It’s 7:30 am at Central City Concern’s Blackburn Center and as most people are getting ready for their day, Gary, also known as Rev, is just getting home from work. Rev is one of those people who everyone in the building knows, even if they don’t know his name. He’s “the guy with the cat on his shoulder.”
Originally from Colorado, Rev found his niche in the tech industry. Well versed in microprocessors and operating systems, he could break a computer on purpose and then put it back together. As a lab lead at Hewlett Packard, he facilitated the release of the very first re-writable CD in 1997. He later worked on early applications for video on demand and social networking. In fact, he met his wife, Penny through one of the first online personal ads. They got married on a Friday the 13th and were happily together for almost 18 years.
Working 12-hour days, Rev de-stressed with drugs and alcohol. “I was a very functional addict. I loved my work so much, I made sure my addiction didn’t impact my work.” And loving his wife even more, he found it easy to step away from hard drugs completely, and eventually alcohol as well. Rev’s career eventually led the couple to Oregon. But soon after moving, they both developed severe health problems. Gary had no choice but to quit his job. “You would be surprised at how someone with even a lot of savings could go from a comfortable life to being on the street. I was making 75K a year. After I left my job, it was six months before we were homeless.”
Rev was in and out of emergency rooms due to seizures and sought treatment at Central City Concern’s Old Town Clinic. Penny bounced around nursing homes while she dealt with complications from diabetes. After she had a heart attack, she grew disheartened with the health system and refused further treatment. Her body shut down and she went immediately into hospice care. Gary wasn’t allowed to stay in her room at night, but a friendly property owner allowed him to pitch a tent three blocks from her hospice home. He was by her side from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day until she passed away.
He was proud of the fact that he was completely sober at the time of her death. Penny was Rev’s everything, his “wife, lover, partner in crime and best friend.”
He asked his counselor at Old Town Clinic if she thought it would be a good idea for him to get a cat. She thought it would be great for him to focus his time and energy on a pet rather than on his grief. She even filled out all of the paperwork for an emotional support animal so he would have everything in place once he found his new companion.
Rev adopted his new cat from a woman who worked at a Taco Bell. At seven weeks old, this kitten was the runt of the litter and fit in the palm of his hand. “I always wanted to have a cat named ‘dog’ without actually naming her that.” He calls her DeeOhGee. Other houseless people thought it was odd for him to have a cat in the tent with him, but she was his saving grace. “When Penny was on her deathbed, I promised her that I wouldn’t use her death as a reason to kill myself. But I kept trying to find a loophole. When I got DeeOhGee, I promised her that I would take care of her for the rest of her natural life. That was all that was keeping me going for months on end and now I’ve actually quit looking for loopholes.”
Having a pet on the street is hard. With no income, Rev depended on the kindness of strangers and businesses to provide cat food for DeeOhGee. He also obtained a cat harness which he says is crucial for a cat living on the streets. “You never know when they are going to chase a squirrel or run into a busy road.”
As Rev’s seizures grew more frequent and his ADHD spiraled out of control, he could no longer keep appointments. He also found that he could no longer journal to his wife – which helped him immensely through the grief. He became dependent on methamphetamines, which allowed him to journal and thus keep his connection to his beloved wife. But after a year of self-medicating, he knew he was headed down a dangerous path.
He entered the Substance Use Disorders Services (SUDS) program at Central City Concern’s Blackburn Center. “The staff is very knowledgeable, but more than that – they are willing to listen to what’s going on,” says Rev. His SUDS Counselor, Phillip Blomberg was impressed with Rev’s perseverance through recovery. “The thing about Rev is he just kept showing up, no matter what – using or not using, good days and bad. Even if his campsite got moved the day before,” says Phillip. “And he always told the truth, no matter what – whether he was in rage, grief, feeling hopeless, or any other struggle. Honesty is where recovery begins, so that made working with Rev a pleasure.”
Rev says it was hard to come out of his shell. “My wife and I were very happy as hermits. But I know that being a hermit and being in recovery are polar opposites and I need to get out and meet people.” That’s where DeeOhGee comes in handy. Almost everywhere Rev goes, she rides on his shoulder. Even when he didn’t have an appointment or a class, he would visit Blackburn with DeeOhGee. “I introduced her to everybody and recharged my batteries physically, mentally and emotionally – and my real batteries since I was still on the street.” The mere presence of DeeOhGee would brighten a room. “People just get a huge smile on their face when they see her. They pet her. It comforts them to see something familiar in an unfamiliar place.”
After he graduated from the SUDS program in 2021, Rev secured permanent housing at Blackburn. He says DeeOhGee handled the transition better than he did. “It was so surreal because I had been on the streets since 2016. But it took no time for DeeOhGee to get used to a litter box and she has made my apartment her own.”
Rev also worked with CCC’s Employment Access Center to find an on-call janitorial position. Three months later, he secured a permanent job at CCC’s newest site, River Haven, which provides temporary homes for people while they transition through early stages of recovery. “I work the graveyard shift to monitor the security cameras, take care of any emergency that comes up and keep the place clean. I love what I do.”
SUDS Counselor Misti Miller says, “Rev has become someone of inner strength who isn’t afraid of his past. He has become someone who is an asset to our communities and he has become a peer to his fellows. I am so proud of Blackburn staff and Rev for meeting each other at just the right time.”
He strives to get back in the tech field one of these days, but he’s taking it one day at a time. From 2013 to 2021, Rev lost 35 friends and family members. “After losing as many people as I’ve lost, I didn’t really want to know a lot of people, but DeeOhGee has a way of opening doors. With all of the health issues I was having, I wouldn’t have made it another winter on the street. Everyone here at Blackburn is pretty much my second family. They have helped me get through the literal hell of the last 28 years of addiction. They saved my life. I actually look forward to living now, when just 8 months ago, I prayed for death.”
Rev has a simple message to others going through recovery: “If you are hurting in any way, give CCC a chance, they work miracles if you let them. I’m walking proof.”
Central City Concern is ending homelessness by treating the whole person, as a person, and that includes welcoming their pets.