(Update: adding video, comments by homeless man, woman who helped him)
'Very much possible that I could've died that night,' says 23-year-old Thomas
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Thanks to an unsuspecting interaction with a stranger on a below-freezing November night, a long-time homeless man has a new lease on life.
Thomas, who is 23, took shelter on the sidewalk of Northeast Revere Avenue under the Bend Parkway during Central Oregon’s first snowfall of the season.
That area is a mere passing point for most, en route to a destination. However, choosing to sleep there on that chilly night changed him, forever.
"(It's) very much possible that I could've died that night,” Thomas told NewsChannel 21 Thursday.
NewsChannel 21 was asked to not use Thomas’s last name, for privacy reasons.
Looking at him today, people might not guess he was ever on the brink of death. However, smiles have been hard to come by for much of his life.
"I've been a professional runaway for the last eight years,” Thomas said.
Thomas opened up about his tough childhood, pointing to a tattoo that spelled out ‘Homesick’ across eight of his fingers.
"I’ve been homesick for a while now,” he said.
Thomas wanted to be with his family, he said, but his family did not want to be with him.
"Well, my dad went to prison, and my mom said she wasn't ready for me to come home, because I had an anger problem,” he said.
That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially for a teenager, which Thomas was at the time.
With his loved ones out of the picture, Thomas turned to drugs.
"The first time I ever did meth was under the 12th Street Bridge in Salem,” Thomas admitted. “It's been a rough road since then."
"I was 15,” he added.
Eight years later, Thomas has been in and out of foster care.
The lack of leadership in his life has led Thomas down a path of criminal activity, too.
He was found guilty in 2017 of burglary and second-degree theft. There’s also an open case from last September on theft and several other charges -- a problem he says goes hand-in-hand with methamphetamine.
"I would like to make amends to all the people that I’ve stolen from,” Thomas said. “It's hard to even make a list. Shout out to Safeway for all the times I stole food from you guys."
Thomas wanted to clean up his act, but couldn’t do it on his own. Two months later, there he was, sleeping on the sidewalk in sub-freezing temperatures.
That's when a slice of southern hospitality showed up out of nowhere to help save his life.
"When I first pulled over, I thought it was just a sleeping bag, because it looked so small,” said Karen LaFayette. “When I got out and opened the sleeping bag, he turned around and looked me in the face."
LaFayette had only lived in Bend for four months the night she met Thomas. She moved from Alabama last July, and didn't have much herself, with just $4 in her bank account.
But LaFayette recalled a classic story to explain why she stopped.
"Thousands of starfish washing up on the ocean, and a child is picking them up and chucking them up back in,” she said. “This man says to him, 'You know, you're not making a difference.' He says, 'To this one, I am.' That's what I thought about Thomas."
LaFayette paid for Thomas to stay in a hotel that night.
After that, LaFayette's friend, Kirstin Bundy, also of Bend, stepped in to help, buying Thomas food and even doing his laundry.
And it doesn't end there.
Several people in the Central Oregon community have been donating to help pay off Thomas' court fines.
"It was amazing what everyone did for him,” LaFayette said.
Now, Thomas has entered a one-year program at the Central Oregon campus of the Adult and Teen Challenge rehab center.
He's only one month in, but it's given him a new lease on life.
"It's just a wonderful thing,” Thomas said. “I feel so blessed. I've cried about it, to have this house here that cares about me."
The public donations help, but Thomas also has to earn his stay. That’s exactly what he's been doing every week: nine hours of drug and alcohol treatment, six days of work and two days in church, where he's finding himself again.
"I met this really cute girl at the stir on Friday, at this church service, and the only thing that I could think to say that was coming to my mind was just sharing my testimony and sharing the word of God,” Thomas said. “That's a totally different person. It's life-changing."
All Thomas ever wanted was a place to feel at home. Now, that's exactly what he has -- not just at the rehab facility, but here in Central Oregon. There are no guarantees for Thomas going forward, but few get a second chance quite like this.