William “aka” Joey Alexander landed his job at the Fox Theatre thanks to connections. He’d be the first to say that if it weren’t for a cop, a pastor and, hey, a higher power, he’d never in a million years be where he is today, working with clients and vendors and involved in getting the historic theater ready for patrons again.
Now 50, he’d only had two real jobs before he got hired last January as facilities manager. One was at a commercial dry-cleaners. And the other?
“I stole,” Alexander responds without hesitation. That was to feed a drug addiction which began in high school and had dominated his life until the miraculous kind of break that only happens in the movies, or in this case, a theater. He’d cut the locks of businesses, taking what he could grab to a drug connection who would in turn sell it – generators, power tools, power washers, “pretty much anything you can get. Washer-dryers. You name it.” Living on the street, “I didn’t see money for the longest time because it was just about drugs, just about drugs.”
This story was originally published in the January edition of Climate Magazine.
Yet Ernie Schmidt, the Fox Theatre’s general manager, had no hesitation about giving Alexander a second chance despite some sizeable baggage: 30 years of homelessness and a couple of felonies and prison time on his résumé. Alexander, he says, was forthright about his past and “extremely passionate” about starting his life over. “His past is his past. I’m only concerned about the work that he is doing, which he is doing extremely well.”
Help from His Friends
Schmidt’s decision might seem a pretty large leap of faith, but that elusive commodity has poured out like a geyser in this rags-to-responsibility tale. Since being discovered camping in a Woodside Road cloverleaf about 2½ years ago, the newly minted renter and car owner has come through rehab and found steady employment, thanks to a network of supportive friends. “It’s people being in your corner,” says Alexander, who still can’t get over the fact that anyone thought, “There’s a better life for you. I just never would have thought of it. Come on, a drug addict?”
Today he lives in a church-sponsored sober-living home for men in Mountain View, makes payments on his dream Camaro, has credit cards – and responsibility. “I go shopping. I do the normal things and you know what? It’s healthy. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Alexander holds back nothing in recounting his life story and the improbable encounter on a June day in 2018 when, scruffy and bleary-eyed, he was awakened from a sound sleep by a Redwood City police officer standing over him. Chris Rasmussen had been cruising the city doing homeless outreach, along with Pastor David Shearin of Street Life Ministries and a police intern filming for the department’s social media unit.
“I saw a sleeping bag with somebody in it,” recalls Shearin, himself a one-time homeless drug user. “Cops just naturally, they don’t care, they just run towards it. He’s (Rasmussen) going over and I’m kind of holding back and praying, ‘Dear Lord, please don’t let it be a dead body.’”
Alexander had just come through yet another failed attempt at rehab, and before falling asleep, had sent up a desperate prayer. “I said, ‘Look God, I can’t do it on my own. I can’t. Can you help me please?’ And I remember falling asleep and the next thing I know, I wake up and there’s Officer Chris (asking) ‘Hey man are you okay?’ And I’m looking to run because I’ve usually done something wrong.”
Rasmussen says he threw out his hands to signal that they came in peace and asked Alexander what they could do to get him off the streets. “It was very unusual,” Rasmussen adds, “because he said ‘I’m ready to go.’” The duo got Alexander into a shelter that night, and from there he was on his way on to a treatment program in San Francisco.
About six months went by and they lost track of each other. Rasmussen called Shearin one day to ask if he knew where Alexander might be so he could do a follow-up interview for the social media video. Alexander, meanwhile, had lost their phone numbers but was doing laundry one day and found their business cards in an old pair of pants.
Alexander said pastor Shearin answered the call and says, “‘Dude. Me and Chris was just talking about you. Did you relapse?’” Quite the contrary. “I had a sponsor and I really started doing the program. My conscious contact with God was continuous.”
Weeks later, after Alexander was graduated from the Walden House program, Shearin helped him get an entry-level job at Purple Tie, a commercial dry-cleaners, doing shipping and receiving. Jonathan Kaech, the company’s vice president of customer operations, is a member of Peninsula Covenant Church and welcomed the opportunity to put his faith into action.
“I think William is probably the fourth or fifth person that we’ve hired through my relationship with David and Street Life Ministries and by far is probably the most successful individual that’s come through that program,” Kaech says. “He’s done really well. Hard worker—just the kind of guy that when you meet him, you can’t walk away not having a smile or feeling better for talking with him.”
