Joshua Tritt in studio at KUOW
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Joshua Tritt in studio at KUOW
Credit: KUOW PHOTO/SARAH LEIBOVITZ

"Homelessness could happen to anyone in a heartbeat"

Joshua Tritt has been homeless for 28 years. He shared his story with host Bill Radke.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Well, I've been homeless since I was 17 and I'm 45 now. That's 28, 29 years. Almost three decades. I've feel like I've kind of wasted my life. But it's, you know, I had a lot of fun at the same time. You know, I got to see a bunch of concerts. That's what really saved my life.

What do you mean?

After I get kicked out of my house at 17, I had been abused for years. I suffer from PTSD because of that. And I had been abused. It was it was very tough. And so I wasn't really shown how to be a man and how to be an adult and how to deal. So when I got kicked out of the house and we were in Salem, Oregon at the time and I went up to Portland back in the early '90s. And I just fell into drugs and crime. I didn't know what else to do. I had no guidance. And then because of my drug use, I found the Grateful Dead. And I followed the Grateful Dead in the early 90s, about the last three years of Jerry's life.

Jerry Garcia.

Jerry Garcia, and it saved my life. It gave me a work ethic.

Why a work ethic?

Because you have to work to survive on the road. You have to fill the gas tank to get to the next show. You have to eat. There's no soup kitchens on the road.

How did you feel your tank?

We sold food and T-shirts and bumper stickers and whatever we could to get by. And that community was like the family that I never had. And it was really special. They accepted me. No judgment. Some of those people I still know to this day, 30 years later.

Did they help you get sober?

No, they helped me stay high.

Are they really your real friends?

Well, yeah. Again, some of them still are. I mean, just because everyone suffers from addiction. And I feel that addiction is caused by past trauma. And everyone has had trauma in their life.

How did you get sober?

I eventually made it to New York City through seeing shows at Madison Square Garden. I met a woman there who lived in New Jersey, and I lived with her for a number of years. And she drank, but she didn't really use drugs. So she showed me how life could be without the drugs. She never told me to stop. She never asked me to quit. She just led by example. Because you can't really tell somebody to quit using drugs. You need to want to do that. You need to care enough to do that. Because you can say that you're going to quit a million times but it's really not going to happen unless you actually care about it.

You gave up drinking, too, eventually?

Yeah, I gave up the drugs and I just went full bore into drinking alcohol. And then six years and four months ago, in September of 2013, I got completely sober. And I thought things were going to improve. I was like, "all I need to do is is quit using, quit drinking, and I'll get my life together." A lot of people think that's what happens. All they need to do is quit drinking or quit using drugs.

Yeah, you hear it all the time. People say homelessness is an addiction issue for some people.

No, believe it or not, there are many sober and sane people on the streets that are working and surviving. And they just need a place to be.

Why didn't getting sober solve your problems?

Well, was just years of drug abuse and alcohol. A lot of people think that when you're an alcoholic, that you need to be drinking all the time, 24/7. You need to be drinking copious amounts of alcohol. And that's not really the case. It doesn't matter how much you drink or how often you drink, it's the reasons that you drink, you know? And I had some pretty serious issues from childhood and then the subsequent life on the streets. And it just really messed me up. For the PTSD, I had these movies rolling around in my head and I needed to silence them. And so that's why I used for a number of years. Now I use meditation and exercise and talking to people like I'm talking to you now is very helpful to get my story out here. Because alcohol is very dangerous and it damages your brain to the point where you're a dry drunk after you quit drinking. You know, the same behaviors. So it's taken me six years to get to this point.

To what point?

Well, now I'm in school at Goodwill for high school continuation and computer classes. I just found a place to camp in someone's backyard. And thank God because I can't stay in these home homeless shelters.

Well, I wanted to ask you about this week with the cold weather. Seattle opened up emergency shelters. But but you didn't want to go into those emergency shelters?

