After spending nine years living on the streets and under Gold Creek bridge, the first bed Charles Wheaton had to lay his head was in a hospital.
Wheaton, 59, confessed while on the streets he battled a dangerous drinking habit and waged a war with a mental illness. But all those things didn’t push him down far enough to make him give up on life.
He was finally making a change for the better. On Sept. 11, he rented a one-bedroom apartment at the St. Vincent de Paul Society shelter and turned away from alcohol. Six days later, a sudden medical emergency landed him in the hospital. For a moment, it seemed he had waited too long to turn his life around.
“I lost consciousness by the Driftwood,” Wheaton said, resting on a recently donated mattress in his apartment. “I fell down buying groceries downtown and broke a bone on my face.”
The real damage was the internal bleeding medical professionals found caused by ulcers. He said they were a side effect from a certain lifestyle on the streets. At Bartlett Regional Hospital, Wheaton laid in bed for 12 hours as blood was pumped into his body.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. “I’m just glad Bartlett was there. I lived in Bartlett five days longer than I had lived in my apartment.”
Wheaton said the nurse who cared for him during his extended stay, Amber Long, RN, was a comfort during a time he called the scariest moment of his life, the moment he thought could be his last.
Wheaton said Long provided him comfort with her constant attention and care.
“It was nothing special, but he felt like it was, which is the point. That’s what we try to do,” Long said last Friday, when the recovered Wheaton dropped by to give the third-floor nurses station for a surprise visit. “I hope I do that for every patient. At least, that’s my goal.”
Regardless of Long’s self-assessment, Wheaton said she and the other nurses deserved a big thank you, which is why he wheeled a 30-inch wide pizza on a red wagon along with stuffed animals when he visited them.
“I owe Bartlett my life,” he said. “I owe them way more than that, I’m just giving them thanks one slice at a time.”
The “superbowl” pizza from Bullwinkle’s Pizza Parlor cost Wheaton more than $100. He paid for it with his Permanent Fund Dividend money. The pizza pie was something he saw on TV and thought was impressive, so it seemed like a fitting thank you for an impressive medical staff.
A teddy bear wearing a backpack was an extra surprise for Long. It has the medical bracelet Wheaton wore during his stay, a small trinket for his friend to always remember him.
Wheaton didn’t take a slice of pizza that day, although there was plenty to go around. These days, he’s focused on giving back and using his second chance to help others find theirs, too.
A few weeks before Wheaton’s emergency, Trevor Kellar, the outreach coordinator for The Glory Hole, approached him on the street and provided him information about St. Vincent’s low-income housing. The Glory Hole provides free emergency housing as part of its shelter mission, but it has a no-alcohol policy. Anyone with 0.10 percent alcohol on his or her breath is turned away.
The St. Vincent apartments cost a couple hundred bucks a month to live there. Wheaton said he’s able to able to make rent with his PFD money, disability checks that come infrequently and the money he makes occasionally doing manual labor for a friend.
“I feel guilty that I’m not homeless,” Wheaton confided.
“I’m well-off right now,” he said. “I have nothing to worry about. On the street you don’t know where you’re going to eat, sometimes you only eat one meal a day. I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
He looks around his one-bedroom apartment, complete with two chairs for guests and prints of one of his favorite singers, Elvis Presley. He can’t help but think of his friends and family members who are still make pillows out of pavement.
A few years ago, he found his friend dead alone under the Gold Creek Bridge where they both slept. He knows what it’s like to tap someone on the shoulder and realize they are gone.
To relieve his feeling of guilt about having a home now, the first thing Wheaton did when he was discharged from Bartlett was take a cab to the Juneau Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. He asked if they needed any volunteers.
These days, Wheaton spends his time volunteering, letting his homeless friends know about the resources available to them. He hands them socks — something he knows to be especially critical during winter nights — and tells them about his journey.
“People want help, they just have to find a place like this to start out,” he said.
He’s also celebrating nearly one month of sobriety and looks forward to turning 60. It’s a milestone he said he might not have seen if his perforated ulcers took over his body while he was on the street. He said he wouldn’t have realized he was bleeding on the inside and maybe no one else would have either.
“I’m going to see what kind of difference I can make now that I have my place and (volunteer with the homeless coalition),” Wheaton said. “I have a lot of ideas. My first was giving Bartlett a pizza.”
• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction/clarification: Due to an editing error, the Empire erroneously identified the Glory Hole outreach coordinator as Travis Kellar. His name is Trevor Kellar. This article has also been updated to clarify that the Glory Hole provides free emergency housing as part of its shelter mission, and that the no-alcohol policy prohibits anyone with 0.10 percent alcohol on his or her breath from spending the night there.