Indeed, it’s hard to square notions about the unsavory homeless with Alexander’s engaging, upbeat personality and candor. He jumped right into Kaech’s Bible study and they’ve become close friends. Rasmussen, who retired from the Police Department last year and ran for the City Council, regards the former prodigal like a brother. The Rasmussen family has had Alexander over for Christmas and Chris is working with him to get his record expunged.
Rasmussen even toured Alexander through the PD to meet Chief Dan Mulholland, who “shook my hand—really good grip—and he pulled me in close and these words always stay in my head. ‘Son, opportunities like this don’t come very often. … Don’t squander it.’”
A Wrong Turn
During his years on the street, Alexander “ran from the cops and my motto was, ‘It’s my job to break the law, and it’s your job to catch me.’ Stupid but that came with the lifestyle I chose.” One of four sons of a professional couple, he grew up in Modesto in a good home but got into drugs at 16. “I think I got into the wrong crowd and the first time I tried meth it was a love affair. … It was just like that: I was instantly hooked.” He hid his drug use from his parents but by the time he turned 18, they gave him an ultimatum to “pull your own weight” or leave.
“Yeah, birthday cake in one hand and suitcase in the other,” he says, hands palms-up to illustrate. “’When you get your act together, let us know.’” Alexander joined the National Guard but after about a year of sobriety, he ended up back on drugs, in Stockton. Though he stole property to buy drugs, it wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he started doing time.
When he arrived for his first stint at Tracy’s Deuel Vocational Institution, all his friends greeted him and he started thinking “Hey this ain’t so bad.” Then one day he heard his name called for transfer to San Quentin.
“I’m like, excuse me? San Quentin. That’s like … prison. And they’re like, ‘no kidding.’ I roll all my stuff up. I get on the bus, they transport me in and the first thing I see is (a sign with the words) ‘No Warning Shots Fired.’ My heart was in my throat. You go in, you see five tiers of just —screaming, yelling, toilet paper being thrown, fishing lines out.” (Inmates cut their sheets into thin lines and throw a strand out to a neighboring cell to trade things back and forth.)
Alexander lived in perpetual fear. “This went on for nine months. I read my Bible every day. I really tried my best to have a relationship with God. But as soon as I got out, I was off and running again.”
For 30 years, he was unsheltered all but about five, part of that time when his parents allowed him the use of a rental house. His brief marriage broke up. That, along with the rift with his parents, is among his life’s broken relationships. People adjust to homelessness, he says. “You do what you want. You wake up. You sleep. You don’t have any responsibilities. The only thing you’re worried about is getting high and that’s what my goal was.”
A New Lease on Life
At Purple Tie, he made a point to be a half hour early for work and soon got a raise and then a promotion. Out of the blue after about a year, Schmidt asked Rasmussen if he could recommend someone who could do maintenance at the Fox Theatre. He had just the guy.
Alexander came on board before the Covid-related restrictions shut down the historic theater. It is now undergoing extensive renovations, some of which are being done to make leery patrons feel comfortable about coming back. Restrooms are being remodeled with touchless features. The antiquated heating and air conditioning system is being replaced, and an air filtration system is being installed which uses ultraviolet light to kill germs and bacteria. The Fox’s entire lighting and rigging systems are also being replaced.
“He (Alexander) does a lot,” Schmidt says. “He helps manage the venue from a facilities standpoint ensuring that everything is operating correctly. I’ve also given him the responsibility to be my liaison between myself and the vendors that are currently in the theater doing the renovation.” Alexander also works on events and with clients who rent the theater, making sure they have enough power or tables and chairs. Solving problems.
After a lifetime of not being able to get it right, Alexander relishes handling important responsibilities. The difference this time, he says, is having other people – Rasmussen, Shearin, Kaech, Schmidt and Mulholland—on his side. And finally being ready to change.
“In my program, you’ve got to put God first, but you have to put some action into it,” Alexander says. “You’re not just going to sit here and say, ‘Hey God, I’m here.’ We put action—we put effort into our addiction, we have to put action into our recovery. I think a little bit more, because 30 years is a long time. Long time.”