The back of Jimmy Summers’ 1991 Toyota 4Runner used to be his home.
But, it was slowly turning into his coffin, he said.
Each day that went by the temperature dropped and so would his spirit.
The then 49-year-old Summers never expected to find himself in that situation — on the wrong end of a business deal, living day to day, sinking into a deeper slump and surviving on bologna sandwiches he bought with food stamps.
Was this really happening?
A grown man, formerly successful, hardworking union sheet metal worker and Army veteran of eight and a half years out living in the cold without a job?
Pride is hard to swallow, he contends.
“I finally got to the point that I knew I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t do something,” he said. “I had no idea where to go for help.
“You wake up and you see death staring at you in an SUV. The frost you are breathing out is starting to crystallize in the top of the vehicle.”
He made his move a few frigid days before Christmas of 2010.
“That was going to be my coffin by the time somebody found me come spring if I hadn’t decided to get out of it,” he said.
He landed on the doorstep of Love, INC of the Kenai Peninsula and the Kenai Merit Inn.
He never left.
He’d found home — Merit Inn.
And a job — looking after it, fixing it and promoting it.
And a new outlook on life in general — from depression to optimism.
Now he says he owes the organization a debt of gratitude for saving him.
“There is no other place for homeless people to go,” he said. “I never considered myself a homeless person. If they hadn’t started this, Love, INC, there would be no place.”
Summers, now 50, rode the ferry up to Alaska in 2002 looking for something different.
He started working for Seward Fisheries on the “slime line” and was there about three and a half years before he started working as the business manager for Marina Motel.
He met a man who offered a business proposition and the two struck a deal — or so it appeared at the time.
“You think a handshake goes a long way,” Summers said sitting in the back room of the Merit Inn. “He was looking to give away some land if somebody would build him his cabin. As soon as I got his cabin built I guess the handshake didn’t mean a lot. I was pretty much kicked out.”
It was March of 2010 and he was now broke, looking for work near Anchor Point and living out of his vehicle.
“The more I was living out of my vehicle the worse it got — probably depression,” he said. “Then you get to the place where there is nowhere you can take a shower or anything like that and the body odor sets in. That makes it even harder.”
He was isolated and didn’t know where to turn.
“It’s hard to swallow your pride,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing especially when you are in a situation you thought you were in control of.”
Someone was kind enough to give him 10 gallons of gas in June he used to drive into the Central Peninsula area and start looking for work.
“I hadn’t ever worn a beard in my life and that was depressing the more I looked in the mirror,” he said.
The months passed and yet nothing turned up for him except for getting food stamps. He turned to the VA, but they said they couldn’t help him if he wasn’t on drugs or “combat fatigued.”
“I was none of those,” he said.
That felt worse. Kicked to the curb by the organization dedicated to helping him, he said.
He decided to park illegally at a fish camp and try to wait out the winter. But the snow got deeper and he wasn’t expecting the temperatures to dip as low as they did — Anchor Point and Seward weren’t as cold.
Summers and his dog Wolfie, a 60-pound red heeler and shepherd mix who had survived on canned beef stew purchased with his owner’s food stamps, both had to get out, pride be damned.
He found himself walking along Kalifornsky Beach Road.
“My feet were so frozen I couldn’t walk another 10 feet,” he said.
He tried to flag someone down.
One police officer drove right on by, but another stopped and pulled over.
“I don’t remember the officer’s name, and I wish I did because I would like to shake his hand,” he said.
The officer dropped him off at the Merit Inn, and that’s when Summers crossed paths with Leslie Rohr, Love, INC’s executive director.
“I said, ‘It is not right that my dog has to die. They are only going to give him 72 hours (at the pound),’” he said.
Summers seemed genuine. So, Rohr broke her three biggest rules, she said.
At that time Love INC, the organization that leases the Merit Inn, didn’t take single men. Especially with dogs.
They were focused on families without homes, Rohr explained.
But Summers changed that with “his story.”
“Everywhere he went it seemed like people were telling him, ‘No,’ or there was nothing they could do for him,” Rohr said. “It was apparent to me that he wasn’t trying to take advantage of the system — he wanted to be self-sufficient, he just needed a little help. And no one was willing or able to do that.”
So she broke the rules.
She rented a room to a single man for the first time.
Allowed him to keep his dog.
And drove him in her car, alone, to the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles.
Now, the Merit Inn is a little more willing to take in a variety of people, if space is available.
“I think they realized there are a lot more people out there that need help more than family people,” Summers said.
Since coming to the Merit Inn, Summers was hired to take care of the place. He serves as a property manager, building superintendent, maintenance man — whatever you want to call it — and lives on the premises.
“Anything that breaks, I fix,” he said with a laugh.
Rohr and Summers are now buddies.
“He is so respectful of our program and what we do,” Rohr said. “He defends the program and really does say that if we hadn’t let him in that day that he probably would have died. He has become a part of the family and we are really blessed to have him.”
Now, a year later, Summers finds himself relating to a lot of the people that land on the Merit Inn’s doorstep.
“A lot of them I have walked in their shoe steps,” he said. “I know what it is like to lose hope.”
Sometimes he will have a private conversation with the person, but he likes to stay out of personal matters. But, then again, everyone needs someone who will listen.
“I listen,” he said. “That’s all a lot of them want. They know they are in a bad situation. I don’t get involved in their past or why they are here — could be domestic, drugs — I don’t judge anybody. And neither does Love, INC.
“Pride is not that bitter to swallow,” he said. “It is quite easy.”
Is that the advice he gives to those who might be walking a similar path he walked?
“No — you see I don’t try to give people advice, that’s not my forte,” he said. “My job is to try and bring a smile to their face.”