Faces of homelessness in Florida: Meet 15 people living on the streets or in shelters
Posted Dec 30, 2019.
You see their faces around town.
Some of them might “fly a sign” on the corner you pass by every day on your way to work. Others may be in your college classes. You might see them sleeping in the park. One may have even been your nurse when you came out of surgery at the hospital.
A wide spectrum of circumstances can lead to homelessness. The Big Bend Continuum of Care’s 2019 Point in Time count identified 966 people experiencing homelessness in Leon, Wakulla and Gadsden counties.
While some have experienced chronic homelessness for much of their lives, others may have suddenly lost their jobs, and the next thing they knew – they had nowhere to live.
Some people find themselves without a place to lay their heads after they were a victim of domestic violence. Others struggle with mental illness or substance abuse. They might be back in society after being incarcerated. Some are veterans. Many have children who rely on them to provide for their needs as well.
Amanda Wander, executive director for the Big Bend Continuum of Care, a group dedicated to ending homelessness in the eight-county region of the Big Bend, says that the smallest thing can send a person into a housing crisis.
Many people are “one paycheck away from experiencing homelessness,” she said. “This can happen to you. This can happen to anyone. And it can happen within 30 days of not receiving income or some sort of medical expense that you’re no longer able to provide for your family. The circumstances aren’t unique. We all experience them.”
Here are the stories of 15 people who experienced homelessness in Leon County in 2019. (These stories were collected over the span of seven months and their circumstances may have changed since then.)
Ron Parfitt: He bears the literal scars of living on ‘the street’
“You don’t know who your friends are going to be out there in the street, you know. One minute they’ll be your friend and then the next minute…” Ron Parfitt said, trailing off.
The 61-year-old shows a deep scar on his leg.
“My buddy wanted money for beer, and he knew I had money. I had just come back off of work from labor haul and he cut me.”
He lived a “normal” life for many years, with a wife and a son in Daytona.
After his wife died, he struggled with alcohol and moved to Tallahassee in 2005.
He spent the next seven years living in the woods behind Kraft Nissan on Mahan Drive, “flying a sign” for money.
At the time, he says, he would drink an 18-pack of beer a day.
In 2008, his son, who was living in Texas, was killed in a hit-and-run. The fleeing driver was never found.
Three more years went by until one day he asked God to help him. The next day, Connections Church came to his camp in the woods asking if there were any veterans there. Parfitt served in the Army from 1974 to 1980. and they were able to help him get housing. He has been in multiple housing situations since.
Most recently, the company that owned the apartment building he was living in went bankrupt, landing him in a bunk at the Kearney Center.
With the help of the staff at the shelter, Ron hopes to have housing again soon. He has been sober for seven months.
“I’ve had problems with my pancreas, so it’s either (don’t) drink or die,” he said.
Lakeisha Smith: A mother going through ‘a rough time’ without her kids
When Lakeisha Smith was 14 years old, her father killed her mother. She was raised by her grandmother.
Now, at 28, she is a single mother to five kids between the ages of 1 and 7. Her 6-year-old son was born with cerebral palsy.
“I’ve been through a rough time,” she said.
In August, it had been about three months since she had to move her family out of a mildew-ridden apartment and into HOPE Community family shelter.
While there, her kids were taken from her by the Department of Children and Families and put into foster care.
So Smith ended up at the Kearney Center alone.
“I try to go out looking for job applications and try to do something that’s positive so I can be able to get my kids back,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot since I’ve been homeless. I’ve been kind of tired, but I’m doing a lot to get myself back on track to do what I need to do.”
Smith hopes to get her kids back and move to Kissimmee. Her grandmother lives there and will be able to help her raise her kids, she says.
Doug Majszak: Living ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and trying ‘not to be a nuisance’
Doug Majszak, 54, said in October that he had only been homeless for about three months. He and his wife both lost their jobs.
“Of course we kept looking for work, but for nine months we were using credit cards to make all our bills and finally the credit cards ran out so we ended up having to leave,” he said. “My car ended up getting (repossessed) right before we had to leave our house.”
He had a job as a property manager where he was living with his wife and their three kids.
“Unfortunately, living paycheck to paycheck, it’s kind of hard to put money in the bank and have a savings account.”
It wasn’t always that way. His Facebook profile shows him with his smiling family at Disney World.
When they lost their house, Majszak’s wife took their three kids to live in Quincy and he said he would do whatever he had to do to get back on his feet.
He doesn’t have a phone to call his family, but he uses his father’s phone whenever he sees him.
“I try not to be a nuisance to my parents; that’s why I’m out here,” Majszak said. “I’m 54 years old. Eighty-year-old people don’t need a 54-year-old man.”
Wallace Keith Stafford and Todd Weddington: Friends and fellow ‘street people’
Wallace Keith Stafford goes by “Keith.” The 58-year-old is the self-proclaimed “greatest artist in the world.”
Stafford said he has been drawing since he was a child and now he does primitive art. “It’s just something that you do when you get to feeling like it,” Stafford said.
He spends most of his days hanging out at the corner of Gaines Street and Railroad Avenue with Todd Weddington, his best friend.
Stafford called himself and Weddington “street people.”
“I’m not from around here,” Weddington said.
The 54-year-old is originally from Pennsylvania. He moved to Florida because both his brothers joined the Navy and lived in Pensacola.