No. Most of the shelters, I think 90 percent of the shelters in Seattle, use something that's called harm reduction drug policies. Where they allow people to openly use drugs in the shelters. And I fully appreciate and support these harm reduction policies, because I don't want to see people - nobody wants to see people dying on the streets. But, you know, it's in your face all the time. There's the guy in the bunk right next to you getting high. And people are wandering around all night and stealing and fighting and screaming and yelling. And how is anyone supposed to get rest for work in the morning when there's this 24 hour tweaker party going on all the time?

There are some shelters open that don't allow drug and alcohol?

There are a few. There's the bread of life that charges five dollars a night. I don't have that kind of money right now. At the same time, when you go into these into these shelters, even the sober ones, there's bedbugs. There's parasites like scabies. There's lice, diseases. Shelters feel like jail to me. You can leave in the morning, but there's pretty much no difference between a shelter and a jail. A big dorm. You know, 50 to 100 guys. A lot of times you're showering in like a high school style dormitory shower. And the food is horrible. It's a scary place.

Joshua, you and I just met. I don't really know you. But you told me yourself that you have trauma, you have PTSD. I wonder how much of it is kind of more internal to you? Issues that keep you away from people or from even emergency shelter?

Yeah, I can't deal with anything like that. Somebody in my face. You know, people are always in your face. They're offering you drugs. And if you tell them no, they get offended, they want to fight. With my PTSD from childhood, it's not detrimental to my average my everyday life, but it is bothersome when somebody is in my face. I don't like conflict. I'd much rather just sleep outside. I'm actually, believe it or not, safer sleeping outside than I am sleeping in a shelter. ]

Even in freezing weather?

Well, you don't want to be sleeping outside with just a blanket. You have to have a warm coat like I have. You have to have the right gear. You have to have a tent. You get a good piece of cardboard to insulate you from the ground. You're not sleeping on the concrete. You're sleeping on a piece of cardboard over the dirt. And a good sleeping bag and a tarp or a tent, and you're fine. Now, there are some people that will mess with you on the streets. But that's very rare in a city like Seattle. Especially if you're sleeping in a nicer neighborhood. You're not sleeping down on the sidewalk in Pioneer Square.

You do have some experience with cold weather.

Yes. I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. And I know not to breathe out of my nose, you want to breathe out your mouth because heat escapes. But it's not that cold down here. It's not it doesn't get below like 15, 20 degrees. And that's rare.

What is your winter setup like? You're in a tent now? How are you living?

Well, my tent isn't all that great. I have an old used tent that the tent itself is in good shape. But the rain flap has some holes, has some duct tape holding it together. And I'm getting dripped on. But I don't have the rain on my face. I'm staying dry, but not completely.

What kind of belongings do you have?

I have a duffel bag full of clothing that I've saved, it got really heavy at the end. And thankfully, I have a place to store it now. But I have clothing, I have a Chromebook, an old like seven year old Chromebook that I saved up four years ago and I still have. You know, so I can look up work and stay in contact with my friends and family. I survive off of food stamps. Because even at these soup kitchens, there's the same people that are in the shelters trying to sell you drugs and pick fights and steal from you. So I carry groceries around. And my subzero sleeping bag to stay warm at night. And, you know, sleeping outside is not ideal. It's not something I would wish on anyone. It's not something that you want to do. But sometimes that's what you have to do to survive and get by, so you can live another day and hopefully eventually get off the streets.

So you're sleeping at a friend's house now, in a friend's yard? You're camping out?

I'm camping in a tent in my friend's yard.

Why won't this friend allow you to go inside on one of these really cold nights? Do you want to?

I would. I would if he would allow that. But I just met the guy. I actually don't know him very well. But he wants to help me get off the streets and this is what I need to get off the streets. This is a safe spot. With my own space and I have shelter over my head and I'm able to get up every morning and go to work and save up. And I think it's only going to take me about three months and I'll have enough to get into housing.

How did you find someone who had a yard to give to lend?

