The first time I met Richard, he had come to kick me off the place where I was camping. The second time I met Richard, it was to find out why he has dedicated his life to helping the down-and-out in Pahrump, Nevada.
Pahrump looks the way its name sounds: a thud on the tongue. It’s a thoroughfare between Las Vegas and Death Valley—the last stop for gas, groceries, and the slots. (This is Nevada, after all.) Pahrump is a used car salesman in a polyester suit. It sprawls across the valley, its noxious breath obscuring the 11,000-foot Charleston Peak to its rear. Its temperate winters attract snowbirds and bums, and I saw plenty of the latter.
In fact, it was a homeless guy who told me where to camp. “It’s all BLM [federal] land,” he said, with an expansive sweep of his arm. “You can camp for free anywhere behind town. It’s a gold mine back there.”
That last statement was hyperbolic. But sure enough, trailers that had seen better days were scattered about on the broad “fan”—land that slopes from the Spring Mountains to the town. It wasn’t a gold mine by any stretch. It was a trash heap littered with broken glass, crushed batteries, bits of metal, a child’s shoe. I’m still surprised Oreo’s feet and my tires made it out intact.
I found a place to camp that was near enough to walk to the wifi hotspot at Burger King and far enough from the neighboring trailers to feel comfortable. AND I had six bars on my cell phone, so despite the surroundings, it was maybe a copper mine for me. Until Richard pulled up in his red truck and told me I was on someone’s land and that I had to leave.
He was wearing a John 3:16 hat, so I knew he wasn’t really a hardass. After some banter, I learned about Richard’s work with the homeless in Pahrump. (Many of my neighbors were shacking up in trailers he had provided for that purpose.) He’s the town hero to the homeless and maybe a gadfly to those who prefer to ignore the obvious. After two years of nonstop advocacy—all volunteer–he’s beginning to gain traction. He founded his 501(C)3 corporation: Helping Hands 4 Jesus and has a crew of “Red Shirts.” (His volunteers wear red shirts with the Helping Hands logo.) For a guy who, by his own description, only knows about dealing drugs and bartending, Richard is incredibly organized and effective, and Pahrump seems relieved to have someone doing the dirty work.
Richard’s story is remarkable. “I was a drug addict with a gambling, alcohol, and porn problem,” he says, “and I lost three wives because of it. I was homeless myself for ten years. I lived under bridges, in tents. For a while I lived in a cardboard box on the east side of LA. I held up signs that read, ‘Needs work. God bless you,’ and I’d hope that nobody gave me work, because I didn’t want it. I just wanted the money for my habits.”
Eventually, he became so disgusted with himself that he attempted suicide. “The next thing I knew I was on my knees, sobbing, ‘Help me…’ ” And God did. Almost overnight he lost the addictions, but completing the journey toward rehabilitation proved more difficult. “I went from church to church, but I didn’t have any help, so I slid back into bad habits. I had one foot in the devil’s camp and the other in Christ’s.”
This phase last for 17 years, until one day he had an asthma attack that almost killed him. He was diagnosed with severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and was given months to live. “I was on hospice care. I couldn’t bathe, eat, or breathe. I fell into a deep depression.”
After a year of this, he prayed again. This time he promised there would be no wavering. Both feet would be firmly planted in Christ’s camp. He would be God’s man, completely committed to service. After a day or two, he was off oxygen. Then he “graduated” from hospice care. That was two years ago.
Richard is by no means well. He still has serious breathing problems and is disbled for all intents and purposes. But he’s done more in two years for the needy in his home town than many of us do in a lifetime. Because of his physical limitations, his work mostly involves organizing, but he also gets his hands dirty.
Case in point: Mr. Tom. When they met, Mr. Tom had been homeless for years and was dying of cancer. He no longer moved from his bunk in an abandoned trailer. “He went to the bathroom right there,” says Richard. “Fortunately, I had just had nose surgery, so I couldn’t smell a thing.”
Mr. Tom was so devoid of hope and humanity that when Richard left him in a motel for a night with a set of clean clothes, Mr. Tom just slept on the floor, too debilitated even to shower.
Richard showed him how. He literally shaved the baseball cap from Mr. Tom’s head, along with the mat of graying hair. He peeled off his clothing and scrubbed away years of filth from his body. Photos of the process show the transition from a hooded specter to a small, bald man who looks like a lost puppy.
Mr. Tom is slowly failing, but now he lives in a trailer with water and electricity provided by Helping Hands. Richard still goes there every morning to clean him up and make sure he has provisions for the day. The man who can’t breathe changing the diaper of the dying man has a certain poignance, don’t you think?
Richard’s current project, which he is working to sell to the city, is Eagle’s Wings, a “Rehabilitation Center” where people who’ve hit life’s speed bumps harder than most can live for a while and get help. It’s an ambitious project, but perhaps not more improbable than any other part of Richard’s life.
Helping Hands 4 Jesus, 645 E. Simkins, Pahrump, NV