Homeless in Dillingham: one man's tough life, lived on his terms

Dec 27, 2016

Matfie McCarr has been homeless since 2002, one of just a few in town who call the streets home. It's been his choice to live this way, he says, though he's not always proud of how he got here.

Credit Avery Lill/ KDLG

KDLG:  Christmas lights are up and a chilly wind is blowing on a snowy December day in downtown Dillingham. A gentle, smiling 61-year-old man hanging near the grocery store finishes off a cigarette butt he rescued from the trash. Then Matfie McCarr pulls out a harmonica with crushed metal sides that changes its tone and blows a few notes. He's thankful for the company his music keeps during lonely hours at his camp.

“That’s really helped my thoughts,” he says.

McCarr is homeless, one of just a few in Dillingham during the winter. A long road brought him here, but it's a road he says he has chosen to follow.

Born in Old Koliganek in 1955, McCarr remembers moving to Dillingham after the Great Alaskan earthquake of 1964. He went to boarding school, then to the Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka where he studied religion and land management. In Sitka, he married, started a family, and worked a variety of jobs—everything from construction to teaching to fishing.

Drugs and alcohol took their toll, and he spent some time in prison. In 2002, McCarr moved back to Dillingham, and has been homeless mostly ever since.

His camp is an abandoned shipping container that offers a little protection from the elements, though he admits it gets cold and wet. Thoughts of his children and family punctuate the isolation.

“I don’t have a radio,” he says. “The only thing I have is a harmonica and a Bible, of course.”

When his neck is warm, he sleeps better. So sometimes he has to choose between sleeping with his socks on his feet and wearing them like a scarf. Other nights, it’s just too cold to sleep.

“I would wake up certain hours early in the morning and, you know, just wondering about time because I don’t wear a watch. But I get up when I start feeling my muscles start jerking or getting cramped.”

When that happens, he gathers his things and walks through town to keep his blood circulating.

Normally, he can count on one meal a day from the senior center, and sometimes people give him food. Other times he digs scraps out of the dumpster, and says one can learn to "read" food from the garbage to avoid getting sick. But health is a concern.

About a month ago, McCarr says, he had an operation to remove his colon. Now he’s on a lot of medication, and it’s been hard to keep up his weight. That’s important when you’re living outdoors and need the insulation and energy.

As McCarr reflects on being homeless, the word he uses most often is choice. Choices that he has made in the past and the ones he makes every day.

“Everybody goes through different things in lifestyle. We don’t know what it holds for each person. It’s their own choosing what they want, and this was my own choosing what I wanted.”

Yet, for all his pleasant pride in living life on his own terms, McCarr acknowledges that some of his choices were not good ones, nor easy. Thinking on the circumstances that brought him to a life on the streets does bother him.

“It’s been eating me inside, which I never talk about for a long time,” he says. “It do involve alcohol, and it involves drugs. It involves losing jobs and marriage, so I can’t go back to those things every day like I want to, and I have to make that choice for myself.”

McCarr says there are things he chooses not to worry much about, like whether he will ask a relative for a place to stay for the night, or when he will look for work. Nor does he spend much time worrying over the past.

“I learned not to think backwards,” he says. “That’s the most important thing in life. You can’t look at yesterday. You can look at today, but you can’t look at tomorrow.”

Today has enough choices to make, like when to get up and move to beat the cold, where to look for a bite to eat, and how to stay clear of drugs and alcohol. Winning these battles won't fix the past and won't lead to a better future. But they have kept this amiable elder going into his sixties, including the last 14 years on the streets. Life isn't great, but with his harmonica and a song to sing, Matfie McCarr says it really isn't all that bad either.

Contact the author: avery@kdlg.org.

Credit KDLG/ Avery Lill