Within weeks of landing in Anchorage, George McBee was learning how to be homeless on city streets. In a camp on "Party Hill," a slope of urban woods just a block from Bean's Cafe, experienced street people showed him how to keep condensation out of his tent and taught him not to "party" alone.
It was a life not much better than the one he left behind.
McBee moved to Anchorage in 2007 from Porterville, Calif., where he lived a secluded life in a fifth-wheel trailer parked in the woods. A cousin urged him to try life in Alaska. A third-generation alcoholic and a methamphetamine user since he was 14, McBee brought his addictions with him.
He spent years in and out of homelessness here, sometimes couch surfing and often struggling to hold jobs. Now, as a monitor at Bean's Cafe, which provides meals and daytime shelter for people in need, McBee acts as a sort of bouncer for the facility -- defusing arguments, controlling access and looking out for the welfare of clients who might be in trouble.
It's steady work that allows him to keep a roof over his head. He says he loves it. But arriving at this place in his life has been a hard-won success that has taken him to the pits of depression, the loneliness of jail and the cold streets of the city.
There was a time, just a couple years ago, when he thought he had turned things around. He had an apartment and a job. None of it was compatible with his alcoholism, though.
"Something would happen to me at work and it would piss me off, or things didn't go my way, and I'd use that as an excuse to drink. Time passed and I realized how ridiculous and silly that was of me to justify getting drunk because I had a bad day," he said.
Still, he made strides. McBee, who said he's struggled his whole life with feelings of low self-worth, said he found it hard to believe a woman wanted to spend time with him. He remembers precisely when his romance with ex-girlfriend Viola Brown began, on Feb. 6, 2011, and when it ended March 28, 2012.
"That's the day I went to jail," McBee said.
That day police responded to an alcohol-fueled confrontation at his home and he was arrested. He plead guilty to assault and spent a month and a half inside the Anchorage jail, during which his thoughts of suicide battled with thoughts of his young daughter, Zoie.
"Thinking of her actually kind of saved my life, because I had thought about just tying a sheet around my neck and jumping off the second story there," he said.
McBee was released from jail back into homelessness. He killed daytime hours sitting in Bean's Cafe. Eventually a staff member approached him with an idea. Would he consider becoming a member of the staff?
"Are you serious, because I could really use some positive in my life," he asked.
McBee says he's still rebuilding today, more than a year later. He's hardly financially comfortable and still struggles to keep enough food in the house for when his daughter visits as part of his shared-custody arrangement. His daughter serves as a constant reminder of what he's working to overcome.
"Anytime I'm really stressed out or feeling low, like I'm not good enough, or down on myself because I should be doing better, I just look at her," he says. "She pulled me up out of the fire, and I thank God for her everyday."
At Bean's, McBee says he looks for opportunities to relate to others who face homeless or addictions or both. Walking the perimeter of the building and inside the room, he looks for ways to be a positive influence. He said he hopes his own experiences will allow his advice to carry weight.
"Lots of times, some of the clients will come to me, they'll be talking about hurting themselves, or something that's going on with them. And you can tell they're very emotional. I guess it's a blessing to have gone through such bad stuff in my life, in a way, because I can relate. I can give them advice. I can tell them things that helped me feel different about stuff.
"As far as the whole drinking and using thing, that's not even a worry because I have too much at stake to let something that doesn't even have a soul control my life. I've had enough of that and I'm done with it."
By MARC LESTER