How home­less man's friends, not the sys­tem, helped him

South Florida Times - - NEWS - By WAYNE WASH­ING­TON

SOUTH BAY, Fla. - By the time Dar­ryl Hen­der­son found him­self sleep­ing on an el­e­vated con­crete load­ing slab be­hind a shabby con­ve­nience store in this poor, small town at the south end of Lake Okee­chobee, he had reached an end. He was home­less and far, far away from what few ser­vices are avail­able in Palm Beach County.

His right leg am­pu­tated just above the knee, Hen­der­son at age 43 could not walk, much less work. He had no pros­thetic, and the mo­tor­ized cart he used - on those rare oc­ca­sions he felt mo­ti­vated to move any­where - was beaten up and too small for his 400-plus pounds.

So Hen­der­son was re­solved to stay where he was, sweat­ing out the in­creas­ingly hot days and sleep­ing within three feet of a dump­ster.

It would take the work of a sergeant with the Palm Beach County Sher­iff's Of­fice, a well-con­nected and per­sis­tent County Com­mis­sion aide and an un­ex­pected act of gen­eros­ity from a child­hood ac­quain­tance to give Hen­der­son a chance at some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Palm Beach County's home­less pop­u­la­tion in­cludes peo­ple from many walks of life. For some, ill­ness or a job loss put them on the street. Oth­ers got there through drug or al­co­hol abuse. Still oth­ers are on the street through vi­o­lence, bad de­ci­sions or bad luck.

It's hard to pin­point the mo­ment when Dar­ryl Hen­der­son's jour­ney to that con­crete slab in South Bay be­gan.

He grew up in the Glades town, an ath­letic boy who thought he might be a pro­fes­sional ath­lete some­day.

“My P.E. teacher, he saw that I had a good throw­ing arm,” Hen­der­son re­cently re­called. “When we played foot­ball, they al­ways picked me to be the quar­ter­back.” He had been adopted by older par­ents af­ter hav­ing been placed in fos­ter care when he was, he guesses now, around 2 years old. He had been told his mother was Ba­hamian; he knew noth­ing of his father.

“I don't know what hap­pened to them,” he said.

Hen­der­son re­mem­bers that his adop­tive par­ents were lov­ing, par­tic­u­larly his mother, who doted on him and his younger brother, whom his par­ents had also adopted. The boys got much of what­ever it is they wanted from par­ents who re­fused them lit­tle.

“If it didn't hap­pen now, it would hap­pen in a lit­tle while,” Hen­der­son re­mem­bers of how his par­ents pro­vided for him as a child.

One day - Hen­der­son said he doesn't re­mem­ber how old he was - Hen­der­son's mother told him to get her check­book so she could pay bills. He flipped through the pages of that check­book and was shocked by what he saw.

“I saw that she had noth­ing,” he said. “I de­cided that foot­ball was out the win­dow. I looked at other things that were needed right then, and that was money.”

Then, as now, drugs were a dan­ger­ous fact of life in the Glades, and Hen­der­son found a niche in that un­der­world. He'd sell drugs – “crack for the black peo­ple; pow­der for the white” - but he'd sell to peo­ple who were pass­ing through, truck driv­ers, wait­resses, out of town­ers.

“That kept peo­ple from telling my momma I was sell­ing drugs,” Hen­der­son said.

By the time he was 20, Hen­der­son and his younger brother were well-es­tab­lished dope deal­ers. Hen­der­son said he ap­pre­ci­ated the easy money but never felt com­fort­able in the life­style and was al­ways wor­ried his par­ents would learn what he was do­ing.

He also would go rab­bit hunt­ing and sell what he killed to peo­ple he knew in Miami.

“It was like a break from the streets,” he said.

In Jan­uary 1995, re­turn­ing from a trip to Miami to sell rab­bits, Hen­der­son stopped at a bar to get a set of keys from his brother. Friends there told him that his brother had been picked up by po­lice and was in jail.

One buddy, Sly, of­fered to give him a ride to his home. Nei­ther man made it there.

As Sly's car ap­proached the home where Hen­der­son lived with his par­ents, men bran­dish­ing shot­guns sur­rounded the car and de­manded that they get out. They com­plied Sly on his side and Hen­der­son on the other.

What­ever the men wanted, Hen­der­son thought, he'd give it up.

``Don't buck the jack,'' he said, ex­plain­ing that the term meant not talk­ing tough to a man with a gun pointed at you. Then all hell broke loose.

