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Finding Faith in homelessness: How losing everything brought these men to Christ

Finding Faith

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Aaron Engstrom, left, and Charles Hale pose for a photo inside the Idaho Falls Rescue Mission. Listen to their story in the video player above or download it below. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST HERE.

IDAHO FALLS — The front steps of the Idaho Falls Rescue Mission — a homeless shelter — is not where Charles Hale ever imagined himself to be. But three years ago, at the age of 49, that’s where he was.

Just three months before, he had moved to Island Park to get a fresh start in life. He had been living on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, for four years after his wife had filed for divorce in 2014.

Hale has a master’s degree, and for 15 years, he had a successful career with Choice Hotels International, traveling the globe to provide computer and technology upgrades for 6,000 locations.

“I’d do trade shows and everything like that, but with that lifestyle — alcohol is part of it,” Hale tells EastIdahoNews.com.

Having a drink with clients was a normal part of the job, and it quickly became a habit, which developed into an addiction. Hale eventually started using cocaine and meth as well. Over time, he became dysfunctional and ultimately lost his job.

Around this time, Hale’s father died, and that caused Hale to continue his downward spiral. Hale’s wife later kicked him out of the house and cut him off from their three boys.

“I floundered there for a while, looking for help and a way back. But the whole time I was fighting my own pride and thinking, ‘Man, I can do this myself. I don’t need any help,'” Hale says.

Surviving on his own merits became his new goal.

After four years, though still deep in the throes of his addiction, he managed to get a job renovating the Chalet restaurant off U.S. Highway 20 in Island Park. This was the opportunity Hale felt he needed to prove he could make it on his own.

That’s when his life took another downward turn.

After three months on the job, the Chalet was completely destroyed in a fire in January 2018.

RELATED | Firefighters say iconic Island Park building a ‘total loss’ after fire

No one was hurt, but Hale had been living in an apartment inside the building, and he was once again homeless and unemployed.

A Google search led him to the Idaho Falls Rescue Mission. With nothing to lose, Hale checked himself in.

The entrance to the Idaho Falls Rescue Mission at 840 Park Avenue. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

A growing problem and desperate need

Tyler Perkins, the executive director of the Idaho Falls Rescue Mission, says homelessness is an ongoing problem in Idaho Falls. The nonprofit serves people from all over the globe because of its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and other tourist destinations.

He says the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year combined with all the business growth contributes to the rise in homelessness.

“The first couple of months (of the pandemic), we probably saw a 20% increase in the number of calls and volume of people wanting to come here,” Perkins says. “There were people flooding into Idaho Falls (who specifically came here) because they wanted to stay at our homeless shelter.”

That’s because the rescue mission is more than a homeless shelter. It offers a variety of services for those who are struggling, including a recovery program for drug addicts — something Hale was looking for in January 2018.

“When I showed up here, the first thing they asked is if I could pass a (urinalysis). I said, ‘No, I need about four days.’ They said, ‘No problem. When you get done detoxing, come back, and we’ll have a bed for you,’ recalls Hale. “For somebody to give me just a little ounce of hope was amazing. I lost it, and I started bawling.”

The six-month program proved to be just what Hale needed to get control of his addiction and get his life back. There was a strong spiritual aspect to it, which Hale resisted at first.

An ‘aha moment’

Hale has a complicated history with religion. He remembers attending the Presbyterian church with his family growing up. Two of his sisters later converted to other churches after getting married.

Watching his sisters go in different directions was confusing to Hale, and he says it gave him mixed messages about his own faith.

“People had told me, ‘You need to find God, and this is how you do it. You don’t just open up the Bible and read from cover to cover, you start here,'” he says. “Everybody was telling me where my journey needed to begin. When I had those pride issues, I was like, ‘I don’t like to be told what to do.'”

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But Hale’s recent experiences had brought him to his lowest point, and he was now willing to do whatever it took to overcome his addiction — even if it meant reading the Bible cover to cover.

“I gave it an honest chance. I would come down in the morning before anybody got up … and read the Bible,” he says. “I made an informal commitment with myself to say, ‘Let’s try this. If tomorrow is better than today, we’ll keep going.'”

He remembers reading the story of Job and describes it as an “aha moment” for him.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God! I thought I had it bad,'” he recalls. “Who am I now to complain (about my life)? Then (my excuses were) all done, and I decided I’m going to keep going on this.”

