A homeless friend freezes to death
How much are we, as a society, to blame?
BY KIM WHITING
“Kimmy!” is what he enthusiastically called me, and he’d light up the moment I, or anyone he cared about, came into view.
He loved music, and to share with me lyrics by Tulsa native Johnny Winters, his favorite artist.
Once, on his birthday, my kids and I met him at the downtown Tulsa bus station and surprised him with a mini-cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” He was blown away, overjoyed and so grateful. It was such a small gesture, but apparently having anyone celebrate him was rare and very precious to him.
He knew the Bible inside and out and also taught himself almost everything there is to know about Buddhism. He was whip-smart, tech savvy, and could fix just about anything.
He’d walk several miles to our house, offering to do repairs or yardwork. He wanted so much to be a gift to us, not a burden.
He was easily moved to tears, by tender and kind gestures, moments of pride, and the beauty in music, animals, landscapes and people.
These are some of the many memories that stand out for me, about my homeless friend Paul Hays.
In late January, I learned that Paul had been found frozen to death. I’m not sure if he’d been too far away from the three warming stations (all near each other in a mostly industrial area of downtown, and miles away from other parts of Tulsa) or just too incapacitated to even try to get to them. Having seen his steep decline during the previous year, I assume it was the latter. An employee working in a downtown Tulsa building went outside in the back for a cigarette and found Paul dead, wearing two jackets and no shoes. It was tragic that a man with such a warm heart had died from the cold. And alone.
He was 65 years old.
It broke my heart that what set him on course for such a tragic death was a lifetime of mistreatment and neglect by “The System,” and neglect even by those of us who cared about him.
I felt some guilt about how he died—not that I believed there was much I could have done to prevent it—but I simply wished that I’d been more welcoming and loving toward him while he was in Tulsa, and for not working harder to reach out to him. It was sometimes trying, caring about a man whose needs required social services and other forms of assistance that were, at best, scarce and difficult to access–especially for a homeless person. He was a friend who needed more than a friend or family member could give.
This is a story about the life trajectory that led this kind man to his heartbreaking end—and middle. It’s filled with wrong turns, bad decisions (by the individual himself and by the social service and criminal justice systems), mental health issues, drug addiction and incarceration. My hope is to shed light on the whys and hows of Paul’s story, to humanize him from the troubling statistics and suffering that he and so many others like him continue to endure in 21st century America.
I ask myself, and I ask those who will read this, “How much of the fault here lies with us, as a society? What more could have been done to help Paul? What isn’t being done that should be? And are some people simply beyond our help?”
To understand Paul’s final days and weeks, I first take you back to my initial meeting with him, 12 years ago.
I’d tracked Paul down as a surprise for my close friend Mickey Owens. Imprisoned for life in California, Mickey and I were writing a book together about his life and our friendship. I’d stumbled into this co-authorship after I reached out to organizations that worked with incarcerated people, in order to collect uplifting stories from them that would highlight that most felons are good people at the core. Instead of a short story, Mickey sent me the bones of his book manuscript, and I decided I wanted to write it with him.
From there, through Mickey and then other others, I became pen pals and friends with a couple dozen incarcerated men, collaborating with them on media that inspired social and criminal justice reform, and (being a former psychotherapist) some prison support/therapy group curricula. Some of these men have ranked among my closest friends, and these friendships have felt extra special and meaningful to me. They have been a life calling.
Mickey Owens, one of Paul Hays’ best friends during their time in prison together.
Paul had been Mickey’s best, and sometimes only true friend, during the several years they shared prison time in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. They were both incarcerated—starting in their teens—for robbing pharmacies, mainly to supply themselves with drugs that they were addicted to.
Paul had been there for Mickey during Mickey’s lowest, most challenging and least sane periods. I would discover that Paul was also that kind of friend to others. He was a caring and compassionate man, wanting to help and be of value to them. Wanting to be of value, period.
Mickey and Paul hadn’t been in contact for more than 25 years, since the early ‘80s, when Paul had been transferred to another prison. I knew that if I could find Paul, Mickey—who no longer had friends or family (besides me) on the outside— would be over the moon with happiness.
I didn’t even know Paul’s last name, but he and Mickey had been featured in a 1985 book called We’re All Doing Time, a compilation of correspondence and stories about incarcerated people, written by Bo and Sita Lozoff of The Human Kindness Foundation and Prison Ashram Project. I figured the authors might know where he was. The book was a pretty big deal when it was first published; the forward even penned by the Dalai Lama. Paul was portrayed as a pen-pal and friend of the authors.
I reached out to Sita and she emailed me back. “Kim, you’re going to love this…” she wrote, and then copied me on an email she’d just received from Paul about nine years after losing touch with him, letting her know that he was out of prison. Sita reached out to Paul on my behalf and the next day he emailed me, writing, “Anyone who is in contact with Mickey Owens is someone I am excited to talk to!”
And so it was that my friendship with Paul began.
In The Beginning
It turned out that Paul was raised in Tulsa, where I live, and had gone to middle school a few blocks from my home. But at the time I first connected with him, he was in Wisconsin, attempting to repair his relationship with his ex-wife and build relationships with their two (then young adult) children.
