Homeless in Seattle, and Marrying Under the Overpass

Michelle Vestal and Bob J. Kitcheon, who live in a tent community, share a kiss under the freeway in Seattle, where they married on March 18. A volunteer who served as the maid of honor made the wedding cake.

Three days before their wedding ceremony, Michelle Vestal’s dress and Bob J Kitcheon’s suit were stolen. Most couples would have panicked, but they took it in stride. “Things get taken all the time out here,” Mr. Kitcheon said with a shrug. He and Ms. Vestal live in a tent by the side of a parking lot in the south of Seattle, a few minutes’ drive from downtown.

Mark Lloyd, a local resident and volunteer, and now friend to the couple, stepped in. He gave Mr. Kitcheon a shirt and drove them both to a Goodwill store. As is the way in their relationship, the couple helped each other choose new clothes.

Ms. Vestal, 50, and Mr. Kitcheon, 61, met six years ago under the King Street station clock in Seattle. This past February, back under the same clock tower, Mr. Kitcheon proposed. When they first met, he was up from Phoenix, where he then lived, for Seattle’s annual Hempfest. Ms. Vestal told Mr. Kitcheon she had some marijuana to sell him and he gave her $10. She said that at the time she was addicted to crack cocaine; she stole his money.

But that didn’t put off Mr. Kitcheon. A month later, after asking her to hang out, they spent a few hours together at a laundromat. “The thing I remember most was his smell,” Ms. Vestal said. “It still makes me feel wooshy now.”

Ms. Vestal, who was born in Barrow, Alaska, was adopted at birth. Her biological father “was not cool with me” and her mother “was a dope fiend.” Her adoptive parents, who she refers to as Mom and Dad, lived in a remote part of Alaska with no roads. Her mother was the president of a newspaper, her father president of an oil company.

“I was raised by a good family,” she said. “I had a nanny, but I wasn’t spoiled. My mom and dad never yelled at me, they never spanked me, but I had a rough life.” She said she was sexually abused by her grandfather, who is now deceased. She has two younger sisters and speaks to her family regularly. Her older and only brother died from a drug overdose 17 years ago.

Ms. Vestal, who had dreams of being a veterinarian, was introduced to “life outside” her sheltered upbringing when she was 18. “I went buck wild and told my parents, ‘You can’t tell me what to do no more.’” It was at this point that she met a man who introduced her to crack cocaine. A 30-year addiction to the drug began.

In 1985, Ms. Vestal moved to Seattle, where she has lived, and been mainly homeless, since. She has been married five times previously and has eight grown children: one in Seattle; the others, including two sets of twins, are in Anchorage. “They are all being taken care of,” she said. Aware of the judgments that might be made about some of her life choices, she added, “This doesn’t make me a bad person, because I’m not.”

Mr. Kitcheon (who said he has never used hard drugs; “I just smoke weed and drink beer”) was married once before. His first wife died 25 years ago. After her death, he couldn’t bear to stay in the home where they had raised their 10 children. He put up a tent in the backyard, and much to the confusion of his children, slept outdoors. Mr. Kitcheon said he still owns the five-bedroom Phoenix property where his daughters now live.

“I’m really not homeless,” said Mr. Kitcheon, a Los Angeles native. “I could leave this city any time. I just don’t worry about anything.” He misses his “babies” but has led a transient life for years. “I tell my kids all the time, ‘Pops got to go,’” he said. “But I raised them well.” He said he has four sons: two in the Army, one in the Marines, one in the Navy; and six daughters, all nurses.

The morning of their wedding marked 84 days clean from crack cocaine for Ms. Vestal. It’s the first time that she has tried to stop using the drug. “I would never have done it if it wasn’t for him,” she said, referring to Mr. Kitcheon. “It was really hard, and it’s really hard right now, but knowing that I’m loved and that I’ve got somebody with me, has made it possible.”

Mr. Kitcheon said, “I asked her, ‘Do you want that dope or do you want me?’” He promised that if she was willing to try to quit, he’d help her through it. “I believed in her and she believed in me.”

Ms. Vestal now has an apprenticeship at the nonprofit Native Works, where she is paid $14 an hour to make jewelry. The company is affiliated with the Chief Seattle Club, where Ms. Vestal also helps other homeless Native Americans.

