Dakota Hanson was a high school dropout who spent four years addicted to drugs and living on the streets of Sonora before deciding to change his life in November.
Six months later, the 23-year-old is clean and sober with a full-time job, a high school diploma and looking for his first place to rent.
“I was either going to be full-blown homeless, or do what I could to get myself back into society,” Hanson said.
He was able to turn his life around through hard work, self-determination and support from people in the community who never gave up on him no matter how long it took, he said.
The Sonora native became homeless in 2014 after the death of his 55-year-old mother, Branda Webb, whom he loved dearly.
“It destroyed me mentally,” he said. “If I needed someone to turn to, she was always right there.”
Hanson said he never knew his father, who left the family when he was an infant, and isn’t sure whether he’s alive or dead.
His mother was disabled and worked hard to make him and his older brother feel like “the most important people in her life,” he said.
After his mother died, Hanson turned to using drugs and hanging out with people who did the same.
The homeless camps off Stockton Road would be where he would live mostly for the next four years. He said a man he met by the railroad tracks took him there for the first time.
Hanson was sleeping on a stained old mattress in the dirt when he was first interviewed by The Union Democrat for an article that was published on Feb. 10, 2018.
At the time, Hanson said he didn’t like being homeless and missed being able to take hot showers.
“My life wasn’t completely reckless, I still had a head on my shoulders, but I was on a downward spiral because I had been out there for too long,” Hanson said. “Withered is how I would describe it.”
Hanson said he regularly received help from Hazel and Dick Mitchell while he was living in the camps.
The Mitchells, of Jamestown, run the nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance that provides aid to the homeless in the community.
Hazel Mitchell said she saw potential in Hanson, which was why she never gave up over the years, even when he sometimes wouldn’t follow through with things he told her he’d do.
“All the time he was in the homeless camps, I told him I’m not leaving you alone. We’re going to work this out someday, because I don’t give up on people,” she said.
Hanson said he also found solace in the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center on Jackson Street, where he would go almost every weekday for the four hours it’s open.
Jeanette Lambert, the center’s volunteer coordinator, said Hanson told her one day late last year that he wanted to get his high school diploma.
Lambert said she helped him sign up for the Sonora Union High School District’s alternative education program that same day.
“It was just like the right moment,” she said. “The next day he could’ve said no.”
The kindness of strangers was also something that kept Hanson going.
Hanson said he believes most people don’t understand how impactful it can be on a person who’s homeless to have a random stranger reach out and help them with something.
“When you had your head down and someone would walk up and give you a dollar or some food, it was really phenomenal,” he said. “It happened to me countless times. It makes you not just go back to your tent and end your life.”
In November, Hanson decided to quit using drugs and smoking cigarettes. He also began distancing himself from others in the camps who engaged in self-destructive behavior.
Many people in the camps don’t want to be out there but get stuck in social patterns that are counterproductive to bettering their lives, Hanson said.
Another major step forward came when Hanson penned a letter to Maynord’s Recovery Center in Tuolumne and was given one of two free beds that the center gives out each Christmas to people in need but can’t afford the program that otherwise costs thousands of dollars.
Hanson completed the program at Maynord’s in late January and got a bed at the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency’s homeless shelter in Sonora, where he’s still living.
“It’s given me a more structured, safer place to be than a homeless camp,” he said of the shelter. “I can have a place to sleep, take a shower and stay clean.”
One of the requirements for people staying at the shelter is to be working or actively looking for work, so Hanson said he instantly began applying for jobs.
Hanson said he was taken to a job fair in January by Hazel Mitchell and signed up for the Tuolumne Construction Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program, a seven-week course that began in March.
The program provided Hanson with contacts for employers upon completion, which is how he got a job working for Sierra Mountain Construction Inc., or SMCI, in early May.
“It’s the key to me being self supporting,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be an entryway to higher pay and more responsibility.”
Hanson also was given a 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee from Sonora CDJR in April through a partnership between the dealership and Give Someone a Chance.
Terry Essary, general manager of Sonora CDJR, said he was told by Hazel Mitchell that she was working with some people who were trying to get back on their feet but needed a car so they could get to work.
“It’s a catch 22,” Essary said. “They’re back on their feet, have somewhere to call home, but can’t keep their job because they have no way to get there.”
Essary said he told her they wanted to help and have since given away starter vehicles to Hanson and one other person referred to them by Give Someone a Chance and are planning to give away a third.
The vehicles they give away are older or donated, but the dealership inspects them to make sure they are reliable.
“Dakota is exactly what we’re all striving for — to help all those folks find their way back,” Essary said. “He’s definitely a shining star and shows that it’s no longer unachievable.”
Hanson recently graduated from Sonora Union High School District’s alternative education program.
He said his teacher, Diana Mayben, encouraged him and was a major reason he saw it through to completion.
The Mitchells and Lambert all attended Hanson’s graduation ceremony on June 5 at the Sonora High School gym to watch him walk across the stage and accept his diploma in full cap and gown.
Hanson works 40 hours a week and is looking to rent a studio or one-bedroom place, but he’s been unable to find something due to the lack of available rentals in his price range.
June 21 is the last day Hanson is allowed to stay at the shelter. He said he can sleep in his Jeep or crash on someone’s couch if it comes to that, but he’s getting more stressed as the days draw closer.
Despite the anxiety over housing, Hanson said his favorite part of life now is looking forward to what the future holds.
“I’ve already been through a lot of stress and torment, but now my sights are set,” he said. “I look forward to being able to provide something for somebody else.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.