[Hpn] "A gentle giant" finds way back, now helps others

W.C.Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 21 Nov 2004 07:57:17 -0500

"A gentle giant" finds way back, now helps others
Full story: 

 By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

 The man in the tattered green coat is obviously drunk — and obviously 

 He has just been asked to leave a downtown homeless shelter where 
drunkenness is against the rules, and, wobbling from side to side, he is 
weighing whether to comply.

 He shakes his head, starts to whine, stomps one foot.

 Then he stares up at the Salvation Army shelter worker who asked him to 
leave. Perched above the room at a desk on a loading dock is 6-foot-5, 
270-pound Haywood McRae, whose bright yellow sweat shirt, with a black 
stripe down each sleeve, seems only to emphasize his impressive size.

 Polite but firm, McRae — a man whose boss calls him a gentle giant 
— repeats himself. "C'mon, sir, you know you can't stay here drunk like 
that. You know the rules."

 Perhaps the man in the green coat is intimidated by McRae's size. Perhaps 
this is the first time all day someone has called him "sir." Perhaps he 
knows he may want to stay here tomorrow night and doesn't want to hurt his 
chances of getting back in.

 For whatever reason, the potential confrontation is over before it begins, 
and with a shrug, the weaving wanderer heads back out into the night.

 Chances are the man in the green coat doesn't know — or wouldn't care 
— that McRae, 36, knows the world of alcohol abuse from the inside, 
that McRae himself is dependent on the Salvation Army for food, shelter and 
a new opportunity.

 This minimum-wage job, watching over a 52-bed shelter in the parking garage 
of the King County Administration Building four nights a week, is a first 
step back toward a productive life for McRae, a first step back from a 
tangle of lost jobs, lost hope and lost opportunities.

 A Navy veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, McRae said his life was a 
wash of alcohol and crack cocaine from the time he left the service in 1992 
until last summer, when he entered a program for veterans administered by 
King County and housed in the Salvation Army's William Booth Center.

 So while one Salvation Army program, the William Booth Center, gives him a 
foundation, another — the shelter in the county garage — gives him 
the responsibility and opportunity of a job.

 "The Salvation Army was here for me at the time that I needed it," McRae 
says simply. "This is one life that they have saved."

 On any given day, the Salvation Army — and 11 other agencies that 
benefit from The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy — are helping to save 
and rebuild thousands of lives around King County.

 Hungry families are given bags of groceries. Children are cared for in safe 
surroundings. Domestic-violence victims are given protection and 
empowerment. Seniors are served hot meals at home.

 And to help break the cycles of abuse and poverty, skilled professionals 
and volunteers provide counseling, mentoring, tutoring and job training.

 Today begins The Times' 26th annual campaign to assist those efforts.

 From the outside, it's sometimes too easy to view charity as a matter of us 
and them, as if those who provide social services and those who receive them 
are two separate species.

 But McRae is living proof that those worlds intersect, and that assistance 
to those in need is not simply an expense, but an investment.

 His turn to help others now

 "I'm clean and sober now, so it's time for me to reach back and see who 
else I can help," McRae said. "Then they'll reach back and help someone 
else. It's all about somebody reaching back to help someone else."

 The three-story William Booth Center, opened in 1992, looks like a small, 
plain hotel along Maynard Avenue South, on the industrial south edge of the 
Chinatown International District.

 Inside, more than 190 men find shelter and hot meals. And in a half-dozen 
different programs, they begin to put the pieces of their lives back 
together, taking steps that could help them find jobs and housing of their 

 Though the building is relatively new, its mission is historic. The 
Salvation Army has been helping homeless men in Seattle since 1900, 
conducting those services for decades from the Harbor Light Center in 
Pioneer Square.

 Forty-eight of the William Booth Center's residents live in apartments on 
the top two floors, in a transitional program in which they may stay up to 
two years, seeking employment and permanent housing. The rest of the Booth 
residents, including McRae, are in shorter-term programs in barracks-style 
accommodations on the ground floor.

