As with many homeless people, Mike Osteen’s back story is complicated and riddled with uncontrollable circumstances and struggles. Mike is a true testament to what hard work and perseverance can accomplish when provided with a stable and supportive environment.
With honesty and openness upon reflecting on the past 55 years of his life, Mike says repeatedly, “You’re a product of your environment.” This is true for him now, as he is working towards gaining a life of stability with Downtown Streets Team (DST), and it was true for him at the age of three when his parents divorced.
Mike grew up in a nice family, in a nice home and always maintained employment, yet alcoholism, divorce and other tragic events took their toll and Mike eventually found himself on the streets. His sister had close ties to motorcycle gangs, which didn’t have the best influence on him and when his parents divorced Mike recalls, “It was difficult not having my father in my life.”
His mother, sister and father were all alcoholics – and Mike became one, too. A self-proclaimed functioning alcoholic, Mike always maintained a good job, usually working with his hands. Following the American Dream, Mike bought a house in Santa Rosa and got married. Then tragedy hit again with his own divorce. He felt like the world was going to end and he recalls downing nearly half a gallon of vodka a day
Looking for a change after his divorce, Mike moved to San Jose to be closer to his son, who now lives and works in San Diego as an accountant. To this day, Mike works hard to keep in touch with his son.
Life events weighing heavy on his mind, Mike’s drinking continued to spiral out of control and he could no longer hold down a job – something he had always managed to do. His work even sent him to rehab but he was hanging around “the wrong people” – many of who have since passed away – and so he had trouble succeeding. He admits, “I’m lucky to still have a brain that works. “
Around this time he nearly died and when he awoke in Stanford Hospital he thought to himself, “I’m lucky to be alive,” and decided it was time to take charge. “I went into rehab three different times and finally finished. But then my motorhome burned down and that was tough because of the photographs…I was with a gal and we were rebuilding our lives together. Then she got cancer and died.”
Losing everything for a second time, paired with the death of his sister, was too much to handle and Mike returned to the bottle. He had no home, no car, no hope and his dignity was teetering on the edge of disappearing completely. This downward spiral landed him on the streets for seven years off and on as he continued to seek out odd jobs, including six months felling trees at a place that also provided rehab. The program energized him for a moment and slowly he began picking up the bits and pieces.
While on the streets, he checked himself into rehab and pursued homeless services in San Jose, but it wasn’t until his friend invited him to a Downtown Streets Team meeting that his outlook and life began to consistently move in a positive direction.
“I attended a meeting in hopes to use the basic needs stipend to purchase a pack of smokes,” said Mike, laughing. This isn’t the first time a potential Team Member has looked at DST’s program as a short-term avenue to immediate needs, however they often end up finding something much more.
“I saw what was going on here – people transitioning and making major changes and that was pretty cool,” Mike said. “It inspired me to continue on and get things back – like my dignity.” More recently Mike had been sleeping behind a liquor store and in a friend’s backyard.
Mike is now celebrating three and a half years sober – a huge milestone and one that marks the longest he’s ever been sober in 43 years of drinking and doing various drugs. He has moved into the highest position a Team Member can garner, the Operations Manager, and oversees all teams and growth in future cities. During his time volunteering with DST, he has slowly regained his management skills and has gotten back on track to achieving his most immediate goals: a roof over his head, transportation, food in his stomach and communication tools, like a mobile phone.
The first goal he tackled upon joining the team was to get his independence back by obtaining his driver’s license, which he had lost after four DUIs. The only goal left on his “immediate” list is to get a roof over his head. Thanks to DST’s resources, Mike found out the day before Christmas Eve that he was housed. With a recent cancer diagnosis this last basic need was weighing heavy on his mind. Finally he can check housing off his list.
Despite the tragedies he’s endured, sometimes alone, Mike has a positive outlook and is keeping his focus. He says his goals have changed over time and now also include staying active, contributing to society and travelling – something he especially misses. By simply being part of DST’s team he’s already doing two of those nearly every day of the week.
“The volunteer stipends, resume building and help finding a job – what DST is doing… what a difference,” said Mike. “If people are ready to apply themselves.”
Mike still keeps in touch with his former colleagues in hopes of returning to the mainstream workforce once again. Before he became homeless he oversaw a crew of 75, made good money and was working in management. In 10 years time he’ll be 65 and wanting to retire. However his main focus now is his health – both mentally and physically – and making sure he has the support system to keep this positive momentum going, especially with cancer treatments on the horizon.
He talks with his son frequently and recently visited him in San Diego to go fishing. Unfortunately stormy weather got in the way, but it was still a nice visit. Mike dreams of perhaps starting a business with his son in the future.
The best part about overseeing DST’s teams and meeting each and every newcomer who walks through its doors? “I can give advice to people to not fall into the same place [as I did],” said Mike. “The [volunteer] work keeps me sober – this program will help keep you sober – and without my sobriety I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”