While he was in Wisconsin, Paul and I communicated by email, phone and letter, mostly in the name of getting to know each other, but also because I was including some stories about him in the book I was writing with Mickey. His correspondence was full of hope and enthusiasm.
I knew Paul to be in his 50s, like Mickey, and he sent me a couple of pictures of himself. His photos showed him to have a kind face, big eyes and what looked like a petite build (at 5’7” he was an inch shorter and probably 30 pounds lighter than me).
When we first talked by phone, I found him to have a low, slow voice with the very slight southern drawl of many Oklahomans. His voice was one made for lullabies or the blues. He told me he played acoustic guitar, sometimes writing his own songs, and that when he’d been out of prison the first time (after his term with Mickey), he’d performed his music in bars with a couple other musicians. He reported that he’d recently saved enough money for a new guitar and was excited to get back into his music.
When Paul reached out to Mickey via letter, Mickey was thrilled to be back in touch with his old friend again. He told me that it was like a long-lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle had been found and put back in its place. Paul felt the same. Their reconnect came just in the nick of time, because Mickey, sadly, died of liver cancer a little over a year later.
Paul was an upbeat person, always trying to stay on the positive side of things. Because of this, he didn’t talk much about his childhood or hurtful aspects of his past. (In researching for my books and articles about the incarcerated, I liked to gather information on their backgrounds—plus, I’m deeply curious about people’s stories, and am known for asking far more personal questions than most.) Yet Paul did share with me a little bit about his life, and his ex-wife Sandra (who I later got to know a bit via email and phone calls) filled in some of the blanks.
According to Paul, his father was an alcoholic and too absorbed in his addiction to pay much attention to Paul. Paul’s parents divorced when he was a pre-teen and although his father got sober after that, the two of them never really formed a connection. After the divorce, Paul says his mother, whom he adored, brought home one man after another. He became disgusted with her about this and felt abandoned, hurt and angry.
Paul says that his mom, who he described as a “hippy,” also introduced him to acid. But by then, Paul—at the age of 11—was already using and abusing other drugs, a warning sign that his underlying problems ran deep and started early. His mother wasn’t able to control him, so she sent him first to his grandmother, who also couldn’t control him. Feeling like they had no other options, his family sent him to an Oklahoma “boys home.”
This was where we, as a society, first noticeably failed Paul, sending him to a cold and punitive place, when what he needed was a psychological/psychiatric assessment, support, emotional and substance abuse counseling.
It was at the boys home that Paul really began a downturn, and also there that his trajectory toward more entrenched addiction and future subsequent incarceration was set. Paul said the staff at the facility treated the boys as if they were worthless and hopeless; the employees were cold-hearted and abusive. He claimed that when boys misbehaved, they were locked in a box for hours. Understandably, he was lonely and miserable and missed his mother. He attempted to escape, but was caught and then punished further.
Paul told me that he didn’t feel valued or valuable at an early age, and had labeled himself a screwup. Once people internalize that self-image and perception, along with the expectations of troublemaking and failure that come with it, they tend to live up to the label, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. And in doing so, they reinforce their own and others’ negative views of them.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, “Releasees with juvenile arrests are more likely to recidivate than those without juvenile criminal histories.” What this statement doesn’t address is the underlying reasons for those people to recidivate.
Those who have been in the juvenile system are more likely to have experienced childhood trauma, neglect, or low-valuation from society due to their ethnicity, sexuality, and/or socioeconomic level. If we focused resources on treating and healing core psychological and emotional issues, recognized that troubled youth are in pain and in need of compassion and self-value instead of punishment, this statistic would decline. According to medical researchers Wallace and Wang, a “combination of better mental health in-prison and increases in mental health post-release is associated with reductions in the likelihood of re-offending for both technical violations and new convictions.”
Most of the incarcerated men I know (around 75 percent) also have significant if not extreme trauma in their background. For example, one of my incarcerated friends was sodomized multiple times by his uncle at the age of seven, and yet another experienced a lengthy period of homelessness as a teen. Mickey committed his first crime at age seven, breaking into a pottery shop and breaking most of the ceramics. It’s no coincidence that he did this just a couple days after his mother, during a psychotic episode, came at him with a knife, saying she had to kill him because he was “bad.”
In 1974, at the age of 16, Paul was arrested and tried as an adult. Trying to get a “fix” for an addiction that already had a stronghold on him, Paul robbed a pharmacy. He was sentenced to 13 years, and sent to a high security prison. It was there that he met Mickey, who was serving a similar sentence for a similar crime.
This was Mickey’s description of Paul (excerpted from our book Life Sentence Life Purpose): “I had been in administrative segregation in Oklahoma’s McAlester prison for over a year when a new guy was assigned the cell next to mine. His name was Paul and I discovered that he, like me, was disillusioned with the surface of things [living a non-spiritual life]. We had long, deep conversations while still in our cells and became close friends before we had even seen each other’s faces. When we were released from Ad-Seg (solitary) and free to go out in the yard, he and I would spend hours there discussing mostly Zen Buddhism. We were growing at the same time and provided each other with a lot of support through this growth. Later in our friendship, when I would lose myself in fear and darkness, it was his light that would often dispel the delusions. We were cellies for many years and I do not believe I would have made it through without him. Other times, when I was well, it was I who offered him advice. He was the best friend I’d ever had.”
