By Marguerite Jill Dye
This well-groomed, self-assured, intelligent member of our Health and Human Services Committee couldn’t possibly be the same homeless man we had watched, helplessly, fall into unconsciousness one month before. Across the table at the first meeting of “STEP UP: End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now”, he began to drool, moan then slump over, unresponsive. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was out cold.
Like the police, we didn’t notice his emergency medical ID bracelet labeled DIABETES. Often mistaken as drunk when severe diabetic hypoglycemia attacked, he was arrested and even banned from riding the public buses in Sarasota until, nine months later, columnist Tom Lyons shamed SCAT into revoking its decision. Walking and bicycling in Sarasota’s heat required tremendous exertion and added dramatically to his decline, both physically and mentally. At 50, too young for Medicare, turned down for disability, solely living on food stamps, this former International Monetary Fund accountant’s last job was with a prestigious financial firm in Sarasota. His final paychecks bounced. He lost his job, health care, apartment, then car.
He had only been homeless for three months when I met him. If it hadn’t been for his fiancée’s medical training and survival skills, he wouldn’t have lasted that long. Living at a makeshift campsite in a grassy field, trying to stay safe, alive and out of sight to avoid arrest for sleeping outside was no cure for a serious health condition: Diabetes Mellitus or Youth-Onset Diabetes I.
I was so worried about their hopeless situation that I sought inspiration at the Mother’s Day service at the Center for Positive Living. During coffee, I mentioned their plight to a stranger, also suffering in Sarasota’s housing market. Two days later she called to announce, “My son didn’t give me a Mother’s Day present so I asked for one – to let the homeless couple occupy his tiny rental unit for a few months, rent free.” What a miracle!
Our committee members collected furniture, household items and donations for utilities costs and helped move them in while my husband and I took the man to their campsite to collect their bikes and other belongings. Crossing the field in 100 degree sun, he suddenly became disoriented and unresponsive. My husband nearly had to carry him back to the car. We managed to get some cola into him before he passed out, but we were shaken by the experience and could see how quickly his attacks could come on.
Six months later they are still living in the little apartment, but their generous landlords, now financially challenged, themselves, need to charge $400 per month plus utilities — an extremely low rent in a city that lacks affordable housing, but insurmountable for a couple living on food stamps. The fiancée is unable to seek or secure work because the man still needs constant care and vigilance. Even while monitoring his blood glucose levels 6-7 times a day, his Hypoglycemic Unawareness leads to sudden, dramatic fluctuations in his blood sugar levels which continue to worsen, threatening his life. Several times a week, paramedics rush him to the ER to prevent his slipping into a diabetic coma.
He has re-applied for disability, now 1-2 years behind in reviewing cases, with no guarantee he will qualify in spite of his totally debilitating condition — so severe that he now should be in assisted living – a rare requirement since the homeless tend to die young. Should he return to homelessness, I have no doubt it will quickly lead to his death. This case exemplifies how stability in work, housing, transportation, and health care allows a person to manage a serious health challenge, but loss of any of these can lead to homelessness, a dire health crisis and even death.
Over the past year, hundreds of Sarasotans have come together to develop “STEP UP: End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now”, a comprehensive strategy addressing the needs of our homeless that will be released December 21. To read it, contribute financially and volunteer please go to www.stepupsarasota.org Let’s begin a Movement of Miracles in our Compassionate Sarasota!
Artist/writer Marguerite Jill Dye shares stories of some of Sarasota’s homeless citizens through her column, “Compassionate Sarasota”. Health and Human Services Committee member, STEP UP: End Homelessness in Sarasota County. MargueriteJillDye.WordPress.com , madebygallery.com