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 some day.
“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 Henderson’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 far-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, safe, affordable 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 facility 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 fall 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 few 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 life. 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.”
Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com