In We’re All Doing Time, the authors published a letter Paul sent them about Mickey, and this excerpt illuminated his compassion for his friend, as well as the effort he put into his friendships:
“…I’m deeply concerned with [Mickey’s] present state and am praying for him. I’ve tried to get them to let me go out to the infirmary to see him, but I don’t think they’re gonna let me do that…
“If only dear Mickey knew the love I have for him, he’d know he had a real friend…
“…Emotionally I went way down when I heard about Mickey’s state, yet spiritually I know that fuel has been added to the fire. I’m just kinda directing all the grace that God gives me toward Mickey right now. How can I best serve him?…”
Paul and Mickey made the most out of prison, especially considering the limited offerings in Oklahoma prisons in the ‘70s and ‘80s, working prison jobs, participating in religious services, reading reams of books, getting their GEDs, and in later years when college classes became available, taking those too. This is also when Paul learned to play the guitar and write songs. Both campaigned for more nutritious meals in the prison, and they began what would become a self-guided daily meditation and yoga practice.
But the fact remains that prison didn’t diminish their addictions, or even begin to address their underlying issues, as neither got any kind of prison-implemented substance abuse or mental health counseling.
And that’s still the case for most incarcerated people today.
For Mickey, the anxiety-inducing atmosphere of prison made his addiction worse, and, according to him and many of my incarcerated friends, drugs were (and are) just as available in prison, if not more so, as on the streets. What’s more, being in prison reminded Mickey and Paul every single day that they were seen as bad guys by society, reinforcing their already negative self-worth, and making success and sobriety all the more difficult.
As Mickey wrote in our book, about himself at just 15, “My life was already a string of pain and self-created failures. I was a loser from a long line of losers. I knew the kind of life that was possible for a guy like me and most certainly didn’t want to go through it sober. If I couldn’t lift myself any higher, then I would endure my low state from a chemically induced high.”
I believe Paul felt similarly, and both attested that prison did nothing to heal these issues.
Like Paul and Mickey, the vast majority of incarcerated people struggle with mental health issues, addiction, or both. According to the American Psychological Association, 64 percent of jail inmates and 54 percent of state prisoners have reported mental health concerns. And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85 percent of the prison population has an active substance use disorder or is incarcerated for a crime involving drugs or drug use.
Having befriended incarcerated men for over a decade, I can state with confidence that the true statistic on addiction in prison is higher, because many incarcerated people struggling with chemical abuse issues stay below the radar, simply because they don’t get caught with drugs. Almost all of the two dozen incarcerated people I know have addiction issues.
A recent report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “Decades of science shows that providing comprehensive substance use treatment to criminal offenders while incarcerated works, reducing both drug use and crime after an inmate returns to the community. Treatment while in jail or prison is critical to reducing overall crime and other drug-related societal burdens—such as lost job productivity, family disintegration and a continual return to jail or prison.”
Despite this conclusion, most prisons still provide little to no addiction treatment and counseling.
The report continues, “Policymakers who are against expanding drug treatment programs for convicted felons rest their case on several arguments: rehabilitation programs treat criminals too leniently; the public wants more criminals punished rather than more rehabilitation programs; and rehabilitation programs cost too much and do not work. Prisons, many contend, deter criminals and ensure that they receive their just desserts.”
Furthermore, despite the ongoing opioid crisis in the U.S.—and the proven heightened effectiveness of medically-assisted drug treatment for opioid addiction—National Library of Medicine says, “Only 5 percent of people with opioid use disorder in jail and prison settings receive medication treatment. A survey of prison medical directors suggested that most are not aware of the benefits of using medications with treatment, and when treatment is offered, it usually consists of only behavioral counseling, and/or detoxification without follow-up treatment.”
The end result is that most people in prison are still not getting the emotional and/or psychological healing they need for success in life, and to stay out of the criminal justice system.
Set Up for a Hard Life
In 2003, years before meeting either Mickey or Paul, my husband and I purchased our Tulsa home from the man who, I would later learn, was warden of the prison where Mickey and Paul met. Jack Cowley is his name, and when I told him that I was friends with Mickey and Paul, Jack informed me that Paul had been his assistant in the prison for a couple years; he described Paul as “motivated, highly intelligent, able to do anything that needed to be done,” and a hard worker.
If hard work, determination and a positive attitude were enough to override the issues that lead a person to cycle through the criminal justice system, Paul would have been fine. But unfortunately, because each time he left prison (three times in all) with the same, or even worse, self-worth, emotional issues and addiction as when he began his sentences, these strengths weren’t enough to keep him afloat when released.
According to the Harvard Political Review, “Within three years of their release, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50 percent are incarcerated again.” According to a 2022 U.S. Department of Justice report, “This rate increases to 79 percent and 83 percent at five and nine years post-release, respectively.
Besides the reasons I’ve already mentioned, prison is about the most counter-intuitive place a society can put an addict, particularly an addict with an already existing mental health issue.
