Salvation on the streets

Pastor Art Speight met Christ on the Warren Avenue Bridge.

The year was 1980, his life was controlled by drugs and alcohol, and he was about to jump to his death.

But ultimately, it was the night his life began.

Speight readily admits he shouldn’t be alive. During his teenage years and his years as a U.S. Marine, he got into violent fights and drunken car wrecks, and three times stared down the barrel of the gun, only to watch it jam. One night, under the influence of drugs, he put a gun to the head of a fellow Marine and pulled the trigger. That gun also jammed, preventing him from committing a crime that would have ruined more lives than one.

“It was a definite act of God,” said Speight, a limelight wary advocate for the homeless and lost in Kitsap County. When asked about himself, Speight, known on the streets as “Pastor Art,” wants to change the subject.

“It’s not about me,” Speight said.

On Tuesday the pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Bremerton was most concerned about finding shelter for a desperate woman he’s never met. He spoke on the phone with a hotel employee to reserve a room for the woman to stay for two nights, transported by the Bremerton Fire and Rescue. He went on to chat about his Christmas. The best part was handing out 400 sleeping bags to homeless people he found on the streets of Seattle.

Speight said he spent about $3,000 of his own money last year to give people in need temporary refuge. That’s just one act of kindness that makes Speight one of the most-respected homeless advocates in Bremerton.

“He’s a shining star out there,” said Richard LeMieux, a once homeless Bremerton writer and author of “Breakfast at Sally’s.”

“He is on a mission to try to open people’s eyes, ears, minds and hearts to help those who are hungry and those who can’t help themselves.”

Since the night he prayed on his knees on the Warren Avenue Bridge, Speight left drugs and alcohol behind and committed his life to serving others.

“Right then and there I knew that I was changed,” he said. “Everything looked brand new to me. I used to hurt people. Now my biggest joy is to help people.”

Speight, 54, goes to twice-weekly homeless feeds hosted by Taking It To The Streets Ministries, helps people he finds sleeping in cars and the woods, and collects and distributes clothing, hygiene kits, gas tokens and hotel vouchers to the homeless. Being on the street, giving people in need a hand and spreading an uplifting spiritual message is the work that comes from his heart, he said.

“He is a cornerstone, a bedrock, of assistance for the homeless in Kitsap County and Seattle,” said Sally Santana, a local homeless advocate. “Pastor Art is an inspiration to the rest of the folks in the homeless community.”

And because he seeks out the otherwise invisible homeless on the street and in the woods, he is instrumental to the Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition’s annual Point in Time homeless count, a homeless census which takes place Jan. 28.

Last year’s count found 822 homeless people in the county, compared to 715 in 2008, according to the coalition.

“He’s well-known, he’s out in the streets, people trust him,” said Sister Pat Millen, head of the Benedict House, a men’s shelter in Bremerton. “He’s willing to be out there at night, giving 24 hours, 7 days a week of service. To him, it’s not a nine-to-five job, Monday through Friday.”

In recent years, the dynamics of the local homeless population have changed, Millen said. Whereas the homeless used to be comprised mainly of substance abusers or those with mental health issues, 50 percent of people who come to the Benedict House now cite lack of income as the primary cause of homelessness — a sign that the floundering economy is putting more people on Kitsap County’s streets.

Meanwhile, Speight says Kitsap County is leading the state in taking on the homeless cause, with efforts such as establishing severe weather refuges and establishing car parks, where people can sleep in their cars without fear of being harassed or ticketed by police.

“I can’t say enough good about them,” Speight said. “There are a lot of wonderful people in the county.”

Before he dedicated his life to homeless ministries, Speight, a pipe-fitter and plumber at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for 29 years, helped at-risk youth in Bremerton from 1983 to 1998. He said a lot of youth were joining gangs, and he used his relationships with kids’ parents to intervene and form bonds with disadvantaged youth. Speight even worked as a bouncer at Skateland from 1985 to 1990, on top of his work at the shipyard, just to keep an eye on the kids.

In 1998, Speight began working for a homeless ministry in Seattle. He returned to Kitsap County in 2005, when he got involved in the Taking It To The Streets Ministry. In addition to his work at the shipyard and with the homeless, he and his wife have helped raise foster children since the mid-90s, along with their four children who are now grown.

Sometime in the future, he says, he wants to have a larger church building than the one he has at 901 Ninth Street. The building would be big enough to house homeless men and women, complete with showers, a commercial-sized kitchen and a sanctuary. But that vision is still on the distant horizon.

When discussing why he devotes his life to serving the underserved, Speight cites a Bible verse from Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.”

“I have a passion for this,” he said. “Life is short and we only live once, so you gotta do the best you gotta.”

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