Joseph Park, a slender man with a gray brush cut and an expressive face, talks with his hands and leans forward to make sure his listener is engaged. His life is a study in extremes. We met to talk about that life, and how he, very recently, moved out of chronic homelessness into his own apartment near Providence Park stadium.
Joseph grew up in a large Mormon family of eight children and lived with his family in Salt Lake City. He had a good life, he says, until sixth grade. His mother and stepfather, the only dad he’d known, were divorced then, which was unusual for a Mormon family.
Divorce was not the only difficulty in Joseph’s young life. His mother was part Native American and had dark skin.
“People did not see her as white," Joseph said. "We were poor, and struggling as a family, even though my dad worked. I didn’t know money or success. I didn’t learn that part of the world.”
After the divorce, Joseph says, “things went crazy. I had been a straight-A student. But we three oldest, the children of my (birth) father who had been in prison, went with my mom. The other five went with my stepdad.
“Mom became a bartender; we three oldest became juvenile delinquents. I ended up in the Utah reform school for burglary for six months. There we were told that 80 percent of us would end up in prison as adults.
“When I got out, I moved to Oregon with my mom, after a short time of living with my birth father, who had gotten out of prison. He was a scary, mean man, and my mom took me back. She had a new man by then.
“We lived in the Albany-Lebanon area. I was 15. I was spending a lot of time on the streets, trying to pretend I was older than I was. I was 'Disco Danny,' wearing a leather jacket with the collar up and all that. I didn’t fit in rural Oregon.
“At 16, I left home. I was working. I got all kinds of different jobs, managed a carwash, but I wanted to make more money. I finally got a job at Oregon Metallurgical at 19 years old, and stayed there for 10 years. But I got antsy.”
Joseph wanted to be in business, and was eager for success. He learned about different kinds of multi-level marketing, some closer to pyramid schemes, and about selling, which became his great passion.
So he quit his job at Oregon Metallurgical at 29, cashed out his shares, and went into business, recruiting and training for a company that procured customers for U.S. Sprint. He became the district director, with an office at the Galleria, training large groups in salesmanship and how to get customers.
Joseph was doing well, but not well enough to keep up with his expenses, which had risen to match his increasing income. He studied “neurolinguistics” and started offering sales training, based on his studies, to companies large and small. But he only did that for about a year. He was perennially restless, always looking for the next thing.
One of the best opportunities for a good salesman was selling siding and cabinet refacing for Sears. Joseph convinced Sears to hire him, though he had little experience, and very soon, he was outpacing seasoned salesmen.
“I was in heaven. Best job I’ve ever had," he said. "I was working for a reputable company, but really working for myself.”
At 32, not so many years after his time in reform school in Utah, Joseph was named the Salesman of the Year for his department at Sears. Thinking about that time, Joseph said, “The average person who grew up the way I did wasn’t supposed to make it. I was supposed to be in prison. I didn’t have the regular American life. Reform school, strikes against me. … I had to pull myself up by my own bootstraps.”
But his life was not an unbroken series of successes. Up until 1992, he was what he calls an “upstanding taxpaying citizen.” He was making $10,000 a month. “I didn’t know what to do with all this money. Up to that point, I hadn’t bought anything but a car.”
Joseph met and fell in love with a woman, who was, he discovered, an addict.
“I had never done much more than smoke a little weed," he said. "I knew something about addiction, because I knew about alcoholism. I was against it. I didn’t know, though, about cocaine.”
And now he had all that money.
“It sucked me in completely, smoking crack. Your mind and your body loved it. It made the relationship so powerful, the intimacy. I didn’t realize that the drug was part of it and that it wasn’t real. I stopped doing my job the way I had been. I had done my job in order, methodically. I was real and sincere.”
But now that he was smoking crack, Joseph starting taking shortcuts, and was always in a hurry to get back to his girlfriend. He quit his job, because he was too ashamed to stay. He had always been proud of his work, but could not do it well as an addict, and the embarrassment was too much.
That addiction lasted for more than 20 years, and led to chronic homelessness and eventually heroin. Although Joseph did not have a place of his own, he rarely slept outside.
“Wouldn’t ever stay anywhere for more than a week," he said. "You lose friends if you stay too long. I wanted them to feel good about me.”
But he did not want to hang out downtown: “I have pride.” About addiction he said, “I was lost and confused. Addiction is hiding from everything, blocking everything out, whatever it is, it gets you out of reality.”
Joseph shoplifted during those years, got caught and went to jail. Eventually he was caught with cocaine and ended up in prison, at Columbia River Correctional Institute.
“The first successful help I got was at CODA (a treatment and recovery program in Portland). I only went because I could get out of jail," he said. "I want to give credit to the United States Mission here in Portland, too. That program really helped me.
“Every time I went to jail, I returned to God. You get a chance to look at yourself and your mind starts to clear out. I started connecting with some of the church that I had learned as a kid. We went to Sunday school. It gave me a foundation. I don’t call myself a Mormon, but I am a Christian.
“When I first went to jail in 1996, Marion County Jail had services every night of the week, and I was the only guy who went to all of them. I read the Bible from cover to cover.”
Joseph’s life story is complicated, with many ups and downs. But now, he has been clean and sober for 18 months and is in a methadone program. After waiting for nine months and with the help of Northwest Pilot Project, he is living in his own apartment. He is immensely grateful, too, to Home Forward for all the help that led him to this new home.
He is very clear about the three keys to finding his way out of homelessness: treatment, spirituality and the help you get from others.
“You can’t do it alone!” Joseph pounds on his knee for emphasis. “I wouldn’t be able to be clean now if I hadn’t opened my eyes spiritually and opened up to treatment.”