Portrait of homelessness: Bill Thompson

When Bill Thompson moved to Moab in 1989 with his wife and two small children, the town offered a “nice change of pace” from their previous lives in Los Angeles, Calif., he said. Thompson and his family stayed in Moab for two years, but he found his way back in 1997 after his wife ended their 16-year marriage.

“My daughter was being looked after by grandma in California, and I raised my son here in Moab,” Thompson said. “I was doing well, working and raising my son, but even then, I was drinking because of the divorce.”

Thompson said he was depressed over losing the life he had known. He felt lost, and that feeling intensified when his son left to attend college closer to his mother.

“Without all of them, life lost its meaning. I started drinking more. Pretty soon, I couldn’t hold down a job because of it,” said Thompson. “I lost my place to live and had nowhere to go.

“I met a guy living by the creek. I stored my stuff there, figuring eventually I would get my act together and get back on my feet.”

Over time, however, Thompson found himself becoming part of the “little town” by the creek and adopting the way of life that slowly began to center around alcohol. Thompson said he eventually lost contact with his family.

“I gave up all hope of ever making it back to society. I figured this was it,” Thompson said. “Alcoholism progressed to where I was waking up in jail or, more often, in the hospital.”

Thompson said he started “kicking around” the idea of getting sober a few years ago but didn’t know how. His attempts to seek counseling or get funding for services didn’t work out and quitting alone caused seizures.

“It was a trap. The only thing that kept me moving was alcohol. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. After one arrest, he begged the judge to put him in a rehab program.

“I didn’t think I could physically detox without medical supervision,” he said. “But I had no healthcare, so the only place to detox was the county jail.”

Thompson said he appreciates the jailers keeping him safe when he was sick. “But it’s a vicious cycle. When I got out, I had nowhere to go but back to the creek and the trap,” Thompson said. “The only people I knew were other alcoholics.”

Thompson escaped the trap when he met Sara Melnicoff 18 months ago. Through work picking up recycling along the creek, Thompson became friends with Melnicoff and began working more and attending Sunday night dinners for the homeless at the First Baptist Church.

“I firmly believe I wouldn’t have broken that chain if it had not been for Sara and the church,” Thompson said. “I was just a shadow of a man… it was a chance encounter and odd chain of events. But I believe God invited me back… to another way of life.”

Melnicoff found a Salvation Army treatment center in Denver, Colo. that offered free services in exchange for work. The center also had a strict policy of sobriety before admission. To ensure Thompson could go, Melnicoff and two others met him the moment he was released from his last jail term and drove him to Denver.

“I’m hoping my alcoholic friends might read this and hear me say it was the best decision I made in 20 years and it saved my life,” Thompson said. “I’m so grateful this community didn’t give up on me.”

Calling the decision “either the ending of the story or the beginning,” Thompson said he thought all he would get from treatment was a chance to dry out and some clean clothes.

“It was 100-fold what I thought it would be. In my heart of hearts, I never thought I would stop drinking,” said Thompson. “I’m comfortable, happy, productive, and now in a position to help others, which is important for my own sobriety.”

Thompson’s treatment was scheduled to last six months. However, three months in, Thompson learned he has cancer and he had to leave the center. Since that diagnosis, he has returned to Moab. Despite his illness, Thompson said he didn’t know life could be this good. He is collecting social security, receiving medical care, and has found housing.

“I have no desire to drink whatsoever. It feels so good to know I don’t have to live on the creek and can wear clean clothes,” Thompson said. “I can’t change the past, but I can change today and the future… I go to meetings every day, I pray every day, and I go to all the church functions. And I am capable of doing that on my own now.”

Thompson said he feels a debt of gratitude to the community and wants to help Melnicoff find ways to do good and help others who are displaced and struggling with their issues.

“We are now trying to find a way to make help for addicts more available…I needed counseling, and I got a lot of it… not just alcohol, but relationship, grief and loss, economic, and basically learning to live again… start my life over,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he plans to reach out to his children, estranged from him for the past six years, and invite them to visit Moab or to travel to visit them. He also has siblings who want to reconnect, he said.

“The one thing I got back which I thought was not retrievable was my integrity,” Thompson said. “This may be my last view of the world, and I want to see my friends safe and back with their families… and that is my last goal, to rebuild that bridge with my family and end the chain of broken lives.”

ByBy Charli Engelhorn

staff writer