Wilhelmina moved into Maxwell Garden Apartments in 2013, proud to enter Pathlight HOME’s Safe Haven Program for chronically homeless, disabled adults. “It was a fresh start,” she says. “I have a personal room, privacy…you have to follow regulations. You can’t beat that!”
“There are a lot of opportunities,” she continues. “The case managers help you in every area…with the doctor, legal issues. If you ask, they’ll do it. You’ve just got to be honest…”
Wilhelmina’s goals are humble: “to stay clean and help my fellow man.” However, she now allows herself to dream for the future, something she hasn’t done in a lifetime. “I want to own my own home one day,” she muses. “And I want a car too!” But that wasn’t always the case.
This intelligent, friendly and thoughtful woman recently rose above her trepidation to become the new resident-member of the Pathlight HOME Board of Directors.
Raised in Orlando by a giving mother who owned her own home and worked hard to raise her family of 10, Wilhelmina’s life changed course in an instant from one of educational prospects to years of emotional breakdowns, prison time and drug addiction.
At the tender age of 14, she wildly stabbed a man who had just attacked her brother, killing him on the spot. Barely comprehending she had taken a life and couldn’t go home, had entered the justice system and had been sentenced to the next 15 years in prison, young Wilhelmina completely broke down.
Anger and rages plagued her in dealings with other inmates and even after the charges were dropped, resulting in additional jail time, seven years of probation and 14 years of parole.
Life after prison was tough, with jobs in a cafeteria and a nursing home. Enjoying the latter very much, Wilhelmina got scared her background would be discovered and she’d be fired…so she quit instead. “I felt that all I did was in vain and gave up on everything.”
That’s when Wilhelmina started hanging with the wrong people and using drugs. For the next 20 years, her life was one of drugging, working sporadically, stealing what she needed, wandering the streets for days at a time, and then crashing with her worried family.
Finally, in 2010, Wilhelmina acknowledged she needed help and went to what is now Aspire Health Partners. Fortunately, they had an opening in the residential Anchor Program for chronically homeless adults with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, onsite at Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Terrace Apartments.
There, she learned how to love herself. “I learned to change and to stay clean. I realized I had issues and a lot of bad behaviors,” she says. “That’s when I started to change…when I saw other people and it was myself I was looking at! I had to change my thinking, attitude and ways.”
Wilhelmina’s life was transforming; yet, finding a job with her felony background was difficult. Frustration, surgery and leaving Anchor created an imperfect storm and she relapsed. Bravely returning to at Anchor, Wilhelmina learned from her mistake. Through their treatment and numerous NA meetings, this time she internalized better ways to cope with life’s situations. Wanting to live more independently with her new coping skills, she moved into Maxwell Garden.
She may still fight her demons daily and ruminate about having squandered her chance for formal education, but has wise words for others on the down and out:
“It can be done. Your life can turn around. You can change, but you’ve got to want it!”
Growing up in Orlando’s Pine Hills neighborhood, Rhonda (a.k.a. “Tinker”) had everything she needed. She recalls being spoiled and coddled as an only child, after her much-older brother died in service to our country.
In telling her story, Tinker reminisces about getting married and living a middle-class life in which she “raised kids, had a job and bought a four-bedroom house” after her divorce.” Though her marriage didn’t last and her two daughters went to live with their dad when they were teens, everyone still got along. Tinker continued to work and pay her mortgage on time.
A “functioning alcoholic,” her life started to go downhill at age 46 when her parents’ health declined. Right after her mother passed away, her dad suffered a severe stroke. Always very close to her folks, Tinker moved him into her large house, quit her job, and spent day and night taking care of him. They sold his home and used the money for support and to pay her mortgage. After an intense four months, her father passed away.
“I really kind of lost it,” she says of the deep mental abyss she fell into after losing her dad four months after her mom. She began to drink heavily and describes a stupor-like existence, through which she didn’t even realize the money was running out. She still paid her mortgage, until she couldn’t anymore and became behind on payments. Fortunately, Tinker’s ex-husband helped sell the home (avoiding foreclosure); and after 15 years in that nice, big house, Tinker pocketed a mere $5,000, packed up her car and left.
“I had everything,” she says. “I’d never been homeless. I didn’t know where to go, what to do.”
Tinker slept in her car for several nights. Then, her daughter took her to the woods, as neither child “wanted anything to do with” her anymore due to her drinking. Interestingly, she still felt blessed. “The people I met on the street took me in. I never had any trouble. I always had a campsite.” The reality, however, is that this living situation is far from advisable, especially when you’re sick; and Tinker was very ill with Cirrhosis brought on by her alcoholism.
