If You’re Abel
Introduction: Streets of Paradise is an organization that is best known for loving well. Our unique two-pronged approach to aiding the homeless population in our community focuses upon the following:
1) Street outreach – We begin with seeking out “the least of these” where they live. Several times per week, we distribute food and personal hygiene items, along with other essentials, to folks living on the streets of Sarasota. These regular “family gatherings” give us an uncommon opportunity to really get to know each other in a way that isn’t quite so possible in other settings. Our willingness to visit in a fairly neutral place removes some barriers that are typically imposed on the inside.
2) Support for the recently re-homed – Our 100% volunteer-powered 501(C)(3) provides donated furnishings and other essentials for everyday living to the recently re-homed . A staggering statistic convinced SoP to take on this effort: At the end of a year, when a HUD Public Housing recipient becomes responsible for paying his/her own rent, he/she is 87% less likely to return to the streets if residing in a fully-furnished environment. As it turns out, we humans tend to cling to a life that seems worth living!
How does Streets of Paradise jump from Point A to Point B? The answer is that we don’t do it alone. The very best magic is only ever achieved with teamwork, so we serve our community wholeheartedly, while cooperating with others who perform distinct roles of their own. Quite simply, eradicating homelessness is too big of a job for any one group to accomplish. It is going to take all hands on deck. Most of the time, Streets of Paradise coordinates with organizations who operate, as we do, under The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness umbrella. A vast array of resources are available in Sarasota and Manatee Counties for those who seek to re- build by transitioning off of the street, through program(s) and, eventually, into housing. The following story of Abel Gutierrez is a perfect illustration of how cross-agency collaboration works.
Welcome Home. Such a common phrase that we all take for granted … At least I did, until recently. I had come to Florida because of a position offered. In anticipation of winning a bid, the company I was to work for had reached out to land surveyors all over the country to staff for the upcoming job. I was excited to be flown to Florida and set up in a hotel for two nights, all expenses paid. The promised “sign-on bonus” (typical incentive in my line of work when relocation is required) was going to fund my fresh start in the Sunshine State. Imagine my shock when I arrived to find out that the bid had been declined and the company was rescinding the job offer AND the sign-on bonus. This bonus was supposed to be a guarantee! I had left my life in Colorado to come to Florida, acting in good faith, based on a financial promise . I had done my best to dot all my I’s and cross all my T’s before my relocation, but I must have fat-fingered a couple extra numbers into the calculations. Now, I had no job, quickly dwindling cash, and was in an unfamiliar environment. Just what the heck was I gonna do?!
I was determined that I was not going to leave Florida. I had dreamed of starting a new life here; I had come so far to make this place my home. The next logical step was to go to the Bradenton Veteran Affairs Clinic, change my address, and register so that my health insurance would be applicable in Florida. I figured I’d get an eye exam while I was there too. I wasn’t returning to Colorado, where my old job had completed; that much was clear to me. So, once I was established as a Florida resident, my medical records would be transferred to the VA and I’d at least have that piece of the puzzle in place.
While at the VA, I’m not sure how, but I met a social worker. I often wonder what compelled her to offer me a sandwich that day. Was it the expression on my face that had betrayed me? At the time, I didn’t think that I looked hungry, but, wow, she had seen it. Anyway, she asked what was going on with me, so I explained to her that I was in a little bind and asked if she knew of anything I could do to find my way out. Some of that exchange is still slightly blurry, but I am pretty sure I asked the kind lady if I could have another sandwich, which she gave me. Before that day, I had never EVER reached out for help in my life. And here I was, stepping out the door of the VA with a sandwich, plus donated bus pass in hand. I had been offered clear navigating instructions: “Get off here and walk there.” My destination list included the Bradenton Goodwill VA to talk to Ms. Janet, the Sarasota Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) to discuss housing possibilities, and the Salvation Army to see about temporary shelter.
