Coming together to help a homeless man

Kalama furniture store owner provides aid in effort to help him change his life

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer



Homelessness in the U.S.

When Donna Bergeron posted on Facebook about meeting a transient named Buddy Carr Jr., she said she was struck by how many people have been affected by homelessness.

Her drug-addicted brother has lived on the streets for decades, and she hasn’t seen him for 10 years.

She’s recently heard similarly heartbreaking stories after requesting donations for Carr, including from a customer of her Kalama furniture store. The customer said her homeless daughter had been raped and beaten under the North Fork Lewis River Bridge. After the attack, the daughter came back home around Thanksgiving, Bergeron said, but is now, again, living on the street.

In January, nearly 610,000 people were counted as homeless in this country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. That’s down 9.2 percent from 2007. An estimated 17,760 of the total were living in Washington and 708 in Clark County.

About 65 percent of homeless people at the time of the count were staying in transitional housing, while the rest were without shelter.

“There are so many homeless,” Bergeron said. “Maybe they can get help like Buddy.”

—Stover E. Harger III

WOODLAND — There was something about him — alone, head down, shivering — that drew in Donna Bergeron.

She approached the homeless man in early December outside the Woodland Safeway, gave him her hand warmer, some food and asked his name.

"Buddy," he said quietly.

She was shaken.

Bergeron had never met Buddy Carr Jr., but in him she saw glimmers of her life.

She lost track of her brother, Bud, a decade ago. Serious drug addiction put her only sibling on the street many years back. This past week, Bergeron learned her brother's parole officer also hasn't heard from him since 2004. She fears he is dead.

Not only do the two men share a similar name, but Carr is 50, and her brother would now be 52. However, Carr said he detests drugs, though he does drink beer.

After their introduction, Bergeron kept thinking about Carr alone in the cold, she said, and thoughts of her brother kept turning around in her mind.

"I bawled all day," she said.

She came around again that night but couldn't find him. The next morning, she spotted Carr shuffling down the street but had to keep driving to make it to work. That night, she tried once more and found him sitting in the dark by the grocery store.

That time, she had more for him than chicken strips. She handed Carr a key to a local motel room.

The California-born transient -- who hasn't stayed anywhere for too long since leaving the foster care system at 17 -- had been sleeping in the cold under the North Fork Lewis River Bridge, en route to nowhere in particular. Thanks to Bergeron, he's warm.

For now.

One night in the $43-a-night motel has blossomed into a wealth of altruism from her and others in the community. After Bergeron posted about meeting Buddy on Facebook, many jumped on board. A friend from Australia even sent money.

"All of a sudden, all my friends bought him nights," Bergeron said. "It was just amazing. It was a big domino effect."

She's raised enough to let him stay at the motel through a bulk of December. A few people dropped off clothing and supplies for Carr, including a high-end, zero-degree sleeping bag. And some customers at Bergeron's Kalama furniture store, Cabin Fever, have dropped cash into a jar she set up with a note asking them to "please help my homeless friend stay warm."

"His walls were lined with Walmart sacks," Bergeron said. "It was like Christmas."

Kristie Maitland was one who chipped in.

She was struck by how quickly many in the community rallied behind Carr.

"It was a real miracle," Maitland said.

Carr is thankful Bergeron came into his life, he said, and he's always appreciative when someone reaches out to him. Support sometimes means a hot meal, a temporary job or a pair of boots, but rarely has kindness from strangers risen to the level of Bergeron's fervent support.

"That's the kind of people I like to meet. Nice people," Carr said.

Even though she tried time and time again, Bergeron couldn't help her only sibling get on his feet. But maybe, she hopes, she can prop up Carr, she said, at least long enough for him to stand up on his own.

"Buddy kind of feels like a brother to me," she said a week after first meeting him. "It's kind of taken over my life."

There's still much Bergeron doesn't know about Carr. She knows he was raised in California but didn't know, until told in an interview, that in the late 1990 he served six years in state prison there after he stole a cooler of food and other items from a truck. Carr was originally given 25 years to life, before that sentence was recalled, because he already had nine first-degree burglary and three attempted first-degree burglary convictions, all from 1982.

Carr has been in and out of trouble with the law over the years, he said, including two DUI arrests within a few months in 2006. His $300 Chevy Nova was impounded. When arrested for drunken driving, he said the belongings he left under a tree were stolen, including a $700 guitar he had just purchased with money he saved while working a conveyer belt at a dump.

"I've bought and lost, in the last few years, about seven (guitars)," Carr said.

He said he regrets some of his choices and tries to be a good person. He prefers to be around good people such as Bergeron but mostly sticks to himself.

When Carr describes his past, especially the years he was shuffled from school to school while a foster child, the details are hazy. But there's a common thread: He's never in one place for too long.

Since his late teens, he has continually journeyed across the country.

Carr picks up work here and there, usually in the spring when temporary labor jobs become more common. But mostly he travels. He can only cover a mile in about 25 minutes at best, so he usually hitchhikes, because it's easier.

He said he'd probably have already moved on from Woodland had it not been for Bergeron's charity. Now, Carr is hoping some work will fall in his direction. He's beginning to like it here.

He has manual labor experience but hasn't held more than a short-term job since the 1980s, when he spent about two years assembling circuit boards. He was hired to make pizzas in Colorado once -- when he was living in a tent in the snow -- but that only lasted a week before he quit. The stress got to be too much, he said.

If he could pick a profession, he said, he'd be a long-haul truck driver traveling from state to state.

"I'm really good at being on the road," he said.

But his criminal record might make that dream insurmountable.

"I hope we can change his life," Bergeron said Wednesday while sitting on a couch with Carr inside her store.

He had just helped her husband, Andy, lift a desk inside and later that afternoon pitched in by setting up Christmas decorations. Bergeron watched him sit silently in the corner, picking through long strings of lights to locate burnt bulbs.

Outside of some trips to Cabin Fever with Bergeron, where he uses the store's computer to show her places he's traveled, Carr hasn't left his small motel room much in the past week.

He doesn't see a point, he said.

It's toasty inside, and there's a television to pass the time. He has caught up on some movies; "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" are two standouts. So he stays inside, eating sandwiches next to a small artificial Christmas tree, drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes. As he talked, he pulled back the curtains every few minutes to glance out the window into an empty parking lot.

But his motel life can only last so long. Carr knows it, and Bergeron knows it.

"He can't live in a motel forever," she said.

After nearly a week of living on charity, Carr is almost out of food again. That means another grocery store trip on Bergeron's dime. The cigarettes and six-pack of beer she bought him went quickly, too.

"He's got to get a job, so he can buy his own cigarettes," she said.

Carr said he's ready, once again, to look for work and support himself in a more stable life.

"We'll see how the ball bounces," Carr said.

But Bergeron knows from experience that she can't fix someone's life unless they are dedicated to changing themselves.

"I don't want to give up on him," she said while Carr listens. "(But) if he doesn't help himself, I've got to let him go."