“Rat Park,” a study done in the 1970s, hits this point home. In this experiment, Psychologist Bruce Alexander placed rats in a cage by themselves, with no other community of rats, and offered two water bottles, one filled with water and the other laced with heroin or cocaine. In these conditions, the rats repeatedly drank from the drug-laced bottles until 100 percent of them overdosed and died.
Alexander wondered if this result was really about addiction to the drug or whether it might have something to do with environment. To test this, he put rats in “rat parks” with other rats, and provided them room and freedom to roam, play, socialize and have sex. These rats were provided the same drug-laced bottles, yet preferred to drink from the bottles of plain water. When they did drink from the drug-laced bottles, they did so only occasionally and not a single one overdosed.
Here we are 50 years after the Rat Park experiment, still putting humans in prisons that replicate, almost exactly the conditions that led to overdoses in 100 percent of the rats (except that the incarcerated must create or purchase their own drugs illegally, which they can easily do). And then we further punish these people for acquiring or using drugs.
Some prison systems, such as in California, are now decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs so that when addicts get caught, they no longer get more time added to their sentence. But the fact remains that those who are incarcerated and struggling with addiction are already in the highly unhealthy and unnatural environment of prison, being punished for something we have long classified as an illness.
It took me 30 years to break a coffee addiction, and this was within normal, generally happy everyday life conditions. Imagine being addicted to something illegal, and having to try to overcome that addiction in an environment as bleak as prison, an environment devoid of beauty, familial relationships or even affection. Mickey once told me that many inmates who can afford to, get their hair cut at the barber, simply to be touched by someone. He also told me that the few people he knew who weren’t addicts coming into prison, developed drug habits once there because prison was “devastating to the human spirit.”
In an interview I conducted with Paul’s ex-wife Sandra after his death, she told me, “Paul and I met in Wisconsin in 1986, after he was released from his first adult prison sentence in Oklahoma—the one he served with Mickey.” Paul would have been about 28 then. “Paul and a friend were working door-to door, putting Proctor and Gamble samples on doorknobs. I don’t remember what brought Paul to Wisconsin, but apart from the cold winters, he loved it there and stayed. He also stayed because of me.”
She continued, “Honestly, we met because I was using cocaine at the time and selling it to support my use, and so Paul bought drugs from me. My boyfriend and father had died back-to-back and I had emotionally spiraled. Paul’s big soulful eyes, caring nature and big heart were what my spirit needed and he wanted to help me care for my two children (who were 10 and six at the time), from a previous marriage, which was such a gift. It may sound crazy that I’d want someone using drugs to help care for my children, but I was a good person self-medicating with drugs and so was Paul. We weren’t bad people. We were just hurting and Paul and I got that about each other.
“He ended up not doing a great job of caring for us, however,” Sandra admitted. “He was emotionally unstable, but I realize now that he had been institutionalized by his time in prison. He was very handy though and showed love by doing tasks for us, helping around the house, fixing things, yardwork and even cooking.”
A 2022 U.S. Department of Justice report states, “People exiting prison from long-term confinement need stronger support around them. Many people exhibit a low crime risk but have high psychological, financial, and vocational demands that have been greatly exacerbated by their lengthy incarceration. Additionally, unemployment presents a significant barrier to many reentrants.”
I wish I could say that support for those re-entering society after prison has improved in the35 since Paul’s first release, but just six years ago another incarcerated friend of mine entered the outside world just as Paul had—with only a bus ticket and a Walmart voucher for a small amount.
Most of my previously incarcerated friends have found the outside world to be far too fast-paced and overwhelming. Having been locked up in a bare, unchanging environment for years, where they follow rigid schedules and almost every decision is made for them, the outside world is highly stressful. Even when inmates encounter the slight changes that occur from being transferred from one prison to another, they often get what they call “relocation fatigue,” in which they’re mildly depressed, anxious, exhausted, and not able to function well for weeks. The stress of it can sometimes even cause them flu-like symptoms.
I once took a prison friend out to dinner shortly after he’d been released from a 36-year prison sentence, which began (as had been the case for Paul and Mickey) when he was still a teen. It was the first time he’d been in a restaurant in decades and having to choose something from a large menu of options was so overwhelming for him that he asked me to order for him. I encouraged him to make his own decision, but had to help him with it.
Other formerly incarcerated friends have told me that they couldn’t make or keep their own schedules when released, having become accustomed to prison bells and overhead announcements that told them when and where to go. And even friends who had fulltime prison jobs say that employment on the outside is a whole different thing—much faster-paced, with more stress and responsibilities.
Paul’s ex-wife Sandra said, “Paul got no help whatsoever when he was released from that first prison sentence, nor the ones that followed—no help getting housing or a job, no re-entry counseling to help him deal with the stress, no counseling for his emotional, mental health or addiction issues, and just enough money to get him through the first day. This took a toll on him. When he was in a good place emotionally, he was very warm and personable and made friends easily. He was caring and always wanted to help give people a leg up.