I was greeted at the Goodwill VA by a whole host of polite strangers. I’m not sure how they all knew I was hungry. Maybe they had been tipped off by the social worker at the Bradenton VA Clinic, or perhaps it was the rumbling in my stomach. Thankfully, I soon found myself in the kitchen with a man named Jeremiah. He immediately went to work assessing my situation and trying to figure out what he could do to improve my situation. I answered his every question between a bite of a sandwich here and a chomp of a cookie there. That day, Jeremiah gave me a monthly bus pass, as well as a voucher for clothes, but the most prized gift was an invitation to come back anytime. He might have changed the “Welcome back” if he knew then what he knows now, but I doubt it.
The Salvation Army was where I formulated my plan: Wow… totally broke. Now what, Abel? Well, you have thankfully found a replacement job. Whew! You have enough strength to go to work. So, go to work! I showed up at my job every day … volunteered for any extra work that was available. I’ll admit, I had to wear dirty clothes at times. I think I mixed and matched well enough so that nobody noticed though. During my three-week stay at The Sally, I left for my job before breakfast was served in order to catch the bus. I always returned too late for dinner, often after 9:00 p.m., at which point it was too late for a shower, according to their policy … so it was “bird bath in the restroom”: same deal every morning.
“Don’t worry,” I tried to cheer myself. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I could feel a tear building. I’m not sure whether the worst frustration came from being hungry and dirty or having to clean up in a bathroom shared by close to 80 people. I never made it in time for a sheet, so after my nightly ritual at the bathroom sink, I collected the bare mat they provided and went to the dining area to lie down. This was the routine until I earned my first paycheck. At that point, it was hotel time! What a relief! Because I was used to traveling a lot, hotels had always been home … but we all know they’re not.
I visited the Goodwill VA every day. I will never forget the sincerity I saw in Jeremiah’s eyes when he told me on my second visit, “I am going to help you.” I wasn’t sure where that came from, but it was enough to make me stop chewing my cookie. That very moment was when it hit me. It wasn’t that I was sleeping on a mat on the dining room floor of the Salvation Army. It wasn’t the dirty clothes I tried to mix and match. This young man’s piercing eyes and very soft voice, saying to me, “I’m going to help you” … I finally realized I did need help. I was in a crisis. That day made me more determined than anything. I do not care what I have to go through or how much I have to endure. I will swallow my pride, I thought . You name it — I was going to do whatever it took to get myself on my feet again.
I was all set. I had a job; I had a friend in Jeremiah; I had a meal and cookies every day. I was good. Meeting people and other veterans at the Salvation Army, I was told more about the JFCS housing program. I went to see what they had to offer. While there, they assigned me a case worker who helped me to get a copy of my DD214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). I did qualify for assistance. I was skeptical that it would actually happen, but it was hope, and I was not giving that up— no way!
As I kept going back to the Goodwill VA, Ms. Janet made herself more present. Anyone who knows Ms. Janet knows she is always, always busy. So, to break her stride, I have to assume she must have thought to herself I had better look into this guy. He is always around. Oh my! Her determination and expression when she is speaking to you! At first, I couldn’t even eat a cookie while having a conversation with her. She must have seen something that made her pay closer attention, or perhaps Jeremiah had spoken to her, but her words … “I’m going to help you …” I said, “Thank you, but Jeremiah is already.” At that time, I had no clue what she was capable of. This lady has gone above and beyond anything that I could have possibly imagined! I’m pretty sure she does for everyone who walks through the doors. She is relentless with achieving success. Failure is not welcome and doors are meant to be kicked down if they don’t open with a polite knock!
On one of my many visits to the Goodwill VA, Ms. Janet informed me that I had been housed! Everyone’s hard work had made this possible for me. It was a Saturday when I received a call from Streets of Paradise. Greg Cruz was on the line. “You can open your gate. We are here with your furniture.” Oh no! Communication breakdown. There I was, at work, standing in a swamp, mosquitos buzzing around me and probably a few alligators (and who knows what else) nearby. “Ugh, I don’t move in until tomorrow,” I replied. Greg’s initial response was that SoP only delivered on Saturdays. But it was less than a minute before he agreed to come back with a crew the next day. I’ll never forget. He said, “You know we don’t want you to go all week without furniture.” Though I had to work that day too, and wouldn’t be present for the move- in, I was so thankful.
