Homeless boaters' SOS gets an answer

Woman leads effort to help couple after the sinking of boat they lived in

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter



The boat

The boat that previously belonged to Richard Beechler is scheduled to be removed by Clark County Sheriff’s Office marine deputies. After the boat sank, Beechler was given a deadline of June 11 to remove the boat, or else the law enforcement agency would take possession. Marine Deputy Todd Baker said the boat will be removed within the week.

When Julie Gorham finished reading about a transient couple who lost their boat on the shores of the Columbia River, she felt compelled to help.

The May 19 Columbian article told the story of Richard Beechler and Marty Brightwell, who had been homeless for nearly a year before Beechler saved enough from his unemployment checks to buy a 25-foot Owens cabin boat. But when they anchored the vessel just east of the Interstate 5 Bridge, the boat hit some rocks and took on water. The couple found themselves homeless again.

Gorham was touched and sprung into action.

"I know to break free from that lifestyle must be horrific, and his only attempt to do that has failed," she said.

With knowledge of the businesses that offer boat repairs and services on Hayden Island, she was confident she could rally people to their aid.

"Back in the day, when I was in my early 20s, I refinished a 50-foot boat," she said. "I felt, knowing what I do about boats, I could easily negotiate with some of these guys to get them all out there."

She quickly had businesses ready to help, but later in the week, the area was hit by heavy rains.

The boat, she said "was a new level of sunk."

It put her in a situation that she dreaded: "I'm the one rallying for him. I have to call him and say, 'All bets are off. I'm sorry to tell you this, but the boat is not salvageable.'"

Her contact with the couple could have stopped there, but something inside her wouldn't let that happen.

"Something just hit our hearts and told us that they are worthy," Gorham said. "They need compassion, that they need love."

So over the past month, Gorham and her friend Christine Schurpf used a combination of their own money, and donations from organizations, churches, friends and family to help the couple. Beechler and Brightwell, she said, have never once asked for money, but the women have helped anyway.

They put the couple up in a motel for a few weeks and connected them with food. Beechler got his hair cut and got some new clothing. The two women worked on Beechler's résumé and helped him in the job hunt. Must Love Dogs NW has taken in the couple's dog Cookie, a 2-year-old pit bull.

Gorham describes both Beechler and Brightwell as sweet people with the ability to be real contributors. Nearly everything they've been instructed to do, the couple has done.

Brightwell was accepted into Gates of Grace, a Vancouver faith-based transitional home for women and children.

But Beechler, Gorham said, is without a permanent place to stay. At one point, Beechler was accepted into Share, a Vancouver facility for homeless. Beechler, however, didn't follow the curfew rules and was kicked out. He has since purchased a tent and stays at various places around town.

"It's time for him to learn by his mistakes," Gorham said. Her question now, however, is: "Where do we take this next?"

Beechler's unemployment runs out in a few weeks, and there are fees associated with Brightwell staying at Gates of Grace and for the pit bull's boarding. The couple also has medical needs: Beechler broke his leg years ago and the bone never set correctly, and his teeth need work. Brightwell is deaf and has problems with her eyes that have never been addressed.

"We have done everything we can to give them a leg up. But," she said, "we're not qualified professionals. It's too much."

She is putting a call out to the community to find a solution to help the homeless couple. She hopes people could donate money to the couple or help support the organizations that are helping them. She also welcomes collaboration on helping to solve the problem.

"It takes a community to heal the community," she said. "I want to help them move into self-sufficiency quickly … this could be a start of something that could be really, really great."

Anyone interested in collaborating can call Gorham at 503-351-6141 or Christine at 360-608-1680.

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;emily.gillespie@columbian.com.