Where does a homeless veteran go to die? A good question isn’t it?
For too many, they die alone, cold and suffering, hidden in the woods, along a riverbank or under a bridge. Thats such a sad way for anyone to die, let alone a man who served his country.
Today I visited a friend who I met in a homeless camp eight years ago. His name is Rene and he is dying of pancreatic cancer, he doesn’t have much more time left in this world. Gone is his radiant smile and easy laugh, sadly cannibalized by cancer, leaving only a frail and tired man.
I visited Rene at the Tokarski Home, a beautiful inviting home built to provide a warm, safe loving place for people who are about to leave this world. It is simply put a taste of heaven on earth.
The Tokarski home is part of Willamette Hospice located in the Edgewater Community that the Salem Dream Center adopted in 2003. In 2009 Salem City Vibe (Dream Centers partner) was founded with the desire to reach the hungry and hurting living in Salem who are address challenged. Salem City Vibe reach out to the homeless and at risk of homelessness primarily in West Salem.
It was because of men and women just like Rene who broke my heart, that I along with Dennis and Linda Wollertsen created Salem City Vibe.
The last time I visited Rene (prior to his residence in the Tokarski Home) he was living next to a river in a small tent, hidden by trees and blackberry bushes. He greeted me with the big hug and smile I had come to expect and love. He offered me a drink and a place to sit on a log. We sat and talked about his journey, his struggles and he talked about how badly he wanted to get off the streets and to stay off the streets.
I hate homelessness, but I love most of the urban campers that I’ve met. I love Rene, and it has always broke my heart to see how he lived, cold, hungry and feeling he had failed his family, friends and even me. I hate that people openly judged him without having any idea of who he is, who he was, or what unfortunate circumstances brought him to life living in a tent, begging to survive.
Today when I visited Rene at Tokarski House, I found him resting in a nice bed in a huge home that looked as if it could be in a magazine. His care providers cared for him with such dignity, compassion and respect, and I would even say with love.
His private room was so comfortable, not at all what I expected to find. It was simply put, a warm, comfortable room that was inviting and felt like home. I’ll be honest, as I walked up to the home, I expected to find that smell of death, antiseptics and yuck I had found at most of nursing home I’ve visited. Not at all what I experienced, in fact it was the exact opposite. It was wonderful.
After greeting me, Rene took my hand in his and said: “Craig, I’m dying….. but Im not afraid.” My heart broke, but the feelings that overwhelmed me more than the fact that my friend is dying, and I will soon lose him, was how happy I was that he was here, in this beautiful home.
As I write this I’m overcome by extreme gratitude that one man who never met Rene, gave selflessly of what he worked hard to earn, to create this amazing place, and because of Mr Tokarski’s generosity, my dear friend would leave this world loved, warm, fed, bathed, cared for, knowing he mattered, and most of all, that he was not alone.
I’m sitting in West Salem Starbuck’s writing this, and as I do, tears are running down my cheeks. Some people are looking at me with concern, but it doesn’t matter, because there is no way I could stop the tears from flowing. They are a mix of tears of sorrow over impending loss, and of extreme joy that my friend has a safe warm place to leave this world, and to meet his God that he has loved since that day in a homeless camp along side of the river when he accepted Christ, and he let go of the burden of sin he carried. I will always be thankful for Pastor Mark with Church at the Park and Pastor DJ who spoke into Rene’s life and loved him exactly as he was.
Rene is dying, but he is not afraid, he knows where his next home will be, and this wonderful place that he finds rest in right now, is a glimpse of what his Heavenly Father has waiting for him.
I’m so thankful that Mr Tokarski created a place where even a homeless man could come to die in peace and comfort and with dignity.
I will miss my friend and I will always be thankful to Larry and Jim Tokarski. (Jim is the contractor who oversaw construction of home at no charge) ( The home is named for Larry and Jims’ Father Edward Tokarski)