Life on the Streets: A love story

By Helen Hill, Street Roots

Life on the streets is hard. Some of the hardest living imaginable. So to witness a love that rose from the streets to thrive and deepen over many years, weathering addiction, recovery, chronic illness, loss and endless hardship, is extraordinary and inspiring.

Johnny and Stephanie met at Share House, a homeless shelter and hot meal center in Vancouver, Wash., 13 years ago. “There were sparks,” said Stephanie. “We were together from that day on.”

Being together is easier than being alone, they both agreed. “It’s easier because we can watch each other’s back,” said Johnny. “And when it’s cold at night, we keep each other warm,” added Stephanie.

“Of course,” said Johnny with a smile.

“It can be harder, because we have to carry each other’s stuff sometimes,” said Stephanie. “I like to have belongings and he has to carry them. If he was by himself he would just have a backpack and a rolling bag. Because he’s with me he has a backpack, a rolling bag, and another bag on top of it with other stuff in it.

“We’ve had to downsize a lot,” added Johnny.

“I’m sort of a hoarder, kinda, pretty much,” said Stephanie.

“Yep,” Johnny agreed.

“Being homeless, I have this need to have stuff, because I like to feel like I’m not necessarily in that homeless state, I want to be able to say I have stuff,” said Stephanie.

“The problem is, we’ve got to carry it everywhere,” said Johnny.

“I’ve gotten better,” said Stephanie.

Johnny and Stephanie find a different place to sleep every night. “Most people that stay in one spot usually end up getting a sweep on them,” said Johnny.

“We’ve had that a couple times,” said Stephanie. “We just get comfortable and then the police come and say we have to move along.”

Stephanie and Jonny [Credit: Helen Hill]

Stephanie has epilepsy, and when she has a seizure, Johnny is there to care for her. “He knows exactly what to do,” she said. “I never know when it’s going to happen. I can just be sitting there, and then I start shaking.”

“Don’t panic, keep her from banging her head, hold her down, I know what to do,” said Johnny.

Stephanie was a rebel when she was young. She grew up in Portland and ran away at an early age. “I put myself in some bad situations, did the street kid thing. But I didn’t like being cold so I went back home. My parents were glad to see me back.”

Johnny was born in Washington. For most of his childhood, his father was in prison.

“I met him for the first time when he got out of prison, I was 15. He tried to be in an authority figure position, but I didn’t want to hear it, because I didn’t know the person. It was interesting,” he said. “It’s still a troubled relationship.

“As far as he is concerned, I’ve screwed up my life so bad there’s no coming back from it,” Johnny continued, “which is fine with me. It’s just one more thing I get to prove him wrong about. There’s always room for advancement and change.”

Johnny and Stephanie struggled with addiction for many years. “We are two years clean and sober now,” Stephanie added. “But that’s part of what our troubled relationship with our families is about. Our drug use. We lied, stole, said we were clean when we weren’t and destroyed the trust. We are struggling to build that trust back up.”

They stayed together through it all. “We’ve been through the tough times together, and the good times too. We are like one person,” said Stephanie.

“Yep, pretty much,” agreed Johnny.

“I think of us as soul mates,” said Stephanie. “I will be thinking of something …”

“And then I say it,” said Johnny.

“I’ll finish his sentence or he’ll finish mine,” said Stephanie. “Or we’ll say something together at the same time.”

“We got really lucky, meeting up with each other, staying together as long as we have,” said Johnny.

“A lot of people we know who are couples in addiction, they end up breaking up when they get clean,” said Stephanie. “Us getting clean, it was a joint decision. We either get clean and have lives, or we continue using. It was killing us.”

In order to get clean, they left everything they knew behind. “We had to basically leave our friends and the places we knew, and move to Portland where we didn’t know anybody,” said Johnny. “We got on the methadone program, and it’s been very good for us.”

“We like to do things as a couple now. We go to Waterfront Park and cuddle,” said Stephanie.

“We watch movies on our cell phone together,” said Johnny.

“He has all these movies in his head he can play from beginning to end, he can do all the voices and everything,” said Stephanie. “He can do them word for word. I can close my eyes and see the whole movie playing out, just hearing him say it.”

“That’s how when we didn’t have a phone, we’d entertain each other,” Johnny added. “It’s a gift I have. That and music. I have lots of lyrics in my head.”

“I don’t know how he remembers it all,” Stephanie said. “Rap, oldies, rock, all kinds of stuff. I love him, he’s my everything. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

“Yeah, she’d be lost without me,” Johnny said. “I’d definitely be lost without her.”

“The couple of times we’ve had an argument, or a fight, one of us will take off and say we are done. It will be maybe an hour,” Stephanie said.

“Not even,” added Johnny.

“It’s easier because we can watch each other’s back. And when it’s cold at night, we keep each other warm.”

Stephanie and Johnny have five children together, ages 10 years to 17 months. Three live with her parents and two with her brother’s family. Her mother volunteers at the children’s school, and is a crosswalk guard. Her father is a welder. Stephanie and Johnny are grateful their children have a stable home. “We were homeless and I didn’t want my kids to be on the streets, so my family stepped in and took them,” said Stephanie. “It was too hard to have them outside.”

Stephanie and Johnny visit their children often for birthdays and holidays. They bring them presents, sometimes things they find on the streets. They are proud of their accomplishments, proud of how smart and stable they are. “It’s good they are with family,” said Stephanie. “My mom adopted my oldest three, and my brother has custody of the other two. It’s hard not being with them, but it’s better this way. We are still struggling.”

“We are like a second mom and dad, basically,” said Johnny. “We are really blessed with them.”

“They are super smart and healthy,” added Stephanie.

Johnny and Stephanie dream of having a place of their own someday. Johnny hopes to find factory work, maybe in a production line. For now they are sticking with Street Roots, where they’ve been since Christmas. “It’s given us self esteem again. We can do something and people aren’t judging us because we are homeless,” Stephanie said.

They always sell together.

“He’s my rock. He’s there to comfort me and tell me I’m OK, that no one will touch me or hurt me. I put myself in a lot of bad situations when I was young, and bad things happened to me. It was my own fault. Now he’s here,” said Stephanie.

“Yep,” answered Johnny.