“I heard gun­shots on (Sly's) side of the car,” Hen­der­son said. “I was like, `Man, they shot Sly.' I heard a guy at the back of the car say, `Blast they ass!’”

The men fired five shots into Hen­der­son, one in his left leg, an­other in his left arm and five into his right leg. Sly hauled him­self up and went for help, pass­ing, Hen­der­son re­mem­bers rue­fully, house af­ter house while he lay bleed­ing. An un­cle rushed to Hen­der­son as he lay on the ground and whis­pered to him, try­ing to keep him calm.

``I never, ever passed out,'' Hen­der­son said.

First re­spon­ders called for a he­li­copter to fly Hen­der­son to St. Mary's Med­i­cal Cen­ter in West Palm Beach.

Bleed­ing and in sear­ing pain, Hen­der­son said a new fear gripped him when he saw the he­li­copter and its pi­lot.

“I asked the man, `Can you drive me to Palm Beach County?' I was scared of heights,” Hen­der­son said. “The man said, `Nah, I think you want to take this ride right here.”

When Hen­der­son woke up at St. Mary's, he had a pin in his right leg, pain ev­ery­where and guilt weigh­ing down on him. Sit­ting at home with his mother some nights, they'd hear gun­shots and he'd see his mother cringe.

He him­self had been shot not far from home. Had his mother cringed hear­ing him get shot?

“To know that she heard the gun­fire, that it was 15 feet from the house, that's what hurt me,” Hen­der­son said.

In ad­di­tion to the guilt and pain, Hen­der­son had an­other bat­tle to fight. Doc­tors had man­aged to sta­bi­lize him with­out am­pu­tat­ing his right leg, but the gun­shot wounds weren't heal­ing prop­erly.

A doc­tor pulled up to his bed­side one day. “He said, `Have you ever heard of gan­grene?' About three days later, I made the de­ci­sion.” Hen­der­son was 20 years old. It was a ter­ri­ble call to have to make, but Hen­der­son said he thought back to the mo­ment those men pointed guns at him. “When I was on the ground, I had made the de­ci­sion I want to live now,” he said. “I want to live.”

Sur­geons re­moved the por­tion of Hen- der­son's leg just be­low his knee. Later, they had to per­form a sec­ond am­pu­ta­tion on the same leg, this one just above the knee.

His mother had vis­ited him in the hos­pi­tal, but she waited un­til he got home to say what was on her mind.

“When I got home, the first coun­sel I had was, she said, `Son, stop sell­ing those drugs,’” Hen­der­son said.

He did - for a time. He sold video­tapes and CDs, a hus­tle that brought in some money. He started sell­ing drugs again, but he couldn't fly un­der the radar as he had be­fore.

His par­ents died. He had a daugh­ter (who now lives with her mother's fam­ily). With no ob­vi­ous, le­gal way to earn money, the temptation to sell drugs was strong.

“I got back in the street,” he said. “This time, the po­lice was on me so heavy, I left that.

“I kept say­ing to my­self, `Who's go­ing to take care of my daugh­ter if I go to jail?’”

But his brother hadn't stopped sell­ing drugs when a po­lice of­fi­cer gave Hen­der­son a warn­ing.

“He told me, ‘”If we knock your momma's door down and if we find drugs, we're go­ing to take that house,’” Hen­der­son said.

Hen­der­son and his brother sold their par­ents' home and split the pro­ceeds. Hen­der­son then bounced around, from Sara­sota to Tampa and back again to the Glades. He fa­thered an­other child, a son who also now lives with rel­a­tives of his mother.

Sell­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles, CDs and movies and aug­ment­ing that money with Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Hen­der­son stayed with friends, rented an apart­ment for as long as his money held and even stayed for a time in a nurs­ing home in Greenacres.

His plan was to use money from an in­sur­ance plan to rent a place when he was dis­charged from the nurs­ing home, but that money never came through. When he was dis­charged in April, he had no place to go.

Tau­rance Lovely was among those who passed by Hen­der­son as he lay on that con­ve­nience store load­ing dock in South Bay for a few weeks.

But one day, Lovely stopped. He couldn't pass by any­more, he said.

“I didn't know he was sleep­ing out there un­til I saw him with blan­kets,” said Lovely, who knew Hen­der­son when both were boys in South Bay. “All his so-called friends and fam­ily, they ac­tu­ally looked at him and kept go­ing. I stopped. I don't know. It was on my heart.”

Lovely re­solved to stay with Hen­der­son un­til some­one, any­one, came to help. “I told him that's it,” Lovely said. “I didn't know what I was go­ing to do.”

