DECK A day in the life of counselor, mentor and homeless advocate Rick McNeal
By Christopher Nyerges 05/20/2010
Iwas waiting in an alley in Pasadena one night when out of the darkness appeared Rick McNeal. I’d been told about McNeal, a freelance social services counselor and mentor to homeless people and alcoholics who has helped hundreds in need over the past 12 years. What, I wondered, led McNeal down the path of helping others?
Sitting at outdoor tables at a local Mexican restaurant, the 56-year-old told me he was born in New York and has lived in Pasadena since 1986. He’s Creole and Native American and grew up with lots of other children, to whom he was like an older brother.
“My Navajo grandfather planted that seed of social service in me,” McNeal explained. “Ever since I was very young, I always had this special connection to people and to helping people.”
McNeal’s mother was Catholic. His father was a Mason, and “I noticed how good the Masons were, especially in hard times,” said the onetime altar boy.
As a child, he would go into the woods and hunt rabbits, pheasants and deer. He learned how to fend for himself, and over the years he’s lived all over the United States.
But at some point in the 1970s, he began drinking, which led to a period of homelessness. Today, he’s a recovering alcoholic, sober now for 19 years. McNeal, who does paid and volunteer counseling and works as a self-employed handyman, explained that drinking always kept him on the edge of homelessness — a period in his life that taught him gratitude and made him see what he did have and that he needed to appreciate it more.
“We don’t know what we have until it is gone,” McNeal observed. “Homelessness made me see what people really go through, and it taught me gratitude.”
As McNeal pointed out, it’s not easy being homeless. “I couldn’t shower regularly, there’s no regular toilet and I had to find public bathrooms,” he recalled. “When I was homeless, I went to places that gave donations, like food banks. I panhandled and I did odd jobs, such as painting and roofing. Plus, I wrote poetry. I sometimes stayed at cheap motels in Pasadena or Los Angeles.”
What finally lifted him from that life “was a friend who brought me to grips with myself,” McNeal said. “He was always doing tough love. He told me to never let what you’ve done in the past eat up your future. This mentor, Bill Morgan, knocked down my wall of resentment.”
McNeal said the solution to homelessness and alcoholism comes from personal decisions, not some government mandate. “One thing that life has taught me is that when you make a conscious decision to change your life and to turn your life over to God, miraculous and mysterious things begin to happen.
“When people come to me and tell me they have a drinking problem, I don’t preach to them,” explained McNeal, who prefers directing individuals to social service programs. He meets the people he helps while attending PTA, church, Alcoholic Anonymous and substance abuse meetings.
McNeal frequently delves into his metaphysical side, saying sometimes more than just ideas come to him in visions.
“Once our parents leave us,” said McNeal, “they become our guardian spirits and protect us.” Perhaps the best advice McNeal can give is to have people think of something that makes them happy when they go to bed. “If you go to sleep with that happiness, you’ll wake up with that happiness,” he said.
McNeal’s goal is to operate a coffee shop where he can play music, hold poetry readings and offer a place for like-minded people to meet and mingle. He would also like to operate an outlet where food and blankets can be provided for free to people in need.
“When I was living in the Bay Area, a friend told me that one day I would experience rainbow vision, and God sending me colors. When I meditate, God tells me, ‘I will send a sign.’ When this happens to me, I first get a feeling in my stomach, like nervous butterflies, and then it is like walking into the Light of the Lord, like Moses.
I often feel that spirits are talking to me.”
Certainly, McNeal feels the pain of others. But, he said, “I have to choose whether or not to counsel another person. I have to feel that spirit inside me first.”
Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He can be reached at christophernyerges.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.