Mark Harms survived years of homelessness and a drinking habit he started in his teens: The bullet that tore through his back last year didn’t stop him, either.
“Now I’m trying to figure out; maybe there’s a deeper reason I got shot,” he said, smoothing grout over carefully placed tiles in the half-finished kitchen of his Mountain View apartment.
While it’s been more than 14 months since the shooting, Harms still remembers how cold it was as he lay on the ground, bleeding, and how hot it was in the ambulance right before he passed out. When he awoke in the hospital, disoriented by the lights, he thought he heard a voice.
“In the back of my mind there’s someone saying, ‘Are you ready to help?’” he said. “Getting shot —I swear to God—it’s a religious experience.”
He spent the next three months unable to work and barely able to walk, falling behind on rent and surviving on meals from neighborhood food pantries. His longtime girlfriend helped him keep his head above water.
He was shot on Sept. 29, 2013. In Harms’ mind, though, the troubles all began years earlier, when a pipe problem flooded his home and he didn’t have the backup insurance or extra cash to fix it up.
He said he earned good money working for the carpenter’s union—more than $60,000 a year for more than a decade, by his reckoning—but he still found himself drowning in debt. Maybe it was the child support payments. Maybe it was the penchant for booze. Maybe it was the flooded home and mounting bills, or maybe it was a combination of all three.
“Everything just hit me all at once,” he said.
Still working as a union carpenter, he lost his house and began sleeping in a tent in the woods. His mother did his taxes that year, and called him from Colorado to ask what went wrong.
“She said, ‘Do you know you made $67,000?’ And I just started bawling,” Harms said. “I didn’t know, Mom. I had no fuckin’ clue.”
Things went downhill from there.
He was homeless for a long time; making good money at job sites around Anchorage but sleeping in shelters and hotels whenever he could afford it. Sometimes, he traded work for a temporary roof over his head.
That’s what he was doing last September, when two bullets threw his already uncertain future into deeper disarray.
The shooting happened after 23-year-old Chuada Chang smashed his Honda Accord into a dumpster outside the fourplex where Harms was living and working. The dumpster was important, Harms said, because he was completing some heavy-duty renovations in one of the upstairs apartments, and it took a prolonged conversation with Solid Waste Services in order to get a bin big enough for all the debris.
After Chang hit the container and tried to leave the scene of the collision, Harms tried to make him stay until police arrived—he didn’t know if he could possibly afford to pay for the damage to his dumpster. Then there was an altercation that ended, according to Anchorage police, when Chang left the scene in a vehicle along with 22-year-old Keng Her, who shot Harms twice as they drove away.
A little more than a year later, Harms boarded a People Mover bus and rode downtown to see Her sentenced for multiple convictions of assault and weapons misconduct.
A lot has changed in the past year.
Harms finished work on the second-floor apartment and moved into the fourth and final unit in the building. He reworked the bedroom and the bathroom and a good part of the kitchen, putting in cabinets and new tiles and fresh paint.
Upstairs, in the apartment Harms remodeled last year, Kristal Fink-Hayes and her growing family fell in love with the space and settled in. Expecting her second child this summer, Fink-Hayes said the apartment’s hardwood floors and tiled kitchen and beautifully built bathroom won her over.
“It’s home,” she said.
Downstairs, Harms isn’t sure where his next home will be.
Even though he’s spent decades helping create them, his own residence is still in flux. When he’s done rebuilding the interior of his current apartment, he doesn’t know where he’ll end up.
Since he was shot, he hasn’t been able to work as much; losing feeling in his legs after a few hours on his feet. But things always seem to work out, and he believes there’s a reason he was shot last fall. And through it all—homelessness and old habits and that unexpected run-in with violent crime—he said he came to a realization.
“There has to be a God,” he said.