The following day, as SoP was moving my furniture in, I received another call from Greg. He wanted to know if I had a bed yet. I told him that I didn’t and he agreed to deliver one the following Saturday. I was like, “Heck yeah!” After work, I used the keys that I had received to the apartment to open my front door. Such a huge surprise greeted me! This was not the apartment I had originally looked at … no way. I felt like a contestant on The Price is Right when they say, “You have won a new car!” On the inside, I was jumping silly, crying, couldn’t breathe. But, once in the apartment, I was honestly just speechless and very, very tired. Greg, Cathy, and their crew from Streets of Paradise had filled my apartment with so much furniture … I mean not just furniture. It looked like a designer magazine layout … attention to detail, flowers, chairs, a huge flat-screen TV! They had gone so out of their way! So many chaotic thoughts rang out too loudly in my head, but after a shower, I found myself settled on the couch, saying aloud to the room, “Welcome home, Abel. Very nice.”
A Letter of Gratitude to Those Who Have Helped Me:
It has been just a little over 60 days since I began this carpool that I have done so many times before: Complete a project, travel to the next … so, so many times. Did I miss something? I have always been very careful when accepting other offers, especially when crossing time zones. Everyone says, and I have to agree, that I have one of the coolest jobs ever. I am passionate about my profession.
This trip has to be, hands down, the biggest learning experience, with the most inner growth, and lessons about humility and thankfulness of my whole career put together … and remember, I am just over 60 days in! As you have read, I literally woke up homeless overnight. Hold the brakes, call the police … I have just been robbed! My life as I knew it was not mine anymore. How, why, when? I knew the last one. Right now! I don’t have a home to walk into, so I can’t sit down and rest. No choice about the sun or the night’s chill being on me all the time. I don’t have a place where I can take the world’s blanket off and allow me to catch my breath in private.
I knew coming here, that I was going to make Florida my home … no matter what. Had I been lying to myself? I really loved Florida, but I was not prepared to love it curb to curb first. Fight or flee? I still had my health, my strength; I had to have or I would not have been able to carry my belongings from here to there. I couldn’t leave them behind. They were all I had! Abandoning them was not an option. It was definitely decision time . I couldn’t ask for a 48-hour extension so I could think this through.
I said a short prayer, looked at my luggage, picked it up and off to the bus stop I went. I was going somewhere before I got lost in reality. The VA . I was going to change my address and order new glasses. It wasn’t very long after I got there that I was speaking to a social worker who gave me sandwiches, a bus ticket, and directions to the Goodwill VA, as well as to the JFCS in Sarasota. I never could have mapped the route and journey that had started without my approval. It had begun.
I know and I hear all the time, “ Thank you for your service, you are a real hero for serving our country.” I am always very thankful and appreciative to hear it. It was an honor to serve in our military, but I don’t believe we are the true heroes here. The people who commit their lives to helping others, to me, are the true heroes. I do not take away from the bravery, loyalty, and respect our soldiers carry every day. These young men and women deserve what we are able to offer them. I have not used any VA benefits since my tour was completed, other than my prescription glasses. I didn’t realize this until recently. My new awareness is why I have this opinion of my true heroes: The VA, Goodwill VA, JFCS, SRQ VETS (the agency who donated a vehicle), Bradenton PC Repair (generous company that furnished me with a computer and does this regularly for vets), Streets of Paradise, who furnished my home and who feed and/or help the community on a daily basis, with passion that is immeasurable. I know these organizations are just a few who jumped in on my journey without knowing me, who voluntarily put in their time, effort, and kindness to end my crisis and who helped me to begin a new chapter in my life. I am grateful beyond any words that could be written. Thanks to them, I now ask myself and everyone around, “Are you able?”
Thank you to the following:
Many, many thank you’s go to my friends and family.
Goodwill VA – Todd Hughes, Janet McBride, Jeremiah Robinson
JFCS – Chas Chase, Donald Chavis, Athyna Smith, Melissa Bailey
Streets of Paradise- Greg Cruz, Cathy Bryant, Devon Oppenheimer
All their volunteers who continually donate time and care to feed and help our homeless community
SRQ VETS – President, Bill Sterbinsky and family
Bradenton PC Repair – Naz and Chris