Homeless no more: Back to working on the railroad

Homeless people live with a stigma that sees them as lacking in education, job skills and the willingness to get on track supporting themselves. 

So says Steve Hoffman, 58, who is returning to his high-paying job as a train brake repairman in Alaska after breaking his back in a car accident in 2007 and falling into homelessness, disorientation and a general sense of helplessness. 

Hoffman got on Social Security Disability and was on pain meds and living in his car when it was impounded in Medford and lost, he says. 

“That put me into homelessness,” says Hoffman. “I lost most of my possessions. The fees ran up. That happens to a lot of homeless people. Police and courts want to stamp out homelessness and they’re doing a pretty good job of it.”

Fortunately for Hoffman, he found the Ashland Community Resource Center where, for the last year and three months, he’s thrown himself into organizing the delivery systems for food and donated clothing, the weekly shower and laundry, the security system and being the computer administrator, writing programs and spreadsheets for inventory.

Hoffman has a bachelor’s degree that enabled him to work for years in the cloth weaving and design industry in his native North Carolina — and wants to emphasize to the public that many homeless people have degrees and skills, but once they get off track and lose their home, it’s hard to focus and get their lives going again. 

“Steve is a good example,” says Leigh Madsen, executive direction of ACRC, “of people who have talent, but when they lose their housing and stop working and there’s no place to sleep, they can’t muster the brain power and cognition skills. Things become a fog.”

Hoffman was “very addled” when he arrived at the center and was “sleeping in the streets and unsure of where he was and what was happening. He was disoriented and down on his luck, but he put it back together here in a safe and stable environment, where people cared for him,” said Madsen. Over the year, Hoffman shaped computer systems into a state-of-the-art operation, created a weekly movie for people using the laundry-shower truck, got off pain meds and “put himself back together as an entirely different person.”

Hoffman also donated much of his Social Security check to homeless people at the center and gave his motor home to a homeless couple who just had a baby.

Madsen is now training six to nine people to take over the jobs Hoffman was doing, including handling donated food and sorting donated clothing by gender and type and giving it out as needed.

Stephen Hice, a customer at the center for several months, choked back tears as he talked about Hoffman, who “does it all. It’s going to be tough filling his shoes.”

Hoffman’s job in Anchorage starts March 5. He will lose his Social Security Disability if he works for than three-fourths of the year. He says he will chose work over the government check.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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