I just started posting on Facebook and just asking around on the on the social service pages. For someone who would allow someone to sleep in their garage or someone who had a spare room or a yard to pitch a tent in. And I finally found somebody. It was a miracle. Miracles happen.

You've spent some time on the streets in Seattle. What's your take on how Seattle police deal with homeless people like yourself?

Well, I've heard about the the homeless sweeps, the tent city sweeps where they're clearing those people out. I don't know too many other homeless people. I avoid other homeless people on the street. I don't know too many people in Seattle. I have a few friends in the suburbs, and they've helped me as much as they could. But so I don't deal with the police on an everyday basis. They've told me that it's OK to sleep in the city parks.

Seattle police told you you can sleep in a park?

Yeah, they told me not to sleep in doorways, but as long as I was in a city park, that was OK. And they were very kind. They were very understanding. They just ran my name to check for warrants and made sure I was who I said I was. And they gave me a warning. I'm sure if they saw me again, they would have a problem. You know, if I was on private property. And they seem to be just doing their jobs. And I don't think that they're really cracking down on us.

Well, some people say that is their job is to crack down on you.

I disagree. We have barely any beds. There are a few shelters in the city, but we don't have enough beds for for everyone that's homeless in the city. And we don't have enough safe beds, safe and sober beds in the city. We need housing. We need housing first. And it seems like the mayor just passed a huge budget to build affordable housing. And I think the city is doing everything that they can do. You know, it's a big problem.

You've been on the streets in Seattle for how long?

Two years.

Two years. Some people say that the police being kind to you enables you. It's not the help you really need. You need to be told you can't sleep here and figure out a different solution and that you'd be more motivated that way. What do you think about that?

Where am I supposed to go? Are you going to put me on a bus to another city that has to deal with me?

Well, there's a King County Council member who wants to do just that.

Yeah. Then that just puts the problem on another city who isn't as prepared as Seattle to deal with it. I think Seattle is doing a great job and I think they're doing everything that they can and that I don't know what else I'm supposed to do. And there's a lot of services here to help people. They're saving lives. There are a lot of people that are getting off the streets and I think we just need to keep at it.

Is that a reason that you came to Seattle? That you knew that there were a lot of services here?

Yes, I did come to Seattle because I heard that this is a progressive city with services that could help me get off the streets. I figured I'm already sober. I've already went through a lot of obstacles. I'm willing to work. If I could just find a safe and sober spot sleep then maybe I could get a job and save up for an apartment and finally get off the streets after 28 years. It's been a long nightmare. And I want it to end. I want to get off the streets. I want to be a stable member of society that's working and paying my taxes. I want my life back. And that's part of the reason I came here. Plus,Seattle's great. It's a beautiful city. I love it here.

I hear people say we offer all these services, and we're going to get more homeless people if we're so generous. But you're saying, "Yeah, you have services because I want this nightmare to end." How typical do you think you are compared to somebody who feels like, oh, it's gonna be easy to stay homeless in Seattle?

Well, like I've said, believe it or not, there are plenty of sober people on the streets that are working. There's a lot of homeless people that are working through the staffing agencies, like the Millionaire club. And there are people who are working towards getting off the streets. They just don't have a place to live to do that. They don't have a bed. And like I said, we don't have enough beds. You know, we might get a few more homeless people than if we didn't have these services. But I mean, we have to have some compassion for people. I just don't feel that we should just turn our shoulder to people. Because homelessness could happen to anyone in a heartbeat. You know, these people that are saying that we need to send these people away and stop helping these people and we're enabling people. Those people are just a couple paychecks away from homelessness themselves. And if they didn't have a family to fall back on that just might happen.

Along with moving in to his new friend's backyard, Joshua says he's just started working with the Millionaire Club, a nonprofit that connects people with jobs and supportive services. He's also working on getting his high school diploma, and he hopes to stay with school and work in information technology. Joshua has a blog where he posts about his life. It's called Homeless in Seattle. You can find it at bit.ly/joshtritt