“When we got together, we tried to stay drug-free and spent almost all our time at church—almost any time it was open, we were there. And Paul played guitar with the church band. We got married in 1987 and got pregnant with our son Riley on our wedding night. Our daughter Chelsea would come into our lives soon afterward, so we had four children to care for.
Paul Hays and his wife Sandra were married in 1987, shortly after Paul was released from his first prison term.
“Looking back, I see that he was probably spiraling back into his addiction and psychological problems even before Chelsea was conceived.”
After his first release from prison, Sandra said Paul tried to develop his own computer service and refurbishing company but that he never really got it off the ground. He began pawning his office equipment, succumbing to addiction again.
“In 1989, Paul’s sister told him she’d arranged inpatient drug rehab for him in Arkansas, where she was living,” Sandra explained. “Insurance through my job covered inpatient substance abuse treatment for me, but not Paul, so his sister’s offer was the best chance for treatment Paul had. I stayed in Wisconsin to go through a 90-day rehab program, and Paul headed to Arkansas, supposedly to get treatment there.
“After I completed rehab, I pulled up roots and the kids and I moved there to be with him. I don’t know if he really went to rehab, or if his sister had really arranged it for him. Paul told me that he was sober and did seem to be for a little while. However, it wasn’t long before he began showing signs of drug use again.
“Paul was using meth again—he had been since I met him–and that’s a very difficult addiction to recover from. A couple years later (in the early 1990s), he got in trouble again, this time for stealing drugs from a veterinary hospital. That’s how he got his second prison sentence, which was almost eight years.
“The kids and I only visited him once while he was in prison, because it was too far away from where we lived—and it wasn’t long before we moved back to Wisconsin.
“When Paul got out eight years later (in the early 2000s), he had all the same issues that he’d gone in with, including the meth addiction, and he seemed even less able to cope with life outside of prison. As usual, social services didn’t provide him any help. But he was still the smart, poetic man I had married and I loved him, so the kids and I moved to Tulsa to be with him when he was released.
“This time, he was only out a couple years before he got arrested. By that point, Riley was about 11 and Chelsea eight. I’m not sure what Paul was convicted of, but he was arrested at a dealer’s apartment, and since he got sentenced to 10 years, I assume he was probably manufacturing the meth the dealer sold.
“I divorced him after that arrest and the kids and I didn’t see him again until he was released a decade later, in 2011. By then, our kids were all grown up. He had missed almost their whole childhood.”
The Beginning of the End: Released Again with No Support
It was 2011, after Paul’s third and final prison sentence ended, that Paul and I connected.
At that point in his life, he had two goals: to succeed as a free man and repair and build relationships with his ex-wife and adult children. He knew that he had a lot of reparation and trust-building work to do with his family. He was candid when he told me that his family was, very reasonably, wary, hurt and angry. He would get emotional when talking about his family and his voice would often break. He also bragged about his kids and was so impressed with the people they’d become.
Now, at the age of 53 and having spent a total of three decades in correctional institutions, Paul was released into an economy in which people without criminal records were having trouble finding work. His status as a middle-aged ex-con were tremendous hurdles to finding a job in the Great Recession, but his brother kindly pulled through for him and got him work in Tulsa. With that job, Paul built credibility and soon headed back to Wisconsin to reunite with his family and find a job on his own.
He began temping full-time for a paper packing company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin where Sandra worked. Paul claimed the people there were impressed enough with his work ethic to consider making him a fulltime company employee.
“Paul came back to us with his heart in his hands,” Sandra explained, wanting to repair his relationships with us and build a life for himself. He lived with us for a while, but apart from the time in the early ‘90s, when his sister may or may not have arranged drug treatment for him in Arkansas, he’d never had the opportunity to get the help he needed for his addiction and psychological issues, so it was all still there. He was even more institutionalized after another decade in prison, so having to try to make it in the outside world, which is very different from prison, with absolutely no help making that transition, set him up to get back into drugs and fail.”
And that’s what happened.
As Paul began to spiral again, so did his relationship with Sandra and the kids. She says he became verbally and sometimes physically aggressive.
However, Paul was always good at making good first impressions and he befriended a man who ran a dairy farm in another Wisconsin town. The man hired Paul to work for him, and even gave him a place to live. Sandra said the distance made it easier for the two of them to have the discussions they needed to have, without as much emotional volatility.
Paul told me that the work and hours at the farm were very hard, but he enjoyed being there. He loved the cows like they were his family, and would get emotional if one was sick or gave birth. I could tell it felt good for him to have something to care for, beneficiaries of his big and sentimental heart.
Paul Hays loved working at a dairy farm in Wisconsin in the early 2010s.
Unfortunately, his addiction—probably exacerbated by fatigue and loneliness—reared its ugly head again, and he lost his job and the apartment that went with it.
After that, Paul made his way back to Tulsa around 2014, to try and get approved for disability, and my family and I agreed to temporarily take him in. Paul told me that he had burned pretty much all of the bridges with his siblings who lived in Tulsa. He was hurt that they wouldn’t give him another chance, but I wondered if they’d already given him plenty of chances. An untreated addict, especially one under great stress, is highly prone to breaking promises of sobriety.
