If you can go down there [west of the mountains] on a weekend, have a job and a place to live and an AA group home, then it’s meant to be.’ So that’s what I did. That was in 1995. In late 1999, early 2000, I started my own [construction] business. At the same time I was working as a maintenance supervisor.” He quit when he got his business off the ground, but “wound up losing it. You roll with the punches. You keep on going.”
Keeping going was hard. “I’m not used to having to depend on others, to people giving to me. I’m used to being the giver. I get a lot out of being able to help, whether just talking to someone [about a problem] or working with somebody struggling in recovery.”
Being on the street opened his eyes: He was “able to see that there are people out there who are homeless who can’t do anything about it. It’s not like when we were growing up, our parents telling us, ‘They’re there because they want to be.’”
George’s parents had reason to tell him that. “My mom’s dad was a tramp. He would jump the trains and go back and forth between Montana and here. He worked for the forestry there until he got to where he couldn’t jump trains no more. He lived with us until he died.”
George’s great-grandfather owned one of the first gas stations in Yakima. All his surviving family, including his mother and 30-year-old daughter, live in that area. “I have enough recovery behind me now that I could actually go back. My family’s never really been close-knit, but I want to be able to spend time [with them] without it being a funeral.” He credits his recovery to being able to reconcile with his father before he died.
At his selling locations in West Seattle, George is careful to project a good image for Real Change. “I make sure that I’m presentable. The people out here, they’re really good-hearted, and they want to help the next person that’s willing to help themselves. One guy, I asked him if he wanted Real Change, he goes, ‘So, is it really changing? Is there a real change?’ and I go, ‘Yeah! I’m getting my own place!’ He goes, ‘OK! I’ll take one, then.’”