Hale completed the program and has been clean and sober for about three years. Once he graduated, he started thinking about the next chapter of his life. He wanted to give back in some way and help others transform their lives.

At the time, the mission board was putting together a committee to revamp the recovery program, and he was invited to be part of it. That invitation lead Hale to his current position as director of a program called Navigate.

“When I was going into this program … I wanted to make sure that (faith) was a component of the program,” he says. “I tried … other programs. They take care of your physical, mental and emotional (well-being), but they didn’t take hold.”

Hale says surrendering his will and putting his trust in God were critical in overcoming his addiction. Time spent praying and reading the Bible made the most difference in his life, he says.

“I have time in stillness every morning. I read a devotion, and I spend time in the word. That sets the tone for my day,” he says.

‘Hold fast’

Another thing that’s made a big difference for him is meeting Aaron Engstrom. Engstrom, 32, is one of the first people to enroll in the Navigate program.

“I came into the mission Feb. 5 of 2020, and that’s when I met Charles,” Engstrom says. “I was an opioid addict for a long time.”

Engstrom is originally from Iowa and was introduced to drugs as a kid.

He lived on the streets of San Francisco for about two years, living day to day trying to scrounge up enough money to get high.

He later moved to Bozeman, Montana, to live with a friend. After two months, he got a job and moved into his own place.

“I ended up driving to Las Vegas with a friend, and then on the way back, I got arrested in Idaho Falls (because) I had drugs in the car,” Engstrom says.

He spent a night in jail and was released the next day on the condition that he return for his scheduled court date in December 2019. He went back to Bozeman and never showed up.

He was arrested in Bozeman the following month and extradited to Idaho Falls. Once again, he was released with a pending court date after spending a night in jail. But this time, he wasn’t allowed to return to Bozeman.

With no ties to Idaho and nowhere to go, a woman at the courthouse recommended Engstrom go to the Idaho Falls Rescue Mission. That’s exactly what he did.

“I literally came here with nothing. I had what was on my back. I got released from jail in Bonneville County, and I walked over here,” says Engstrom.

He was approved for the Navigate program. The next seven months were the most difficult of Engstrom’s life, but he says it was worth it because he has his life back again.

“When you live in that addicted, on-the-street life … every day is the same. You wake up sick, do whatever you can to get money to get high and then hope you don’t die. I used to get really depressed because I could see no way out of that at all,” Engstrom says. “I’m just truly grateful. This program isn’t for everybody, but for the people it is for, it’s life-changing. It’s been really amazing.”

Engstrom says he’s learned a lot about God’s love for him, and he also feels a desire to help others in similar circumstances. He has a temporary job at Idahoan Foods and is working towards becoming a peer support specialist at the mission.

Hale says it’s been rewarding to watch Engstrom’s transformation and what they’ve been through together gives them a close bond.

“On a necklace that Aaron got me (is our motto), which says ‘Hold fast.’ No matter what happens, just hold fast, and we’ll get through it together. We’re like family now. This is my brother right here,” Hale says of Engstrom.

Hale’s necklace with the words “Hold fast” have become a motto for Hale and Engstrom as they’ve navigated their way through recovery. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

Reconciling and reconnecting

But the story doesn’t end there.

Hale started writing letters to his kids every week since the day he checked in to the rescue mission. Those letters received no response for years. But on Dec. 28 — three days after Christmas — Hale finally got a letter from his oldest son, who is now 18.

“Dear Mr. Hale,” the letter begins. “It has been quite a while. How have you been?”

“At first, I was terrified to open the letter,” says Hale. “I prayed about it, then opened it and was completely overcome (with tears).”

Hale isn’t sure when he and his son will reconnect, but he says he has faith that when the time is right, God will bring them together again.

Hale says he’s grateful that when he lost everything — including his own family — God never gave up on him. He feels blessed for getting a second chance, and he’s honored to be in the business of transforming lives.

“That letter wouldn’t be sitting there had it not been for this mission,” Hale says. “In this humble little rundown building, God is (here). He directs my footsteps and I’ve learned a lot about faith and trust.”

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST IN THE VIDEO PLAYER ABOVE OR DOWNLOAD IT HERE.

If you have a journey of faith you want highlighted in a future story, send an email to rett@eastidahonews.com.

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