Lovely said the store's owner called the sher­iff's of­fice to have Hen­der­son re­moved from the prop­erty. Hen­der­son was lucky, Lovely said, that Sgt. Richard An­gelo han­dled the case.

“When the of­fi­cer came, he was more con­cerned for him rather than re­spond­ing to the call,” Lovely said.

An­gelo didn't ticket Hen­der­son or take him to jail. He called Ali­cia (Lisa) Wil­son, a Belle Glade-based aide to Com­mis­sioner Melissa McKin­lay, whose dis­trict in­cludes the Glades.

Wil­son had worked in so­cial ser­vices for 28 years. She is also the wife of Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wil­son.

Ali­cia Wil­son, who grew up in Belle Glade but did not know Hen­der­son per­son­ally, called col­leagues in the county, and its Home­less Out­reach Team was dis­patched to help.

The HOT team reached out to an as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­ity in Belle Glade, but it would not take Hen­der­son be­cause his in­come was too low and he was not mo­bile enough to care of him­self .

The team then tried a skilled nurs­ing fa­cil­ity, but it, too, de­clined to take Hen­der­son, be­liev­ing that he was re­ha­bil­i­tated from his gun­shot wounds and was not ill.

Area ho­tels would not take him, and the Lewis Cen­ter in West Palm Beach, the county's pri­mary fa­cil­ity for the home­less, said it did not have the means to care for a per­son of Hen­der­son's size and dis­abil­ity. James Green, di­rec­tor of the county's Com­mu­nity Ser­vices De­part­ment, said pri­vacy rules pre­vent him from speak­ing about the specifics of Hen­der­son's case. But he said there are a range of fac­tors that make it hard to help a per­son get off the streets. The peo­ple the county tries to help don't al­ways want to go to a place that's been of­fered to them.

``That hap­pens more times than you would be­lieve,'' Green said.

A home­less per­son might have a small in­come stream he doesn't want to com­pletely ex­haust to pay for hous­ing, Green said. Some­times, the per­son might not want to be placed out­side of the county or sent to a f ar-away lo­ca­tion in the county.

And then there is the is­sue of the county's hous­ing stock. The is­sue there, Green said, isn't sim­ply a mat­ter of find­ing a place for some­one.

“The question is, `Are there af­ford­able places?’” Green said. “Are there apart­ments out there? Ab­so­lutely. Can they af­ford them? That's been the prob­lem.”

Green said the county, which held a hous­ing sum­mit, is ea­ger to work with land­lords who have af­ford­able hous­ing units.

Wil­son said there is a need for more clean, saf e, aff ord­able hous­ing in the Glades.

“Hous­ing out here is very lim­ited,” Wil­son. “There is a lot of sub-stan­dard hous­ing.”

Wil­son con­tin­ued to make call af­ter call in an ef­fort to get Hen­der­son off the streets.

While she looked for a place where he could live, Hen­der­son was taken to an area recre­ational f acil­ity to get him out of the heat and to un­dergo a med­i­cal eval­u­a­tion. Be­cause he was hav­ing dif­fi­culty breath­ing, he was taken to Lake­side Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Belle Glade.

Wil­son and Lovely are con­vinced that, had they not in­ter­vened when they did, Hen­der­son might have died from heat ex­haus­tion or a f all from the el­e­vated con­crete slab.

While Hen­der­son was in the hos­pi­tal, Wil­son got a tele­phone call.

It was Lovely, who told her he'd take Hen­der­son in tem­po­rar­ily if she was un­able to find a per­ma­nent place for him.

“I told him, `It's too much. I can't ask you to do that,’” Wil­son said.

But Lovely, whose South Bay home and fi­nan­cial means are mod­est at best, in­sisted. Af­ter a f ew days in the hos­pi­tal, Hen­der­son was re­leased to Lovely's care. Wil­son is still work­ing on find­ing a place where Hen­der­son can live.

Hen­der­son said he is grate­ful for the help he has re­ceived and hopes some­day to be able to serve as an ex­am­ple to young peo­ple of how poor de­ci­sions can change the course of your lif e. He has told Wil­son and other county of­fi­cials that he knows he brought some of his trou­bles on him­self . But that hasn't al­tered Wil­son's de­sire to help. ``I just feel like every­body has a moral obli­ga­tion to help the next man,'' she said. ``What struck me was he was dis­abled. I don't think any­body should live like that. Hu­mans shouldn't live like that.''

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