At first, I drove him all over town in order to help him get on the very long government and agency-subsidized drug rehab lists, and to get connected to other resources, but ultimately it was too much for me being a case worker and source of transportation for someone struggling with addiction. Not only that, but I wouldn’t leave him unsupervised in the house with my two young children, and this made our days awkward and a little challenging.
So, after just nine days, I dropped Paul off at a homeless shelter (with a bus pass), to get more established in “the system.” It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was abandoning him, and felt like I was feeding him to the wolves. But I was at a loss for what else to do. He was totally understanding about this and consoled me, saying that he’d be okay, but it was nonetheless heartbreaking.
I found that trying to make up for what the “rehabilitation” and social services systems did not provide was exhausting, beyond my capacity, and it wore me out. From a brief conversation that I later had with Paul’s brother, I got the impression that Paul’s family had arrived at that feeling of helplessness and exhaustion long before I had.
Paul Hays, during the short time he stayed with Kim Whiting and her family in their Tulsa, Oklahoma home.
Paul was resourceful, however, and within a couple of weeks, he was able to find a room at a home in Tulsa for men in recovery. Still, he said the men weren’t provided counseling or any kind of treatment. They were responsible for finding their own way to required 12-step meetings—which was challenging without transportation, especially in a city with sub-par public transit. And of course, 12-step groups aren’t for everybody. Some people are too mired in addiction and untreated underlying mental health and emotional issues, as well as life stressors (all of which 12-step groups don’t really address), to begin to attempt sobriety. This was the case for Paul. The home also required the men to pay a small rent each month, and with no employment, this added to Paul’s stress.
Paul was actively looking and networking for jobs. A well-groomed appearance was important to him and he was remarkable in his ability to find nice clothes at the shelter and keep them clean and (miraculously) unwrinkled. He favored button-down shirts and always managed, even during homeless periods, to look presentable. However, he’d lost most of his teeth because of meth use and, as a result, wasn’t hired for any jobs in which he’d need to interact directly with the public.
Even though my friends and I networked to try and find him jobs, people were understandably hesitant to hire someone with a history of addiction and felonies. Nonetheless, Paul would get up at 4 am each morning in order to walk the mile and a half from the men’s home to a parking lot where builders and other companies that used manual labor would hire people for a day and pay them in cash.
Sometimes Paul would go through all that trouble and not get hired for the day. He felt supremely lucky when he’d get work, and one company kept him employed (under the table) for more than a month. But Paul disclosed to me that he was now too old and unfit to perform manual labor; he was clearly unhealthy because of the damage from drug use and the poor nutrition that comes from poverty.
He was exhausted and began to lose hope that he’d ever find any kind of stability or comfort in his life. This also made it very difficult for him to walk the distance to the 12-step meetings (required by the men’s home) after work, and it wasn’t long before he became homeless once again.
He sometimes stayed the night at a local shelter, which required arriving at a certain time (one that was usually before he got off work from the day jobs) in order to get one of the limited sleeping mats. There were often twice the number of needy men than there were available mats. What’s more, Paul said theft at the shelter wasn’t uncommon.
More and more, he slept on the “streets.”
During this time, Paul would occasionally stop over at my home, doing odd jobs for me and my family in exchange for some financial support. As his addiction began to take over again, however, he became less and less reliable. For example, he got well into a repair job on our shower, then failed to show up and dropped out of contact before the job was finished. Still, even when he was unreliable, he remained kind and loving and my family cared about and rooted for “Uncle Paul.”
To earn money, Paul Hays would do odd jobs around Kim Whiting’s home and yard.
My heart kept breaking for him. Less than a year into homelessness, the extreme stress of it, coupled with the meth addiction he couldn’t kick, culminated in periods of psychiatric breakdowns, and Paul repeatedly ended up at a crisis unit. The first time it happened, he told me that he’d wanted to jump from the top of a building due to how extraordinarily difficult, and often lonely, his life had become. He’d be kept overnight at the crisis unit, or until the drugs left his system and his psychotic thoughts subsided, and then be released back to the streets.
The first couple of times he went into crisis, I visited him at the crisis unit and drove him to where he needed to go after his release (the very first time, he spent two nights at our home afterwards), but as these crises continued, he stopped telling me about them, no doubt wanting to avoid burdening me. I only learned about his subsequent crises because he used my address as his mailing address, so his hospital bills (which of course he could not pay) arrived in my mailbox.
What Can Be Done?
A January 2023 analysis conducted by Security.org, found that almost 600 thousand Americans are homeless on any given night. Repeated studies by the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ Housing First program have found that providing free housing for the homeless—without a sobriety requirement—works in terms of keeping homeless off the streets. In general, it also saves cities money.
There are many big cities, like Seattle and Houston, that have adopted this program, but there are issues. For example, the Cicero Institute estimates that nine out of 10 apartments designated for the homeless are snapped up by people who aren’t really homeless—so the people who really need the support often aren’t getting it.
Some studies have demonstrated that giving the homeless access to free housing also helps people overcome addiction; yet at the same time, the Cicero Institute’s research indicates that it sometimes frees up money with which addicts can more readily purchase drugs.
It’s a tricky issue.
