A resurrected life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 20, 2014

Nichols goes from homeless to helper

About four years ago, Justin Nichols was down to his last dime, living in a car wash 800 miles from home and contemplating suicide. 

“I was pushed off the edge. I had no place else to go,” Nichols said.

But today, Nichols will celebrate Easter — the feast of redemption, forgiveness and resurrection — at River City Rescue Mission where mission director Earnie Hall calls him “my right-hand man for the past year.”

“He went from somebody that was totally broken to being one of the most honest men I know,” Hall said. “It’s a resurrected life.”

Nichols, now 40, like many Americans during the Great Recession, became homeless after losing his job. He fled south, to escape the harsh Iowa winter.

Mentally, he had been heading south long before he ever packed his belongings into a car and started driving.

Though he came from a religious family, Nichols stopped going to church as a teenager. He spent his time partying instead.

“I didn’t leave any room for God in my life,” Nichols said.

It was then he became a heavy drinker and drug user. He got married when he was 19, but he and his wife divorced in 2001, in part because of his drinking problem.

“That whole time from that until I left, I had started sinking,” Nichols said.

That sinking feeling got worse when Nichols lost his job in the restaurant business.

Out of work, he went to live with his estranged grandparents who were in need of his help because his grandfather had just been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“We caught up on the 30 years that we missed,” he said. “It was a good way to fix the broken relationship.”

Six month’s after he moved in, his grandfather died. Four moths later, a stroke took his grandmother’s life.

With no place to go, and seemingly no one to turn to, Nichols packed a few belongings in his car in the dead of winter and headed south looking for warmer weather.

“I look at it as a leap of faith. That day I got in the car with nowhere to go and no plan and nothing to fall back on, it was a big leap of faith,” Nichols said.

He only had a few hundred dollars to his name, yet he spent some of the money on drugs he felt he needed to make the journey.

“Before I left town, I made sure I got a little bit of pot I could take with me,” Nichols said.

After aimlessly driving south and sleeping in his car, Nichols’ vehicle started giving out near Rocky Springs. He asked someone where he could get it repaired, and they told him to go to Vicksburg.

On the way to Vicksburg, the car stopped working altogether, and Nichols took refuge in a gas station car wash that was closed for the winter.

“There was a part of me that thought when I got down to my last dollar, I was going to take my own life,” he said.

He was there for about two weeks until an employee found him and called the police who directed him to River City Rescue Mission where he reaffirmed the Christian beliefs he had all but left behind as a teenager.

“When he got saved in my office, he was crying,” Hall said. “I can’t give God enough praise.”

At the rescue mission, Nichols helps others who have struggled with drug abuse, alcoholism and homelessness as they go though the same four-month program Nichols went though.

“A lot of the guys here have a home and a family waiting on them. They come here to get away from the influence of the street and drugs and alcohol,” Nichols said.

After completing the program, Nichols has stayed on to work at the mission.

“When they’re walking out the door with their heads held high, and they pull you in and give you not just a handshake but a hug and say thanks for you what you did, that’s what its all about,” Nichols said.

He hopes the mission will be able to expand its services to include a separate facility for women.

“If we want to see more people come around full circle that’s something we really need around here,” he said.