Matt Driscoll

‘I can’t stay here forever.’ Disabled by a stroke, Tacoma man now lives in his Bronco

Nick Schenk slowly climbs out of his Ford Bronco to meet me.

He’s parked in the overgrown backyard of a rundown house, along an alley, just behind the Jack in the Box. There’s a cellphone propped on the steering column, connected to a small speaker he keeps on the center console — filing the vehicle with the sound of the videos he’s been watching.

Schenk has been passing the time and waiting. They’re two things he’s grown accustomed to.

Schenk knows the backyard well. It used to be his. He rented this house, with a roommate, for nearly five years. His Bronco used to be parked out front. Now, it’s parked out back.

The saga that led Schenk here — to this spot, to this predicament and to first-time homelessness — began roughly two years ago when the now 54-year-old suffered a stroke, leaving him disabled.

It’s a grim scene, and it perhaps would be reassuring to assume Schenk’s story is rare.

Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly clear that in Tacoma and Pierce County that it’s anything but.

Too often, one medical emergency is all it takes to push someone like Schenk into homelessness. Once people find themselves in that position — even if they’re disabled — our overburdened system is painfully slow to react, at best.

As Schenk’s ordeal makes clear, sometimes the system can’t react at all because the resources simply don’t exist.

For the last two months, Schenk has lived out of his Bronco. At night, he somehow manages to crawl into the back, where he sleeps atop all the worldly possessions he has left. On the front seat is a box of at least 10 prescription bottles, all of them prescribed after his stroke and other recently diagnosed medical conditions.

The Bronco is a “gas hog,” Schenk says, and with only $770 in monthly disability income, he drives it as little as possible. He’s grateful that his former landlord — who he says asked him to move out a few months ago because he wants to sell the house — has allowed him to park in the backyard, at least for the time being.

Initially, the stroke left the left side of Schenk’s body, and his arm and leg, lifeless and unusable. It also left him unable to work.

That’s been the toughest part, Schenk says. He has “always been a worker,” he explains, starting on fishing boats in Alaska when he was a teenager and continuing later in life with industrial painting or hardwood and tile jobs.

“The sitting around and being disabled is the hardest part for me,” he says.

Today he uses a cane to get around and often slings a knapsack over his shoulder that also serves as a makeshift sling for his dangling arm.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Schenk tells me. “This is the first time in my whole life I’ve ever been homeless or anything like this, even close.”

There are complicating factors, as their so often are.

Schenk drinks too much — “I’m the first to admit I’m an alcoholic,” he tells me — and, long before the stroke, a decades-old felony marijuana conviction has made finding stable employment and housing a challenge.

Even after the stroke, these hurdles continue to stand in Schenk’s way.

Still, prior to his stroke, Schenk was working — under the the table — and paying rent. It wasn’t easy, but he got by. Even after the stroke, he managed to string things together, until his landlord decided to sell the house.

Now? He says he’s spent two months meeting with service providers, filling out stacks of paperwork and playing phone tag with well-meaning social workers with little or nothing to offer.

Schenk has been on Tacoma Housing Authority’s wait list for years, with no luck, he says. Since becoming homeless, he’s met with Associated Ministries and just about every other service provider in the area, but nothing has come of it.

He’s struck out at local shelters, which he says are “all packed” — and he’s right.

“I have a vehicle. I’m fortunate enough to have this,” Schenk says earnestly, propping his useless left hand on the bottom of the steering wheel.

“I don’t like asking for help. I never have had to. And now that I ask for help, I can’t get it,” Schenk says. “It’s just depressing, because I’m legally disabled, and you’d think you’d get some help, but you can’t get any help.”

For Jason Smith, one of Schenk’s longtime neighbors, watching him slip into homelessness and near despondency has been as eye-opening as it’s been painful. His family has done what it can, he says, including putting Schenk up in a hotel and allowing him to park his Bronco in front of their house. Smith’s father, who lives in Kent, let Schenk crash at his place for a few nights.

Smith figured something would have come together for Schenk by now, but it just hasn’t.

“From my perspective — and I don’t know the system or know exactly what it takes to be put up somewhere — nothing has happened,” Smith says with noticeable frustration in his voice. “The fact that nothing has happened is very concerning.”

“I am absolutely amazed by the system we have set up to support those people in our society who might need help — who are in dire need of help and can’t fend for themselves,” he continues. “Nick I would assume, would be at the top of that list. … But nothing ever pans out.”

Despite everything he’s seen so far, Smith’s increasing cynicism is pierced by a sliver of hope. His fingers are crossed that once people learn about Schenk’s plight, someone — or some agency — will finally swoop in to help.

“I don’t think any reasonable person would look at (Schenk’s) situation and say, ‘This is exactly how it’s supposed to work,’” Smith says. “Hopefully, people will see it and go, ‘Oh (crap), we let someone slip through the cracks.’”

I hope Smith is right, but — unfortunately — I fear he’ll be disappointed, once again. I’ve simply covered stories like these too many times.

Schenk, sadly, is not an exception. He’s evidence of a growing crisis, and life inside his Ford Bronco is exactly what that crisis looks like.

For Schenk, time is running out, and he knows it.

“I’ve thought about it,” Schenk says when asked about what he’ll do if help doesn’t arrive soon.

“I get my next check on the first, and if a lot of stuff doesn’t happen, I’ll probably just fuel up and go somewhere else,” he says.

“I’ve got no choice. I can’t stay here forever.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.