Life without hope isn’t worth living.
That’s what Richard LeMieux learned when he lost his family, his home and business and his free-spending lifestyle with dizzying speed, and found himself living in a van with his fluffy white lapdog, Willow.
LeMieux’s struggles to get off the streets and rebuild his life led to a book, “Breakfast at Sally’s” — shorthand for the Salvation Army — and a mission to get others off the streets.
Now, the 69-year-old Bremerton resident travels the country, talking about homelessness and encouraging people to address the problem in their own communities. He is speaking at 3 p.m. today at Yakima’s St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
LeMieux might not be here if it weren’t for Willow.
Two years after his life began to unravel and after six months of living in his van, he found himself on Christmas night in 2002 standing on the edge of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the rain. Cars and trucks were rumbling by. He’d parked his van near the bridge and walked out on it to die. He’d even left food and water for Willow, a bichon frise he’d adopted three years earlier.
He’d left a note asking whoever found the dog to take good care of her.
But standing out there high above Puget Sound, he worried what would happen to Willow if he jumped. He stepped back, turned around and walked to his van, where the dog jumped into his arms when he opened the door.
In the early 1980s, LeMieux left his job as a sports journalist in Ohio to run a small but successful publishing company in Washington. His free-spending lifestyle became his identity, he said.
He and his wife shared a waterfront house on the Kitsap Peninsula, three boats, tricked-out cars and expensive artwork. They vacationed in the Greek islands and other expensive locales.
But in the late 1990s, his company started losing its niche market to the Internet. LeMieux said he didn’t know what to do. He hoped for a miracle, but none came.
His financial situation nosedived and he started suffering from depression, which made it even harder for him to find a solution.
He sold the paintings, boats and fancy cars to keep his house as long as possible. His family broke apart. After losing his home in mid-2002, he and Willow lived out of his van, moving like nomads around the Puget Sound area.
After his epiphany on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, LeMieux didn’t know where to go, so he ended up sleeping in the parking lot of the Salvation Army in Bremerton. He awoke in the morning and saw dozens of homeless and poor people lined up for food.
LeMieux had never interacted with people living on the streets. Sure, he’d written checks to social service groups, but deep down, he had always assumed most were all addicts, sex offenders and worse.
“I went inside. I saw people with children acting like parents. I saw men who were behaving themselves,” LeMieux said.
He started talking with two men — “C” and Gentleman Jake. They weren’t monsters. They were people struggling to get their lives together, he said.
A day earlier, LeMieux felt like he’d lost all hope, and now, he started to get a sliver back, he said.
Day by day, he worked with what he calls his “new family” — the social workers, mental health counselors, community members and other homeless people who helped him — to get his life back and to help other people on the streets as well.
LeMieux felt compelled to write down his experiences — the people he met, lessons he learned, and the miracles and tragedies he saw. Perhaps it was his old habits as a journalist or maybe it was a therapeutic urge, but either way, most nights, he’d pull into a church parking lot and write down everything from his day.
“Pretty soon it became a lot of pages. Then all of a sudden, I realized I was writing a book, and I couldn’t stop writing,” he said.
He picked up a second-hand typewriter and pounded out his story. After several years of writing and editing, and with help from many members of his newfound family, “Breakfast at Sally’s” was published in late 2008, about six months after LeMieux and Willow moved from the van to an apartment.
The New York Times gave it a positive review, saying, “The book reads like a novel ... But it has the ring of truth, and an uplifting message that endures.”
New purpose in life
Publishing his experiences gave him new focus in life. Now that he was off the streets, he wanted to get everyone else off the streets, too.
“I’m on a mission to explain homelessness, and to inspire people to help,” LeMieux said. “I remember when I was homeless, how frightened and lonely I was.”
Helping the homeless requires action, he said. Nothing can be achieved without action.
He tells people to get involved in their community, to take action locally. “Don’t just write a check and forget about it.”
Go into shelters and out into the streets, and interact with people struggling to put their lives together, he said.
No one has to do it alone, though. He recommends working with social service groups or using them as resources to find ways to assist and encourage homeless people.
Get informed, then “go out with eyes wide open, and hope you can do something,” LeMieux said.
But it isn’t easy.
“There’s no magic wand for dealing with human problems,” he said.
Working with homeless people can be frustrating for those trying to help. LeMieux pointed to his own six-year-long path from house to van to apartment. Hundreds of “heroes” helped him along the way, he said.
Working as a group helps prevent burnout, and in the end, it’s worth it, he said.
Imagine you help some family get into a home, LeMieux said.
“You’ll know that little girl is in a warm home, and her mother is tucking her in bed, saying she’s got to get up for school tomorrow. And you’ll know you’re part of it.”