Today I’m continuing my Embracing SUCCESS series with Richard LeMieux, who ran his own successful business for 14 years and was very financially solvent, had a happy marriage and lived a decadent lifestyle. But when his business failed, he lost his livelihood, his home, his possessions, his wife of 17 years, and his children.
Suddenly, he was living out of a van with only his dog Willow for company. Willow saved him from committing suicide when things looked bleak.
Richard was homeless in Bremerton, Washington for a year and a half. With a secondhand manual typewriter, he sat at picnic tables in parks writing his new book, Breakfast at Sally’s (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008), about his journey living off the kindness of the Salvation Army’s and other organizations’ kitchens. He also describes folks he met along the way. Richard’s memoir tells the story of one man’s resilience in the face of economic disaster. His quiet determination and determined willingness to live with his situation is evident in this story of an all-too-common American condition.
Richard created the Willow Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization to raise awareness about the homeless and to help other service organizations assist the homeless with emergency housing, food, and other necessities and services. Funded by book sales, royalties, speaking fees, and corporate and private donations, The Willow Charitable Foundation is dedicated to a community-based approach to the problem of homelessness.
Richard LeMieux may not be rich but I consider him a role model for SUCCESS. He’s using his book to help people in the situation he’d been in. Here’s what he said:
What was your life like before you were homeless? I had a great life with all the trappings that indicated my success. A beautiful home on the water, boats, cars, hot tubs, exotic vacations were all part of my ‘success’ in business.
How did you become homeless? I had a directory publishing company before days of Internet prevalence in our marketplace. I did not see some of those changes coming and in one year all my biggest clients decided to build web sites instead of buy advertising in my directories. I hadn’t really built a safety net for myself that would have sustained that level of business loss.
What was your life like when you were homeless? For the first 6 months, in my mind, I could sort of tell myself that Willow (my faithful canine companion) and I were on a ‘camping’ trip. Migrating around town from church parking lots to campgrounds. I was fortunate, I still had my car, a van I stayed in, many people did not have that.
Where did you eat/sleep when you were homeless? My van was Willow’s and my “home on wheels” and we could get hot meals at The Salvation Army and other meals programs around town like The Lord’s Diner, the Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church.
How did your dog, Willow, affect your experience of homelessness? Willow continues to be my companion and she is a certified mental health service dog. The need to take care of her was and is what keeps me going.
Do you think Willow saved your life one night on a bridge? Absolutely. There was really no way that from the center of the Narrows Bridge I could have actually heard her barking in the car when I left her at the observation deck with a note on the dash saying, “This is my dog Willow, I call her the Wonder Dog, Please take care of her.” But I ‘heard’ her nonetheless. I could not leave her there by herself not knowing if she would be cared for.
What role did mental illness play in becoming homeless? My therapist at Kitsap Mental Health once told me that I should not be alive. The number of things I lost in one year, my successful business, my house, my wife, the estrangements of my children all contributed to my fall into depression and struggle with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The darkness of this time consumed me. I saw no way out.
There are a lot of stereotypes of homeless people – is there a common thread of why people become homeless or what types of people become homeless? In the ‘beginning’ when I started writing (or journaling as my therapist called it) Breakfast at Sally’s there was no purpose. Now there most definitely is a purpose. If you’d told me when I was 50 years old, atop the Eiffel Tower that I would be homeless when I was 59, I’d have said there is no way. And at 55 when I was on a cruise through Greece, I’d have said you were crazy. There will always be the stereotypes of homelessness, but what I found on the streets were people like you and me, educators and nurses, teachers and skilled labor, children and teenagers, families split between shelters. A cross section of our country and people just like us fallen on a bad time, a lost job, a medical condition, a death, a foreclosure.
How did people treat you when you were homeless? I felt like an outsider in the store, the bank, all the places that were a part of my previous life. Those that I met on the street turned out to be the purest form of relationship, there were no expectations, there was no judgment, there were those who maybe only had $5 to their name and they would give you $3 if you needed it. Generosity like I’d never seen before. I “found myself” there so to speak, in a way I never had.
What is your relationship with the Salvation Army? How do they help homeless people? I still go see Pat the cook, Major Baker, eat meals and do what I can for those still on the street. The Salvation Army does an amazing work in our communities, many times un-acknowledged. I am always struck by their “motto” so to speak and it resonates with the kindness I found there.
How can we solve this crisis of homeless people in the U.S.? WE can. That is the answer. It’s each of us doing a small thing that snowballs into a movement in our society. I am part of the formation of Willow Charitable Foundation that will work toward
doing just that. Using the awareness tool of Breakfast at Sally’s and the arts through music and visual arts in a unique way to put faces on our homeless, put a face on the statistics. Only in connecting with a story will we change our future story.
What is your life like now? Willow and I share life in an apartment and still pinch ourselves to realize what a special opportunity we have make life different for many, many people. I am ready to sit on Oprah’s couch. I want to win the Pulitzer and march that plaque down to our Salvation Army corps in Bremerton and slap it up on Major Baker’s wall. Just this far is a dream, why not dream big!
I highly recommend reading Breakfast at Sally’s if you want some inspiration and to read more about Richard’s incredible story of hope.