Living

Hope reborn

It was just a short six months ago that Eric Smrkovsky would do whatever it took to get $20. That was the going rate for a sack of meth.

Sometimes, someone would give him money without his asking, sometimes he would beg. Other kind souls would give him sleeping bags or tents. Sometimes he gave them away, or lost them, but more often than not, he sold them to the highest bidder. His solitary focus was drugs and how to get his hands on them.

Today, he spends his time much differently. He found a job, bought a car, and started studying computer science at Oakhurst Community College. He’s not letting the fact that he was recently laid off as dishwasher at the Yosemite Gateway Restaurant get him down. He will be applying for unemployment with the expectation of returning to this employer in March.

Most importantly, he’s been clean six months, is getting As in his three per-requisite classes at Oakhurst Community College, and has lived in a Serenity Village apartment (the homeless complex) for the past 45 days.

Battling addictions

Smrkovsky, now 30, moved to the Mountain Area when he was 10. At 15, while attending Foothill High - a continuation school in Yosemite Lakes Park, he was an alcoholic and meth user.

After rehab at 17, he was able to remain clean for many years. When the unthinkable happened - his mother’s suicide in 2007 - Smrkovsky spiraled downhill.

“I moved to the Bay Area to try living with my dad after she died,” Smrkovsky said. “I was drinking hardcore again, but wasn’t using meth. I even got a job working for a hardwood flooring company. Then I relapsed, began using meth, lost my job ... my dad kicked me out, and I returned here to be near my son, Aiden.”

Smrkovsky spent the next eight years living on the streets, sleeping wherever he could, always carrying what few belongings he owned to prevent theft from other homeless. He lived off food stamps (the ones he didn’t sell for drugs), and would hitchhike to Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, seeking a warm asylum at 3 a.m. And even though he returned to the Mountain Area to be closer to his son, he never saw him.

He has been in and out of jail so many times that he’s lost count (17 times for being drunk in public alone). His father disowned him, told him he was taking him out of his will, and to never speak to him again. To compound his misery, Smrkovsky had lost his faith in God, blaming Him for his Mom’s death.

Changing directions

It took reading the Bible in his jail cell for Smrkovsky to take a good, hard look at himself. And he didn’t like what he saw.

“The last time I was in jail (two months for possession), I read the whole book of Matthew, and I knew then that I wanted to change my life. I was tired of my lifestyle. I was tired of being a deadbeat. I wanted to become productive.”

Before his release, he faced Madera County Judge Ernie LiCalsi, who strongly advised him to check himself into both a DUI program, and Drug and Alcohol Counseling. He was warned that his failure to do so could result in his returning to jail “for a very long time.”

Smrkovsky took those foreboding words to heart, and upon his release June 2, 2015, he committed to take charge of his life.

He completed a three-month DUI class through Kingsview, and will soon begin AOD Counseling through Behavioral Health. He has been asked to share his recovery story at Westcare Rehab in Fresno, and will spend Christmas with his father, who after hearing about his son’s progress, has become supportive and encouraging.

All positive strides in a promising direction, but most importantly, Smrkovsky is filled with hope that he will soon see his son, who lives with his maternal grandfather. That will happen once he proves he has a stable place to live, can show records of rent receipts and pay stubs for six months, and continues to get good grades.

No going back

“They say one day at a time, and I’m determined. I want to give my son a good life, and in order to do that, I have to give myself a good life. I can’t take one step backwards, because if I do, it will stop my process moving forward,” Smrkovsky explained. “I’ve got too much to lose - too much going for me to relapse. Since my layoff, I have side jobs lined up, and will return to school Jan. 21 after the holiday break. If it wasn’t for my apartment, life would be really hard for me. And if I was homeless, I would be more apt to relapse.”

Once he obtains his AA degree, he hopes to continue his education in computer science at Fresno State University.

Smrkovsky draws his strength from the 12-step program, and his faith, now a member of the Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, where Michael Baird is the administrator. A component of Baird’s job is community outreach for the church, which involves addressing the issues of poverty and homelessness in the Mountain Area.

“I’ve known Michael for about five years. He has given me work around his home or sets up little jobs for me with other members of the congregation. He helped me get my apartment. He’s a friend and mentor, and has been such a big help in changing my life.”

Then, to publicly make a personal note of gratitude, Smrkovsky added, “Thank you, Michael, for everything that you’ve done for me. It means so much. There’s not many people out there willing to help someone like me.”

Smrkovsky hopes one day to become a positive role model himself - for other homeless, and especially for Aiden.

“On my Facebook page, I wrote - ‘I used to do meth. Now I do math.’ I used to think I was really hot, that I had a six pack, but it really was just my ribs showing through because I was all skin and bones. Now, look at me. Look at these chubby cheeks (he tugs them to exaggerate the fullness). No more drugs,” Smrkovsky said proudly.

“There are homeless who don’t want to change their lives, who just freeload off the community, and that’s what gives the homeless a bad name. That’s who I was ... content to live on the streets because it’s easier, especially if you use drugs. You can’t be high at work, but if you’re homeless, you can get high whenever you want.”

Smrkovsky is now willing to do whatever it takes to leave living on the streets behind. While somewhat embarrassed to tell his story, he’s no longer defined by his homelessness and aspires to prove that forward-moving changes can occur, that he can become a productive member of society once again, if given the help and chance to succeed.

“Being homeless has made me want more out of life. When I was using, all I cared about was drugs,” Smrkovsky said. “Now, I want a good job - one that pays $60,000 ... I want my son back. And I don’t blame God anymore. I believe He’s actually taking care of me, now that I’m willing to take care of myself.”

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