The Cicero Institute’s report goes on to say that an estimated 75 percent of homeless people have a serious mental illness, 75 percent also have a serious addiction problem, and the majority struggle with both. In addition, people addicted to illegal drugs (which these days encompasses most addictions) can be nervous about living in government-supervised housing, free or not. What’s more, in many cities there’s simply a lack of available land on which to build housing for the homeless.
However, the city of Helsinki in Finland, where this type of program originated, has reduced the number of long-term homeless people by 35 percent in the past decade. And “rough sleeping” (sleeping on streets or in the woods) is practically non-existent. The difference between some U.S. Housing First programs and Finland’s is that Finland provides approximately “seven staff members per 21 tenants.” (Services vary in the U.S. but most programs have staffing half the size of Finland’s capabilities.) These employees provide practical help, including navigating bureaucracy and getting education, training and work placements, and learning—or re-learning—basic life skills such as cleaning and cooking.
Finland’s socialized medical system also allows much easier access to substance abuse and mental health treatment. In other words, it’s not just about providing a place to live, it’s addressing the whole individual and underlying issues for homelessness, by providing counseling, logistical support and education.
There are “alternative” solutions as well. As my 2022 Reporters Inc article about psilocybin (the hallucinogenic ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) pointed out, scientists are discovering what many see as psilocybin’s astonishing therapeutic potential to treat a vast range of mental health issues.
Psilocybin therapy has been found to have a 50 percent success rate (higher than any other kind of therapy) in helping long-term alcoholics stop drinking altogether. And a growing numbers of studies from esteemed research centers such as Johns Hopkins, are showing that psychedelic-assisted therapy significantly decreases cravings for substances, such as alcohol and nicotine.
Psilocybin assisted therapy has also been shown to be highly effective in treating and even eliminating major depressive symptoms, while MDMA (Ecstasy) has shown to be highly effective in treating and eliminating PTSD symptoms. What’s more, these therapies are short-term. In some cases, PTSD and major depressive symptoms can be almost completely eradicated in one to three MDMA or psilocybin assisted therapy sessions. That means it’s far more cost effective than the long-term therapies more commonly in use.
Psilocybin and MDMA are currently Schedule One drugs, meaning the most illegal of substances (in the same category as heroin, for example). But the FDA is fast-tracking approval for the therapeutic use of both substances, and psilocybin-assisted therapy is already legal/decriminalized in some cities, as well as the state of Oregon.
Because the vast majority of those who are homeless or incarcerated have substance abuse issues, depression, PTSD, or all the above, these therapies could provide a cost-effective way to enable people to get psychologically healthy, out of the criminal justice system and off the streets.
Looking at the issue through a wider lens, solutions need to start far earlier, when the “Pauls”of the world are just toddlers. This means giving children the education and other resources they need at a far earlier age, in order to nurture skills for life success, confidence and self-esteem—through programs such as Head Start/Universal Pre-K. Says former educator Tim Munkeby in his recent Reporters Inc. article on the subject, “The Head Start Foundation estimates that every $1 invested in helping low-income children access high-quality early-learning programs yields up to $16 in societal benefits. In other words, it’s not that we can’t afford to establish free Universal Pre-K, it’s that we can’t afford not to.”
Prevention also means assessing youth with behavioral issues, those who have committed crimes, and/or are abusing substances, and then helping them to heal any childhood traumas and other underlying emotional and psychological issues. It means providing support and counseling instead of, or at the very least, in conjunction with punishment. And again, it’s important to provide ways to help kids feel of value, such as employment, volunteer work geared toward helping others, and education tailored to the individual— in order to increase their chance of success.
Once a person has ended up in the criminal justice system, we would do well to emulate the successful strategies utilized in Norway, which once had the same 70 percent recidivism rate as the U.S., but is now down to just 20 percent.
Norway believes that taking away a person’s freedom is enough punishment, and so the country’s primary goal is to reintegrate its former prisoners back into society as stable contributors to communities. The first method of accomplishing this is through dorm-like jail cells. Many prisons in Norway have “open” style, bar-free cells. Even in maximum-security, each prisoner has a toilet, shower, mini-fridge and a television, with access to kitchens and common areas. In lower security prisons, inmates are provided doors to their rooms that can be locked and unlocked with their own keys. There is also an emphasis on job and skill training, as well as education. Norwegian leaders say these factors not only help cultivate the skills needed for success after release, but build self-esteem as well.
In addition, rather than the large and remote facilities common to the U.S., Norway builds smaller prisons. This ensures that inmates are housed near their families and communities, which makes visiting easy (some of my incarcerated friends are in facilities four to 10 hours away from their loved ones) as well as staying more connected to their communities. Repeated studies have found that prisoners who maintain close contact with family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates. Norway also has trained professionals as first-responders for mental health crises (instead of police, as is the case in the U.S.), as well as more access to substance abuse and mental health treatment both inside and outside prison.
Sentences are considerably shorter in Norway than in the U.S. and there are no life sentences, because Norway wants to convey to inmates that they believe and expect that all people are redeemable. This expectation and respect for the person better sets the tone for an inmate’s successful transition into a contributing member of society.
