"I feel like Tony the Tiger....GRRREAT!" The story of a recent Mother Bernard House graduate

A recent graduate of the Providence Mother Bernard House, “Jim” transitioned from living in his 1996 weathered RV into our shelter program on December 13, 2021. While parked behind the St. Vincent de Paul Dining (SVdP) Facility, he met our caregiver Brian Olson, coordinator of the Eureka Community Resource Center (CRC), a community outreach program of Providence.

“Jim was always in a cheerful mood, which quickly caught my attention. That’s not a typical disposition of those I encounter down at my site,” explains Olson.  

Olson’s CRC is located inside the SVdP facility, more affectionately known as, “Free Meal”. On a typical day, Mr. Olson is connecting with the dear neighbor that is often struggling with homelessness, substance use disorder and/or mental health challenges, and almost always have a history of trauma.  
“Often my interactions are brief with folks but having been down at the Eureka CRC for over 10 years, I’ve gotten to know my clients better than most service providers and I’m trusted,” states Olson.  “While I hadn’t known Jim long, I saw him volunteering with food service at St. Vincent’s and it was always a pleasure to engage with him. I had spoken to him about his RV and while he lit up talking about it, he also struggled with the maintenance of it and said that his goal was to get into more permanent housing.”  

Jim had a history of being homeless more than five times in four different states. This cycle often involved clean and sober houses and an attempt to detox and sober up, but he was ultimately unsuccessful in sobriety. When a bed became available at the Providence shelter, Olson felt he’d be the perfect fit and enrolled Jim into the program.

During their stay at the shelter, which is currently under renovation to become Providence Humboldt County’s first permanent supporting housing project, clients are given case management from one of three case managers assigned to support and ease the way of those staying there. Staff first begin by making sure each client has their vital records (CA ID, birth certificate and health insurance card) and then begin working on assisting clients with their personal goals such as improving health outcomes, applying for benefits if eligible and working towards permanent housing. During this time, case managers often get to learn more about their clients and build what is often referred to as a therapeutic relationship.  

“Building trust among those who often feel the system doesn’t work for them takes time but is critical in assisting them in reaching their goals,” states Olson. “It took a while, but Jim eventually began opening up and sharing his story, and it’s truly hard to believe that he was ever that person.” 

Born and raised in the outskirts of San Diego in 1964 to Linda and Grover, Jim believed his normal life was derailed when his father went away to Vietnam and never returned. Killed in action, Jim found himself without a father at age 2, which opened the doors for several men who would fill the role of stepfather throughout his youth. Jim’s childhood behavior would at times clash with the stepfather’s expectations. 
“It was enough to just have my hair too long to be deserving to be hit across the face, drawing blood,” recalls Jim.  “My mother spent most of her time medicating herself and down at the bar since my father passed away.  I believe my father’s death kickstarted her decline.”  

To complicate things even more, it was around age nine that mental health conditions involving auditory and visual hallucinations began to manifest. Sadly, it wouldn’t be for another 25 years before a diagnosis would lead to the path of Jim getting on Social Security disability. 

Jim says, “I still see shadow figures at times, but now at nearly 60 years old they don’t scare me anymore because I’m used to them.  I’ve talked to demons, and I’ve talked to angels."  

At age 13, Linda removed her son from the home and rented an apartment for him where he could live. Perhaps this was to protect him from the men she took company with, or to shield him from her drug use. During one of her visits to the apartment she smelt booze on his breath and asked if he had been drinking. Jim responded that he had had a few.

His mom replied, “well, I’d rather you stay at home and drink than be out there drinking.”  From then on, her weekly visits not only helped to fill his refrigerator, but also provided him with a carton of cigarettes and kept him with a steady supply of alcohol, which fueled his addiction. He’s been drinking ever since, with brief moments of sobriety.

