published Sunday, July 1st, 2012

A riches to rags story: Sandwich man needs your help

The descent from riches to rags can be punishing.

One year, Doug House said, he was living the middle-class dream making chicken Parmesan for customers at his restaurant in Mason City, Iowa. The next year, he was sleeping in a sweltering tent in Chattanooga and trading food stamps for booze.

This is a scary time in American history. Truth be told, many of us in the middle class are one job layoff, one difficult divorce or one character flaw away from sleeping under the stars.

House, 45, said his tipping point came in 2009.

"It was a bad year," he said. "I found out on Valentine's Day that I was getting divorced after 20 years. I went into a drinking binge that intensified when my youngest brother [Steven] was killed in Afghanistan."

The drinking and depression threw House into a hole that he couldn't dig out of, he said.

Orphaned as a toddler, House was taken from an American Indian reservation in South Dakota to live with adoptive parents in Iowa, he said.

His adoptive mother, Dorothy House, was Sicilian, and little Doug learned to stir marinara sauce and roll out pasta before he was old enough to go to school.

After a stab at college at the University of Texas, House said, he spent several years in the Navy and later opened a restaurant in Iowa featuring some of his mother's best recipes.

"I had the big house, the nice car," he said.

He said his drinking and depression ultimately cost him his business and his family, including time with some of his seven children. His oldest daughter brought House to Tennessee in 2010 to, in his words: "Keep me from drinking myself to death."

House said he spent a month in Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute here getting treatment for his depression. After that, he lived on the streets of Chattanooga, eating at the Community Kitchen on East 11th Street and sleeping in a tent city near the BlueCross BlueShield headquarters that has since been swept away.

While at the Community Kitchen, House said, he began talking with several women volunteers from ChristWay Community Church in Ooltewah who were members of one of the church's Bible study groups. They call them Life Groups.

Eventually, one of the families in the Life Group -- perhaps taking their cue from the Bible story of the Good Samaritan -- took House into their home and set him on a path to self-sufficiency.

Soon, House said, he was having deep conversations about religion with the church's pastor, and he committed himself to a life of Christian service a year ago this month.

"In June 2011, I went into a little chapel and gave myself to the Lord," he said. "I said, 'I want to live my life for you. I'll do anything for you.' And that's when my life began to change."

Last Christmas, he got to reconnect with his children, he said, making it the happiest holiday season in his life.

A person at the ChristWay Church whom House calls his "anonymous benefactor" offered to take out a loan for $35,000 to help him purchase a food truck, he said.

He calls his truck Amici's Sandwiches, and it's operating 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the corner of Fifth and Broad streets in downtown Chattanooga.

All the sandwiches at Amici's include secret recipes that originated from his mother's family in Sicily, he said. In coming days, he'll also begin to feature cheeseburgers and bacon-wrapped Nathan's hot dogs.

House said he believes the problem of chronic homelessness can only be solved by the selflessness of people like the folks from ChristWay Community Church. Government programs and shelters for the homeless, he said, "are like putting a Band-Aid on a gusher."

"People just need to start loving each other like God loves us," he said.

Many of us don't have the courage to take a homeless person into our home or the resources to take out a loan on a poor person's behalf.

Still, have you ever been panhandled by a homeless person and wished deeply that you could help him or her out without feeding an addiction?

Well, if you believe in the power of faith and free enterprise, here's your chance to show it.

Remember: Amici's, Fifth and Broad streets, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. (For speedier takeouts, call 423-774-3248.)

Try the Italian steak sandwich and sweet tea.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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