Thanks to the Health Care Center for the Homeless Hope Team, Tinker was transported to the hospital for treatment on several occasions. The last time, she was so sick that Hospice was called, her estranged daughters came, her funeral was planned, and she even chose the music: All You Need is Love – by The Beatles!
Miraculously, Tinker recovered! She moved in with a friend and stayed until she broke the house “no drinking” rule. Just as she was planning a return to the woods, the Hope Team referred her to Pathlight HOME’s Restore Program, which provides permanent housing and support services to chronically homeless men and women with a disability. That was three years ago.
“This is how I know God’s there every step of the way…,” Tinker says today. “To have the AC on and to go to bed at night…I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be alive if I was living on the streets. Even though nothing (dangerous) ever happened…it’s hard!”
Truth be told, she’s not totally comfortable having others pay her way, though the average yearly costs for Pathlight HOME’s Permanent Supportive Housing are much less than for crisis services used by those living on the streets. “I’m still working on me. I don’t like the thought that I have to ask someone for anything.” And though she’d rather work, Tinker fears her 12-year employment hiatus and chronic physical and emotional issues would preclude getting hired. Thus, she’s focusing on obtaining disability payments and handling her medical matters.
As she sits in her homey efficiency, decorated with donated items, Tinker is grateful and content. “Living here…it’s a sense of community. My neighbors…we keep tabs on each other. “Lourdes (her Case Manager) helps me every step of the way.” Best of all, “I see and talk to my girls! And my grandson is the cutest little thing I’ve ever seen.”
Allen reminisces about growing up on a farm in Tennessee with his parents, graduating high school in Indiana, and having had “a pretty good life until the year 2000.” A hard worker who was skilled in heavy mechanics and employed in the construction trade, he got married at age 24. A financially comfortable couple, they bought a “brand new home” in 1987. Unfortunately, their union didn’t last and they divorced in 1989. “My drug of choice is alcohol,” he admits. “That’s probably the reason it didn’t last.”
Allen remarried two years later. “For three to four years, all was fine. Then, she got into drugs.” Between his drinking and his wife’s drugging, “It got so bad, she didn’t pay the bills or the mortgage,” and they nearly lost the home he’d bought with his first wife in 1987. Their reprieve came with a second mortgage; however, once that money was spent, the bank foreclosed on the house and his wife left. His life came crashing down “All at once!”
“I lived here and there. All I had (was) my Harley,” Allen recalls. Moving from place to place, his continued drinking resulted in several DUIs and the loss of his driver’s license. Then, he got laid off from his steady job in transportation and was hit by a car while riding his Harley. Remarkably, Allen still continued to work at odd jobs. “I’d work for anybody who’d pay me. I can do about anything,” including rebuilding alternators and starters and heavy construction.
Allen’s nomadic life ended with a move to the woods in 2002 with “no car, no nothing…and I sold my Harley.” A trustworthy guy with a lot of skills, who didn’t drink on the job, he started picking up work at the labor hall and making money. He also began working for several families in Winter Springs, one of which still employs today. As to his “home” in the woods, “I had a nice little set-up.” People even told him he “had it made!”
His heavy drinking finally caught up with him, though, causing peritonitis with impending cirrhosis of his liver. Fortunately, Allen got help through the Hope Team from Healthcare Center for the Homeless, who met him in the woods. They took him to Orange Blossom Family Health and Winter Park Hospital for his medical needs. They also referred him to Pathlight HOME’s Safe Haven Program at Maxwell Garden. That was in March 2015.
“I met Rotaya. (She) will do anything to help. If you even mention it, she’ll make it happen,” said Allen of his Case Manager. ”But you have to put your own effort in it. She’ll find a way to give you the opportunity.” With Rotaya’s help, he set goals and accomplished them rather quickly, such as getting new teeth, eyeglasses and his Social Security benefits.
His goals for the last year have been to get back his drivers’ license and buy a truck; and he succeeded! As well, he wanted his “own place,” and has recently moved from the bedroom in Safe Haven into an efficiency in Maxwell Garden’s Homes for New Beginnings Program.
“I’m still getting used to it. I have a new bed, a rug; I’ve been buying stuff,” he says cheerfully. “I want it to look good! There’s a sense of pride,” says the man now loves tending the community’s vegetable garden just like the farm on which he grew up. “The opportunity is there, but you’ve got to want it…”
John recounts the stages of his life story with a deep mix of emotions: pride, gratitude, embarrassment, resignation and hope. Born with a “wonderful head start” into a prominent Chicago publishing family, his love of relatives and friends is unmistakable as he shares a scrapbook of time-honored memorabilia. Meaningful pictures from his mother grace the walls of his efficiency in Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Garden Apartments and mementos abound. “I keep my memories,” he says.