By age 14, Jim was smoking marijuana and he recalls that at age 15, “I walked in and saw my mom with a friend, and she had a needle sticking out of her arm.” He asked what it was, and she explained she was shooting cocaine. He asked if he could try. She looked at her friend, looked back and said “sure”.  He’d continue to shoot up cocaine with his mom for about a year before she decided to stop.  

From age 15 – 18, Jim found himself selling weed and living the party lifestyle. His income from selling marijuana allowed him to live a comfortable life, but he had a bigger plan. At age 18, he’d inherit $24,000 from the federal government for his dad’s service in the military. He took that money and transformed his weed business into a meth business.  Weed takes up a lot more room for less profit.  

“It’s all I knew,” stated Jim. 
As might be expected, Jim’s first trouble with the law came at an early age.  

“My mom came to my apartment and told me I had to cut my hair (at the expectation of the current stepfather)," stated Jim.  

Jim wouldn’t do it and decided it was time to take off. He called his girlfriend and told her he was leaving, and he’d pick her up.  

“You have a car?,” she asked.  “Not yet,” he replied.  

There was a military storage facility nearby that housed several cars on it with keys in the ignition. Jim used bolt cutters, distracted the security dogs with frozen hamburgers and drove off in a 1979 Z28 Camaro. After the cops caught up with him, a good lawyer got Jim off.  Jim’s stepfather paid for it with the understanding that he’d get the haircut.

Jim’s first incarceration occurred at age 20 and would be followed by many more with convictions on possession, transportation of drugs, embezzlement, forgery, and many other felonies throughout the years. Longest incarceration was three years, then out for a few months and back in. This would be his life story for the next 20 years.  

Jim quickly realized that in order to survive in the prison he had to do two things. Add some mass through weightlifting, as he’s somewhat small at 5 9’’. Being small makes you a target and for one 16-month sentence, he went in at 119 lbs and left at 196 lbs. The other thing to survive is to figure out your hustle.  

With his experience, his hustle gravitated towards making and selling hooch/alcohol. This made him an important person behind bars to his fellow inmates and gave him access to other things. During his time incarcerated, he saw many people killed and he himself survived two stabbings.  In an attempt to stay out of trouble while incarcerated, Jim turned to the pad and pencil and further grew his skills and love for art.  

“The artwork made me realize the only limitation to me is myself,” exclaimed Jim. “I visualize what I want to draw and put it on the pad. I first began drawing dead trees when I was a kid and artwork gave me a positive way to pass the time while I was in prison.”  

Once Olson learned of this passion, he decided to buy Jim a pad and pencil and continually encouraged him to draw during his time at the shelter.  

“Jim really seemed to enjoy himself most at the shelter when he was either drawing or cooking and socializing with others,” noted Olson. “He’s got a charisma about him that brings people together. He was truly a force of building community at our shelter.”

Olson had referred Jim to a housing priority list that a new permanent supportive housing project in Arcata would soon use to lease up residents. On June 9th, Jim successfully transitioned into the permanent supportive housing project known as the West Village Project.

“I feel like Tony the Tiger….GRRRREAT!!,” exclaimed Jim when asked how did it feel to have a home, to have a place to legally park his vehicle and to have rights as a renter. 
“My time at the shelter and the staff there were a tremendous help. It allowed me to pay off my motorhome and all my bills. I wanted to end the cycle my life had become. I was tired of being in and out of homelessness and being kicked out of clean and sober houses when I couldn’t comply with their sobriety rules. I’m now at a time in my life when I want peace of mind and serenity in my last chapter. I want to pay it forward. Bring people together, help them out, feed them, and create a pleasant atmosphere and community,” stated Jim. 

“Jim’s story just reminds me of how easy it could have been to have given up on this individual that found themselves addicted to drugs and alcohol and in trouble with the law at such a young age,” states Olson. “Even throughout most of his adult life, Jim went down a very negative and destructive path. Our program and services helped to make a difference so he can live his best life now, during his final chapter. It’s never too late."