Chris Keys was handed a set of keys the other day. You would have thought from his reaction that they’d let him into Fort Knox or the royal suite aboard the Queen Victoria or maybe even the locker room of the San Francisco Giants.
The keys go to the Santa Rosa house that Keys and his wife, the former Sara Jakel, just purchased with a mortgage. Chris Keys looks at the door keys as if they’d dropped from the heavens directly into his beefy hands.
“I never thought I’d be here,” said the former Sonoma Valley High three-sport athlete, now dad to a boisterous toddler named Isaac and to his stepchildren, Parker, 15, and Madison, 11.
“I never thought I’d get to this point. I’d never thought I’d be alive and have a baby,” he said. “And I certainly never thought I’d have my name on a house.”
Eight years ago, Keys could scarcely imagine having a pair of clean socks or an indoors place to sleep two nights in a row. He was hooked on methamphetamine, a most miserable drug, and living along Santa Rosa Creek in downtown Santa Rosa.
At one of the lowest of his low points through seven years of hardcore homelessness, following another seven of couch-surfing, Keys found that he had enough change in his pocket to make a pay-phone call. But he couldn’t think of a single person who wouldn’t just hang up on him.
“I’d burned every bridge I had,” said Keys, at 40 a broad and gregarious man with a full goatee and sapphire eyes. “What a dark period. It was really bad.”
Though his mother never gave up on him, he said there also wasn’t much she could say to him as he grubbed, lied or stole for speed and racked 13 bookings into the Sonoma County jail.
He said he was looking at a seven-year commitment to state prison for his role in keeping the secret of a convicted felon who packed a gun. Then, a judge gave him one chance to get clean and reclaim his life through residential treatment.
In 2007, the Redwood Gospel Mission accepted him into its 12-step New Life Program. As can be the case with people addicted to drugs and not yet ready to do the work to wrest themselves free, Keys figured he’d go through the motions.
“Truth be told, I went to the Redwood Gospel Mission thinking I would slip under the radar.”
But darn if a light didn’t come on. “I’m kind of one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Jeff Gilman is the man of faith who for 21 years has directed the Rescue Mission near Railroad Square and its satellite shelters and treatment program. He said Keys is a success story among the chronic homeless people not yet ready or able to accept help to make real change.
“It’s the heartbreak of our lives,” Gilman said.
Keys, though, committed himself to the 10- to 14-month live-in program and, he said, he accepted Jesus Christ.
“I started to express my gratitude for the first time,” he said. “I began to develop a hope for life that I never had before.”
One day in the midst of his treatment, the fellow in charge of the kitchen at the shelter and treatment center at Sixth and Wilson streets asked Keys if he could cook. He recalls answering, “Well, I can make toast and mac-and-cheese, but I screw that up sometimes.”