Front and center in John’s mind are the family vacations to Orlando all those years ago, especially one in 1976, during which they stayed in a nice Holiday Inn on Orange Blossom Trail. You guessed it; that long-ago motel was refurbished and is now his home. The irony is not lost on John.
As a young man, his goal was to become a teacher; but John’s inner salesman took over. Starting his career in Chicago, John moved to Florida to be with his parents in 1986. That was the first of several moves back and forth over the next 10 years, as his parents’ health deteriorated. His life was quite active during that period, to include two years as a Police Officer in Chicago, time-share sales in Florida, a marriage, a stint in Michigan, and home ownership.
John also began to suffer emotionally, resulting in “huge anxiety attacks.” Adding to his mental state, he and his wife lost a child. That devastation affected their marriage irreparably; and the resulting divorce left him pretty much penniless.
Back in Florida, John tried to recoup, albeit with renewed anxiety and new phobias. Thanks to friends, he was able to earn some money through his passion for cars and to apply for disability benefits. He also had a place to live…until he didn’t.
Reduced to living in his car, John learned about the Homes for New Beginnings Program at Maxwell Garden and moved there in September 2015. The irony of his history hit him hard. “I could cry,” he admits. “I was educated, I worked… they (his parents) left me the majority (of their estate); and what bothers me the most…I never thought I’d live in an abandoned motel where we stayed…”
“I have to live nicely. They let me do that,” he says about touches in his homey apartment. “When you have to reach up to touch bottom, you are so appreciative you have a wall to paint blue. I was spoiled rotten and not humble. Maybe I needed the humbling,” he reflects. “Be happy you have a place, because you never know when you won’t…treat it with pride. You guys have done an amazing job by taking an old motel and making it nice and clean. You have made it…to where it can be called an apartment complex.”
John can’t say enough good things about his Case Manager. “Miss Gail has been a very big help. She honestly cares; she’ll give of herself in a heartbeat.” And of the rest of the staff he comments, “They really work hard….they work this place with pride. If something goes wrong, you can call at 11 am and by 1:30 it’s fixed.”
An industrious, fastidious and friendly man, John has three things foremost on his mind these days. Though he feels safe, he still dreams of having his own small home, is extremely apprehensive about impending knee surgery, and is upset that trusted friends have left town. As one who finds a way to keep going, he’s taking action on these life challenges through buying/selling cars for his nest egg (celebrating each sale with oatmeal cookies for the staff); seeking counsel from his Case Manager; and realizing there are other like-minded people out there to befriend.
“I want to try to get ahead again,” says John. With his stalwart determination, we have no doubt he will!
Oh the Ironies - Family Vacations, Homelessness and Hope
Jennifer’s excitement is so pervasive, she can’t sleep! After all, she’s just “graduated” from her room in Pathlight HOME’s Safe Haven Program to her very own efficiency apartment in our Homes for New Beginnings Program. Though both are located at Maxwell Garden Apartments, her new home affords a more independent existence, a place to put her “stuff” and new dresser, room for a small couch, as well as the support of her case manager.
With a personal history she says is “tough to talk about,” Jennifer grew up in a financially comfortable family, having a “bunch of stuff,” and graduating high school in Ft. Lauderdale. Fast-forward to adulthood, she’s had a hard time keeping jobs over the years, has moved from place to place, lived in a shelter, and landed on the streets. She carried or stored her “stuff” in a variety of places, eventually losing it all.
In March 2014, Jennifer was referred from the streets to our Safe Haven Program and hasn’t looked back since. She credits her Case Manager, Rotoya, and is grateful to the entire staff.
“They helped me in a lot of different ways…I was able to take care of my health; they made sure I took my meds. Now I’m okay and watch the clock (myself). I am able to relax and be at home…be safe.” She obtained disability benefits, enabling her to pay her modest expenses, is now free of alcohol and properly medicated for her bipolar disorder and other medical issues.
Maintaining sobriety after years of drinking is no small feat! In addition to the 12-Step meetings she’s attended, Jennifer found a new passion to fill many of the hours she used to drink – knitting and learning to crochet. She’s taking classes at the Orange County Library downtown and proudly displays the certificates she’s earned.
In the midst of knitting an impressive blanket for her adult son in Atlanta, with the Falcons colors “red, white, black and silver sparkle,” Jennifer reveals another wonderful change in her life since coming into Pathlight HOME programs at Maxwell Garden. She’s repaired the relationships with her son and also her mother, who lives in a nearby county. “I’m close to my mom now. She’s been very supportive.” Jennifer knows it’s the result of ”being here, being sober, being clean.”
“The past is the past! I feel welcome and appreciated here. Everyone is quiet and respectful,” she says about Maxwell Garden and her new abode. “This is permanent. I’m done moving. This is home!”
Talk about a changed life!