Ms. Vestal says she was raised by her father to always help others. “This woman would take the jacket that she’s wearing and give it to anyone,” Mr. Kitcheon said. “My mother was the same way. She used to feed the street people before she fed us.”

The practical challenges of living on the street bring the couple closer. “He does everything for me,” she said. “He makes sure I eat, that I’ve got clothes on my back. He paints my toenails.” They’re often giggling and whispering. ”Whatever she wants, I’ll do it,” Mr. Kitcheon said.

But with the difficulties of drug abuse, the relationship has had challenges. Mr. Kitcheon has a construction job, working eight hours a day. “I used to lie to him and every time he got a paycheck, I’d steal from him,” Ms. Vestal said. Mr. Kitcheon, however, said he knew he could always make more money and in spite of addiction, their love persevered.

Last Thanksgiving, Ms. Vestal and Mr. Kitcheon visited her family in Alaska. He said the family house “is huge, with helicopter pads in the backyard,” and added that he impressed her parents when he made a jerk goose for dinner.

When asked what had spurred his proposal this past February, he said, “Because I can trust her.”

A five-minute walk from where the couple live, a group of around 20 local residents, including Mr. Lloyd, hold a Sunday lunch for homeless people called the Rainier Pop-Up Kitchen. “When they told us they wanted to get married, the whole group got giddy about them doing it here,” Mr. Lloyd said. “We’ve been having email and Facebook threads to plan the day.”

Every week for the last year, volunteers bring dishes to serve on a sidewalk beside a busy road under an Interstate 90 bridge, where around 100 diners eat at folding tables and chairs.

Ms. Vestal and Mr. Kitcheon are regulars. “Michelle’s a lot of fun because she’ll always tell you what she thinks,” Mr. Lloyd said. “And Bob’s a cool guy. We’re the same age and we like to talk about the ’60s.”

On Sunday, March 18, after everyone had eaten, the couple were married by Vicki Butler, another local volunteer and an associate dean at the City University of Seattle, who was ordained by the Universal Life Church. (It was while meeting at her house to plan the wedding that the couple’s clothes were stolen.)

Because of health concerns for Ms. Vestal’s mother, her family was not able to travel to the wedding, but the bride, using Ms. Butler’s phone, called one of her sisters to tell her about her wedding day.

Volunteers and diners had erected and decorated a gazebo frame with blue and white paper garlands and strings of battery-powered lights. Mr. Lloyd bought new white tablecloths. Other volunteers provided tea lights, boutonnieres and flowers, and sparkling cider to toast the couple.

Ms. Vestal’s flower girl, Adelaide, 2, is a regular at the weekly lunches. She and her parents, Leslie and Austin Dekle, and their infant daughter, live in a tent. The family, originally from Georgia, has been on the road since July 2015.

Just before the ceremony, the groom asked the bride if she had cold feet — quickly followed with, “I’ve got some hand warmers you could put in your boots if you do.”

Ms. Butler’s husband, Larry Butler, who works as a Santa Claus for a Seattle mall, gave away the bride. Everyone knew him from his appearance at the Christmas meal. Adelaide, held by her mother, followed them to a small podium in the gazebo. Sue Alexander, a volunteer, made the wedding cake and also stood in for the maid of honor, who was injured by a camping fire the night before. (Because fires are a frequent hazard in homeless camps, Mr. Lloyd buys and hands out fire extinguishers to those in the community.)

The vows were a simple declaration made through teary eyes of, “I will always love you forever.” Passing cars honked as a unity candle was lit, and Ms. Butler announced the couple as husband and wife. Guests blew bubbles as “Always and Forever” by Heatwave played over portable speakers and Mr. and Mrs. Kitcheon held each other tight and danced.

Greg Jacobs, the best man and a Los Angeles native who is also homeless, shared wisdom from his own experience: “When you’re homeless and you’re in a relationship, it gets real, real serious. It’s unbearable sometimes. She might be hungry and you’re not. She needs coffee but it’s dark outside. You don’t know where the next meal is coming from. But if you can go through that with an individual, that’s love.”

After the ceremony, the couple walked along the busy road back to their tent, carrying leftover food and flowers and a gift of a boombox from the Butlers. “It’s hard for me to be happy,” Ms. Vestal said, “but with this man, I am.”

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