Norway’s system may seem too lenient and even outrageous to those who want to see criminals punished, but consider that our prisons are filled largely with people like Paul who are struggling and in need of care. And from a logistical standpoint, the punishment model has been shown to have a much higher re-offense rate, meaning more victims and greater cost to taxpayers.
The End of a Long, Hard Journey
If Paul ever did make it up the long waiting lists that I helped him sign up for when he first became homeless (for state or organization-subsidized drug rehab), I don’t know, because he rarely had a phone. I usually couldn’t reach him, and there wasn’t a way for the facilities to contact him either—a huge obstacle faced by most homeless people.
Miraculously, Paul managed to keep a fairly positive attitude when he had to leave the men’s home. And once again, his highly personable nature paid off when, about seven years ago, he joined two other homeless men in creating a camp on a multi-acre, privately-owned wooded property on the far east side of Tulsa. Paul asked if I’d like to see the new camp, which I did, and I got to meet his new camp-mates, who were about the same age as Paul, all with similar warm personalities.
While giving me the tour of the camp, Paul said the owner of the land was okay with them living there because they took care of the property and kept young partiers away who would trash the place (which sounded believable). So, even though it was miles away from meals and other resources for the homeless, it was a serene, low-stress and safe location (a location where they didn’t always have to worry about being robbed or kicked out).
While living there, Paul was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He made a fort for himself that was playful and whimsical, with crocheted and colorful blankets, chairs, various knickknacks he’d found in garbage bins, a sculpture he’d made out of a bike wheel that moved with the wind, and a tent with sleeping bag that provided actual shelter.
He and his campmates would make campfires at night and talk. During the day, they’d find things in or near dumpsters to repair, like vacuum cleaners or bikes. At one point, a couple of the busted bikes needed major parts that Paul couldn’t find or afford so he gave them to a local bike shop; as a result he was offered a few hours of work a week helping to repair bikes in exchange for meals and a working bike of his own (which, unfortunately, was quickly stolen).
Relatively speaking, it was a good time for him, and then it seemed to get even better around 2018 when, because his mental health assessment had yielded him a mental illness diagnosis, he was approved for free housing by a City of Tulsa subsidized organization that helps those diagnosed with chronic mental health issues.
He was issued an apartment in a cute little complex with a small courtyard that had a playground and even a banana tree. Paul invited me over to his new place and again showed off his knack for making a house into a home, with painted and repaired items he found to make his place pretty, cozy and welcoming.
The problem was that he was separated from his friends who remained miles away at the camp, and he became lonelier than ever. As a result, he’d let people on the streets stay with him. He fell deeper into addiction yet again; after all, he still had never had effective substance abuse treatment needed for an addiction as long-term and deep-seated as his.
I learned from a social services caseworker assigned to Paul (by the homeless shelter) that he had tried to steal materials from a Home Depot that can be used to make meth. This didn’t come as a surprise to me, as how else does an incomeless addict procure his fix, particularly when the substance is illegal? He was kicked out of his apartment, yet again.
The man who had always managed to keep a positive attitude and at least a glimmer of hope, seemed to give up at this point. When he’d stop in to visit me over the last several years, I’d notice the extreme stress of homelessness, lack of nutrition, and drug use taking their toll more than ever before.
Paul grew very thin, and his already large eyes began to bulge from his face, making him look a little scary. He continued to dress and groom nicely, but he appeared weathered, like many other homeless men I’d see around town. I was always looking for him when I was out because, again, he rarely had a phone or a way for me to reach him.
These selfies, posted by Paul Hays on Facebook, show the toll that homelessness and addiction took on him. He posted the photo below two months before he died.
Paul gradually lost his exuberance and even his personality. Being someone who, for most of his life, could talk politics, philosophy, spirituality or current events for hours, he no longer had a lot to say and what he did say sometimes had a conspiracy flavor to it. For the first time, I could tell when he was visibly high, or in need of a fix—there was a twitchiness and his mind was foggy. He visited and called less and less, at times dropping out of contact for months.
By 2022, I could tell that Paul wasn’t long for this world. The support hadn’t been there for him when there was still hope of healing and recovery—and now it was just too late.
When I heard the news in January that Paul had been found frozen to death, I was saddened, yet not surprised. I felt relief for him, because he was finally free of a life that had almost always been exceedingly hard. Still, the image of him shivering and alone in the end, as he so often was, was devastating. My family, as well as Sandra and his children, felt regret for our inability to save him—though we knew there really wasn’t much more we could have done.
Obituaries were posted on Facebook, money was donated to homeless shelters on his behalf, and Paul’s cremains were distributed to family members. The family has planned a memorial for Paul this coming July.
Paul was 65 when he died, having spent almost half of those years in institutions for crimes related to addiction—an addiction that was almost always punished, very rarely treated, and never close to cured.
When I close my eyes, I will always see images of Paul’s face, lighting up when he’d see me, enthusiastically exclaiming “Kimmy!” I will always hear his pretty baritone voice, singing tunes while playing his guitar. I will always feel the love of his warm, welcoming hugs.
Even though his life broke my heart, over and over again.
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