For almost a year, Stan DeVries lived in a cave south of Douglas. He slept in a tent set up on a platform in the cave. He lived on seafood he caught off the beach. He struggled with drug addiction and an anxiety disorder.
Now he is almost assimilated into city life.
He shaved his beard, which had reached his chest. Although he doesn't have a full-time job yet, he volunteers eight to 10 hours a day at Polaris House, a drop-in clubhouse for people with mental illness and substance abuse. He has business cards in his wallet and a cell phone so his clients can reach him anytime. And he has 15 keys, including those to his apartment, his bike lock and his friend's van.
"Having keys is the first step of assimilation," said DeVries, 49. He likes to tell people that "Caveman" is his middle name.
Recently, with the help of Polaris House, he got a federally subsidized apartment in the Mendenhall Valley, though he prefers to stay part of the time at the cave. And he is helping other "cavemen" change as he has.
"Polaris House has changed me because people there are all like me. They are all homeless and dealing with different problems," DeVries said. "It has a family atmosphere. And it's run by the homeless."
Diana Kreick, DeVries' chemical dependency counselor technician, saw the change in DeVries.
"When he first came, he didn't want to be around people," said Kreick, a recovering alcoholic herself. "He is like a child star now, talking and joking all the time."
DeVries estimates about 100 people live in Juneau's woods, including five who stay in caves.
He said people living in the woods are different from other homeless people.
"The guys in downtown are stuck in the cycles," DeVries said. "Most of them are alcohol and drug addicts. They have meals at the Glory Hole, panhandle and get drunk. They never get ahead."
He said many of those living in the woods have antisocial anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. DeVries said he has been dealing with his own antisocial anxiety all his life.
DeVries grew up in the San Juan Islands in Washington, where most of his family still lives. A drummer, he had his own band and toured professionally for 13 years before kayaking from Washington to Juneau a year ago.
"The drummer dies first in a band," DeVries said. "Many of them need to have alcohol and drugs to keep them going on the road. The drugs keep them high. The alcohol kills them. I got out before I died."
This wasn't his first time in Juneau. He said he came each winter to ring a Christmas bell for the Salvation Army for five years. He stayed in caves on those visits.
"It takes a lot of skills to live in a cave," DeVries said. "It's not for everyone. Some people are afraid of cave-ins or animals. Some are claustrophobic."
DeVries said he found at least 20 caves all over Juneau and Douglas. He claimed he had 10 dwelling places - seven caves and three on mountain tops.
Before he became sober, he said he used drugs to help him find caves.
"Pop in some amphetamine and run crazy in the woods," he said.
He found the south Douglas cave when he looked for crystals last year.
"I followed the quartz up, knocked down some stones and there was the cave," DeVries said.
To get to the cave, one must pass the ruins of the old Treadwell mine, climb in some trail-less woods and pass devil's club bushes.
"I call them angel's clubs," DeVries said. "They protect the cave. They are my guardian angels."
The cave is above the beach. One has to crawl into it. While one side of the cave is a long drainage, the other side has a narrow walkway with a rotting iron frame, which may have been used by miners.
With the insulation of moss and water, the cave stays about 53 degrees year-around. Water tinkling echoes through the cave. After coming in from the cold rain, DeVries finds the cave cozy. But it's so dark that candlelight doesn't help much to illuminate the cave, which stretches about 40 yards from the entrance.
DeVries has made a lot of home improvements. He made planks out of driftwood he found on the beach. At the end of the cave, he built a platform as his sleeping quarters, where he sets up his tent and watches television with batteries. He has to wade to his bed with a pair of thigh-high rubber boots.
He sleeps far back in the cave and past the water "for protection from sounds, bullets and bears," he said.
DeVries lives off the land - and the beach.
"When the tide is out, the table is set," he likes to say.
He doesn't need a pole to catch fish. Sometimes when the tide recedes salmon are trapped by a sand bar. He said he puts cat food in a woman's nylon stocking to attract shrimp. He ties a rope around the stocking and drops the rope in the ocean. When he pulls the rope up, he said, shrimp cling to the stocking.
"Getting the nylon off a woman is the challenging part," DeVries said.
He said getting homeless people into apartments won't help much.
"These people like to live in the woods," he said. "When they get an apartment, they use it as a storage room."
DeVries stays at his apartment half the time.
"I get nervous when I hear people fight in the apartment," he said. "I go to my cave and de-stress."
DeVries said the state government can help homeless people by giving each a piece of land.
"They can build a log cabin and have a little garden," DeVries said. "It ain't like we don't have enough lands in Alaska."
DeVries is serious about his proposal. Polaris House has paid him to travel around the state to advocate this idea and homeless rights.
He has kept the cave a secret. He has taken only his chemical dependency counselor technician, Kreick, and some of his best buddies to the cave.
Kreick, 47, came from California to Juneau in 1988. Kreick said she wanted to be a substance abuse counselor because she understands what people are going through.
Since DeVries met Kreick, he kicked his amphetamine habit and has been sober for nine months.
"She made me realize the drug was bad for me," he said. "She saved a lot of people's lives, including mine."
Perhaps because of Kreick's friendship and the Polaris House, DeVries has changed quite a bit during the past four months.
When he attended Gov. Frank Murkowski's first-ever interagency meeting to tackle homelessness on July 8, he kept shaking because he got anxious around people. He apologized to people for not smelling good.
"I haven't taken a shower for a while," he said then. He apologized when he sensed that he scared people.
But DeVries seems comfortable in a crowd now. He watches weather forecasts with his friends at Polaris House. He helps other homeless people get housing and food stamps. He takes a shower at Polaris House every day. His chin is clean-shaven but he still wants to keep his shoulder-length hair.
"I only have two vices left - sex and smoking," DeVries said.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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