Jeff Lane didn’t always look like this. Not long ago he was among the broken and beaten clinging to life and the bottle on the streets of Anchorage.
Unlike most of his former crowd, Lane made it off the streets, helped in part by a network of homelessness shelters and outreaches, but ultimately he credits a higher power.
Now Lane says his prayers each morning, upon awakening and before retiring. His words are intimate, praising God for his comforts as well as his challenges, and asking for the grace to serve those still suffering. These spiritual survival tools remain unchanged since his deliverance from chronic homelessness more than five years ago.
Now a Mat-Su Valley resident, Lane recently took time to share his story. He met up with the Catholic Anchor in a shabby Wasilla strip mall in a space reserved for traditional 12 Step meetings. In the parking lot his Harley Davidson sparkled in the evening sun.
Inside, the empty room was ringed with mismatched couches and tidy tables. The walls were adorned with Christmas lights, limp houseplants and peppy clichés such as “One Day at a Time” printed in bold script. Three times a day the room fills with dozens of men and women sharing coffee and recovery.
Lane’s broad, chiseled jaw clenched as he described the decades preceding his life on the street. He began drinking alcohol before his 10th birthday. Criminal mischief and methamphetamine followed. His family life and career were dismantled as his world shrank. Finally, in an effort to shield his aging father from the mayhem and violence that seemed to erupt around him, Lane agreed to travel north from Spokane, Washington to Alaska and start anew.
His impending homelessness wouldn’t be the result of unemployment; he was not indigent. He built a name for himself as a professional baker and worked in the air cargo transport field. For nearly two years he held a lucrative construction job on Alaska’s North Slope, returning to Anchorage every two weeks only to feed the beast of his addiction. He would then force himself to detox in hotel rooms and board the plane for the remote work. He finally shrugged that job away, recalling the effort of detox as just too much.
“I could not get back on that plane,” he recalled ruefully.
Lane remembers this as the final sacrifice of sorts, giving himself over to the bleakness of living on the streets of Anchorage. Upon his mother’s death in 2004, Lane descended into self-destruction.
THE DEVIL & THE BOTTLE
Lane’s china blue eyes were calm as he recalled the degradation of surviving in the Alaska elements.
“I lived like an absolute pig on the streets,” he said. “I don’t know which came first, the devil or the bottle.”
For Lane, his years spent adrift were comprised of a startling degree of daily regimen: mornings scavenging for spent tobacco in gutters, afternoons filled with synchronizing liquor store hours in various neighborhoods and maintaining secret retreats unknown to his fellow campers.
As a homeless man, he lived at the mercy of four omnipresent factors — weather, the law, wild animals such as urban moose and bear, and attacks by teens looking to victimize the homeless. A hierarchy exists among the homeless, according to Lane, and any sense of loyalty to one another is underpinned by the crushing tyranny of alcoholic thirst: the next drink is king.
He was a de-facto leader among his fellows, his status defined by possession of a valid driver’s license, attractive girlfriends and white skin — he could shoplift alcohol without suspicion, so long as he brought a darker-skinned accomplice as a target for clerks’ eyes.
There were occasional acknowledgements of his humanity, such as local nurses visiting the Brother Francis Shelter to provide foot health checks. Dry socks were distributed and warnings of frostbite given. Small, somber crosses were placed upon a wall at the shelter to symbolize each person lost to outdoor death. His older sister sent care packages, and her homemade confections arrived at the shelter from Washington State each Christmas. For five years, he received her gifts in the same hellish fog he lived in — the homeless dread civic holidays, he noted, not due to increased loneliness but because liquor stores are closed.
The holy days brought little spiritual relief, he said. The sole church near the soup kitchens featured Pentecostal style altar calls which Lane said were hard to take seriously.
By this time, Lane hardly appeared on the verge of redemption. His escalating drug use fed into overtly satanic rituals. His life had faded considerably from the hard-partying Slope worker drinking away impressions left by childhood wounds, women and war.
“Towards the end I was being kept alive by the Native guys, in this house filled with garbage,” he recalled.
His tenacity and ID card still afforded him value among the ranks, but he was by every measure a man down. He had gone 10 rounds with heroin. He was haunted by hallucinations. His willingness to die was constant and concrete, but Lane’s body, mind and spirit were dominated by one force — the insatiable demand for more alcohol.
Almost quizzically, Lane recalled, that desire for more liquor kept him alive. Alcoholism has been called “the most powerful huntress on Earth,” in the words of the late Father Joseph Martin, creator of Chalk Talk on Alcohol and founder of a Maryland treatment center. Lane was easy prey.
In early 2010, Lane was discovered by Anchorage police, severely beaten the night before, his face bloodied and frozen to the sidewalk. He made his way to Brother Francis Shelter and to his compatriots. Simultaneously, a message had been relayed, giving him 45 minutes to claim a bed at Ernie Turner Center for medical detox. Looking back, Lane sees that frigid March morning as a seminal development. Achingly cold, hungry, and physically hammered, he stood in line to beg a banana from charity for sustenance, then walked south from 3rd Avenue to Tudor Road.
Deb Flowerdew of Anchorage Community Mental Health was Lane’s link to treatment. Her persistence was a tangible sign of God’s providence. She later relayed to Lane that he had been in “sleep off,” a containment for public inebriates, 28 out of the past 31 consecutive days. This time he had been scooped up and selected for Pathways, a street outreach designed to house alcoholics in residential treatment facilities. Lane remembers complying, but recalls no intent to get or stay sober. He was admitted to a long-term treatment center in Wasilla, where he would remain for over a year. Of the intensely structured working ranch he said, “They allowed me to become a human being again.”
Once established in early recovery, the concept of God was introduced by a mentor who proposed simply, “I’m not asking you to believe in God. Just believe that I believe.” Satisfied with that, Lane was able to pivot from the harrowing habits which had constrained him for so long. He returned to the sacraments of his Catholic childhood. It had been 40 years since his last confession. Holy Family Cathedral’s Dominican friars welcomed him home.
When pressed about the spiritual nature of homelessness, Jeff Lane demurs. “A guy like me gives up his soul, one drink at a time, that’s all I know.”
Now at age 52, Lane’s hands are rarely idle. He recently submitted to vocational testing which measured his IQ as extremely high. He is reconnected with a woman he loves and to family. His medical and psychological health are restored. He enjoys full-time employment, hobbies and friends.
While Lane gratefully basks in his triumphs, he remains available to the alcoholic seeking help and any mention of Brother Francis Shelter or Bean’s Café seems to tug at his core.
“I want those guys to know they can change their life around. If I can get better, any one of them can do this,” he said. “Man, you don’t gotta live like that.”