By Russell Hixson
STILLWATER, Okla. —
It’s a shelter, a place out of the wind, out of sight, where police won’t bother you, where someone without a home can relax, have a drink, read a book. It’s called the rock house and for Michael Finout it used to be home.
Life on the street
The rock house is a wall of heavy stones Finout stacked in the shape of a bathtub underneath a bridge in Stillwater. During Oklahoma’s frigid winters, Finout would curl up in a sleeping bag as the sound of cars echoed through drainage holes above.
When the weather was better Finout would sleep in Strickland Park or Couch Park washing himself and his clothes in public restrooms.
Finout’s days were spent dodging police, collecting bottles, doing odd jobs when he could find them and reading books rescued from trash cans.
“I was homeless a long time, part of it was by choice, part of it was cause I didn’t have a phone number to get a job,” Finout said. He hitchhiked through Texas, Colorado, California, Florida and Oregon. Every day was a struggle. He constantly worried about food, shelter and protection.
People would cast dirty looks, cross to the other side of the street and clutch their purses more tightly when they saw him walking down the street.
“You drink to forget and to numb yourself,” Finout said.
To ease the stress, monotony and pain of being homeless he often turned to the bottle. He said it made him not mind the staring, made him feel warm and just made his situation tolerable.
Breaking the cycle
Years of drinking and living on the street took its toll. Two stents in his heart and a plethora of costly medications thrust Finout to rock bottom and he needed out.
Getting off the streets is easier said than done. Finout called it a Catch 22 situation. You need a job and money to get an address and a telephone but you need an address and a telephone to get a job.
“Without a phone or an address you are a nonentity,” Finout said. Even if he could have managed to score an interview he had no place to do laundry, no nice clothes to wear and no place to shave and shower. Breaking the cycle of homelessness can be hopeless.
“They need a chance,” Finout said.
He got his when a friend brought him to Mission of Hope, an agency that helps homeless people transition into self-sufficiency. Clients are given food, shelter an address and access to phones and computers to search for jobs.
Without the daily stress of wondering where food and shelter would come from and access to internet and a phone, Finout was able to find a job stocking shelves at a grocery store and plans to be in an apartment by January.
“They give you the means to help yourself,” Finout said. He also was able to tackle other problems in his life. Finout is now more than six months sober and chairs meetings for other recovering alcoholics.
Under a bridge littered with graffiti Finout pointed to the rock house. Seeing it is nearly impossible. The structure blends in with surrounding rocks as it mimics their slope towards the side of the bridge. It’s just big enough for a man in a sleeping bag to lie down and escape the wind and prying eyes. The 51-year-old easily scampered over the rocks. It was clear he has experience.
“That was my office,” he said, chuckling. He recalled his nights spent there drinking, huddling for warmth, escaping flood waters, fending off raccoons.
On the floor of the house is a mat, garbage and some clothing.
“Looks like someone else is using it now,” Finout said. In fact, Finout said many of the people he knows who are homeless have used his small rock shelter during brutal weather.
He doesn’t need it anymore.
“Everybody deserves a chance,” Finout said.