 In all, the center sheltered 1,155 men over the past year.

 For McRae, home since August has been a metal-framed, lower-level bunk 
marked K-16, and a nearby narrow locker bearing the same designation. On top 
of the locker rests his small library of books, including his Life 
Application Study Bible, with 3-by-5 file cards of notes tucked inside, and 
Barron's Firefighter Exams, which he's studying with the hope of testing to 
apply for work as a Seattle firefighter.

 He goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly.

 Some of the men he lives with call him "Shaq," noting a resemblance to NBA 
star Shaquille O'Neal, and McRae doesn't mind the association. He was, after 
all, a standout center / forward at T. Wingate Andrews High School in his 
hometown of High Point, N.C.

 Whatever future he might have found in basketball, however, was swamped by 
his drinking. After the Navy, he stumbled through assorted jobs on loading 
docks, in a paint factory, in a corrugated-box printing plant. There were 
other jobs he held so briefly they've vanished from memory.

 He hit bottom last summer, with crack cocaine devouring his income and 
energy. For help, McRae turned to an older brother, a successful businessman 
in Philadelphia, and to God. "Once I started seeking him, it brought a whole 
new turning point in my life. The void I kept trying to fill with alcohol 
and drugs — he filled it."

 But he still needed help finding a way back to a positive life. While 
staying with his brother, he searched the Internet for programs for veterans 
and learned about the opportunity for help in King County.

 "He has a tenacity and a willingness to do what's necessary and what's 
suggested. That's a big help," said Joel Estey, a manager with King County 
Veterans Programs. "It's refreshing to see someone who has put so much 
thought into where they're going and how they're going to get there."

 A nap, then a night shift

 JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES        A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, 
Haywood McRae credits the Salvation Army with saving his life. 
Every Friday through Monday, McRae catches a short nap after dinner, then 
with a co-worker heads to the King County Administration Building.

 At 9 p.m., a security guard opens a gate along Jefferson Street and a small 
crew begins the process of turning the loading-dock area into a bare-bones 
shelter: no food, no TV, no services — just a grid of 52 green foam 
mats arrayed on large canvas tarps on the concrete floor, and access to a 
restroom, past the watchful eyes of the security guard.

 At 9:30 p.m., McRae takes his place at a desk as men stream in and are 
checked off a list. If they're new to the shelter — and few of them are 
— a form is filled out with basic information, including whom to 
contact in the event of a medical emergency. The answer on many of the 
forms: "911."

 Each man, as he is checked in, receives a gray wool blanket to use for the 
night, and then finds his own way to an open mat.

 Within minutes, the bodies disappear underneath the blankets. A couple of 
men read. A few talk quietly to one another. Some talk to themselves.

 At 10 p.m., most of the overhead fluorescent lights are switched off, 
though enough light remains that from McRae's vantage point, all of the mats 
can be observed.

 Morning comes early to the shelter. The lights come back on at 4:30 a.m., 
and the area is to be cleared by 5 a.m. so county vehicles can begin using 
it as a loading dock again. The men must be awakened, turn in their blankets 
and head back onto the streets.

 Harold Trujillo, the Salvation Army's shelter supervisor for the William 
Booth Center, explains why he entrusted McRae with the responsibility of 
helping manage the garage shelter.

 "Some of the street folk can, for whatever reason, be a little hostile when 
receiving direction from authority," Trujillo said. "So what I look for is, 
in my terms, a gentle giant. He's a big fella but very courteous, very 

 McRae, meanwhile, said that besides helping at the shelter, he wants to 
work with juvenile offenders, tapping the experiences of his own bad choices 
to help them in the challenges they face.

 He's determined not to be a drain on his adopted community, but an asset to 
it. "It's just a great feeling to wake up and know that you don't have to 
drink or use drugs. And to know that you are somebody," he said. "I want to 
do what I can to share that."

 Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com