'Small miracles,' a day at a time

Man has riches to rags story of homeless survival to tell Walla Walla.

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Richard LeMieux, carries his dog Willow in this April 2008 photo after they went for a walk before church Sunday at the Salvation Army downtown Bremerton, Wash. LeMieux, who had it all, then became homeless, wrote a book on his experience, called "Breakfast at Sally's," and will be in Walla Walla this month to speak about homelessness.

It's been seven years since Richard LeMieux slept in his van, warmed against the chill of a Western Washington winter by "Willow the Wonder Dog."

In that space of time, LeMieux has been rescued from homelessness by his ability to let others into a world that included a desire to be dead and relying on others to provide nearly every sustenance.

In 2008, LeMieux's recounting of his homelessness - typed on a salvaged manual typewriter for almost four years - was published in hardback as "Breakfast at Sally's," a reference to the only diner he could afford: the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Bremerton, Wash.

The 432-page book chronicles a journey from an upper-class lifestyle of boats, big houses and overseas vacation while owning an independent publishing company, to hanging out with dope smokers on the street and hoping for enough gas to keep himself and Willow from freezing.

And its success, including scoring a coveted review in the New York Times, has allowed LeMieux the luxury of looking back and seeing how far he's come because of people who helped and believed.

He is bringing his message of hope to Walla Walla on Thursday in a 7 p.m. talk at Whitman College's Cordiner Hall, and is doing so for free. Typically he's paid $5,000 for such speaking engagements, LeMieux said in a recent interview. But when contacted by Walla Walla resident Vic Phillips to help people here see the face of homelessness, he just couldn't say "no," he said.

According to the most recent survey by the Walla Walla Homeless Coalition, the city has more than 500 residents, in 281 families, without a permanent home. While about one-fifth of them stayed in some type of residential shelter, a few told pollsters they had slept in a vehicle, outdoors or in an abandoned building the night before.

When Phillips heard those numbers, he wanted to help bring change in his home town.

"The way to make it better is always the same," LeMieux said. "First of all, recognize what it is, then take steps to change that."

It's a far cry from that day after Christmas in 2002 when LeMieux wanted to commit suicide. The impulse came when the once-conservative publisher and former sportswriter had lost all hope. As the Internet took away the need for his company's specialized publishing, depression set in, deepened by alcohol use.

Gone was his material world. Gone was his wife and even his adult children, according to the author. The only friend he could count on was his dog, a savior weighing less than 10 pounds.

It was only when he was sure he could hear Willow's frantic barking from his old van that LeMieux could pull himself off the Tacoma Narrows bridge in order to save his pup.

And it was the next day that the Salvation Army saved him.

When LeMieux began writing "Breakfast at Sally's," he had no agenda, no plan to change the world, he said. "Not to make money or to change anyone's idea about homelessness."

Nearly a decade after becoming homeless, he still doesn't know why he was compelled to write.

"I think it was mostly because I saw small miracles every day. People got fed and they got more than full plates of food at church dinners. They also got plates full of hope. Including me."

Those who serve the homeless are the unsung heroes of every day life, he said, explaining how shelter workers and others get homeless people into the dentist, the doctor and to social service agencies.

It was such people who allowed LeMieux and Willow to live in a church basement for nine months after 18-months of living in a vehicle, begging in front of grocery stores and being turned away by his kids.

It was during that time he was one of the "hidden" homeless, the author pointed out. Even those at the Salvation Army didn't realize he was sleeping under a pile of blankets in a van, he said.

"For a long time the only people who knew I was homeless were homeless people," he said.

People become homeless for all kinds of reasons, often through no fault of their own. "But once they are," LeMieux said, "it's a community problem."

Cities everywhere are facing more issues than before that can lead to homelessness. Not only are families less able to take care of extended members, but the economic reality means people are losing jobs and their homes, he pointed out.

"The new face of homelessness is a child sleeping in the back of their car, with their mother and father sleeping in the front."

There's a certain portion of society that does not want to hear that, he said. He was one of that group. "Those people are crazy, that's how I felt about both those issues," he said.

LeMieux is pleased he's been able to spread the message and help open a number of "Willow" shelters, named after his beloved companion whose presence helped outsiders view him with less judgement and fear, he said.

The dog has since died but her "legacy is pretty big for a little dog."

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