“I used to be a basketball player,” he said. “I had scholarship offers from up north.” He never took them. “I just started bumming around, just doing my own thing.”
Weddington said he doesn’t like being bossed around.
He’s been homeless for about four years.
“I have a drinking problem. That’s what my problem is,” he said. “I’ve been drinking for probably 30 years. Probably longer than that. I’m surprised I’m still alive.”
He takes a moment to remember the funerals he’s gone to over the years of people he went to high school with.
“I’m lucky to be standing here,” he said. “Blessed, I think.”
Letricia ‘Granny’ McBurney: An injury costs her a livelihood and a home
Letricia “Granny” McBurney worked as a medical-surgical assistant at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for many years.
She loved her job.
“You’re meeting people from zero-days, one day old to 100-and-something, and it was an amazing opportunity,” McBurney said. “It gives you a closer encounter with God.”
She said she never knew who she was going to pick up to take to surgery.
The patient could have no limbs, no eyes or no face, but regardless of how horrific the situation, she needed to hold a conversation with them and treat them with dignity.
An injury to her knee wouldn’t allow her to work any longer and that’s when everything changed.
When she turned 61, she applied for retirement and moved to Tallahassee to live with her daughter.
Living with her daughter didn’t work out, so McBurney ended up at the Kearney Center.
On top of receiving money from her retirement, the 63-year-old works seasonally in the kitchen of the Suwanee Room at Florida State University.
A low credit score and the seasonality of her job keep McBurney from affording her own place to live.
“Sometimes when you want something you kinda gotta wait or you get pushed back in life,” she said. “Everything is for a reason. What do they say? ‘You got to lose to win again.’ ”
She one day hopes to have her own home where she can invite her 11 grandchildren over for a barbecue.
Kelvin Meggs: Emerging from jail with a new perspective
Kelvin Meggs has been homeless on and off for years in both Atlanta and Tallahassee.
He was living a life of drug and alcohol abuse in October 2017 when he was incarcerated for six months.
“Sitting in Leon County gave me time to reflect on ’What am I going to do different this time when I get out? Am I going to try to do the same thing and get the same results? Or am I going to try to do something better?”
Meggs considered his time in jail as an opportunity to get clean.
“It’s a major eye-opener and a major setback, but it’s only going to get worse if I keep doing the same things,” he said.
When he was released, he began the Ready 4 Work program and upon completion of that, enrolled in classes at Tallahassee Community College.
“They always say it’s never too late,” Meggs said. He started college two times before, but never finished and was in default on his student loan.
The state allows those who are experiencing homelessness to enroll in classes despite their loans.
When not in class twice a day, the rest of Meggs’ time is spent working in the Kearney Center kitchen and doing community service required by his probation.
“People look at you different when you don’t have any integrity and that’s what I’m trying to work on is my integrity.”
Janice Martin: Panhandling with a daily goal of putting her son in a bed
Janice Martin has experienced homelessness on and off in Tallahassee since 2004.
The 48-year-old has three kids including two who are now grown and one that is 6-years-old.
“I don’t have the luxury of going home to a bed every night,” she said in August. “I don’t have the luxury of putting my son in the bed every night.”
Martin keeps more than 10 different cardboard signs in a backpack. They help her solicit money from those generous enough to help her.
“The only time I get to put him in the bed is when I put him in the motel. And I’m out here trying to make enough money to get a motel.”
Martin recently made the hard decision to have her son live with his godmother instead of with her outside.
Michael Dunsford: With the Lord on his side, he is now in a tiny house
For 30 years and six months, Michael Dunsford worked at the IGA grocery store in Woodville.
He had never experienced homelessness until March when the 63-year-old lost his job.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you. It’s been hard — but not hard,” Dunsford said. “People can say that it’s hard, but if you’ve got the Lord on your side, it ain’t all that hard. All you’ve got to do is stay positive and not negative.”
Dunsford was a responsible client at the Kearney Center, quickly earning a spot on a bunk bed by showing up every night and doing his required chore of cleaning the bathroom.
Despite the loss Dunsford has faced, he remains positive that something good is coming.
In July, he was able to move into a tiny house at The Dwellings with the help of the folks at the Kearney Center.
Matthew Gallagher: A veteran cook hating life on the benches
Matthew Gallagher, 44, used to live in Key West, where he worked as a chef.
“I had a promised job here and that fell through. Totally collapsed. So I’m stuck here,” he said. “I did not mean to get myself in this predicament.”
He looked for another opportunity.
“They don’t want a 45-year-old cook,” he said. “They want a 20-year-old cook that can make $10 and I’m looking for $40 an hour because I’ve been through the business. And it’s tough. This is why I’m on benches. I hate it. I despise it.”
Gallagher said people are very kind when they see him.
“People want to call everybody the bums, but the bums are good people,” he said. “And I’m a bum.”
Catherine Fontenot: Fleeing a violent situation, finding refuge in a shelter
Catherine Fontenot grew up in Louisiana and then ended up in Houston.
“I have a very strange journey that I’m on,” Fontenot said. “I left a very violent situation that has to do with human trafficking.”
She says she hasn’t had a steady place to live since 2014. “I travel a lot to avoid the people that I don’t want to be around anymore,” she said.
On her journey, Fontenot converted to Christianity and put her trust in God and Jesus to lead the way for her.
“I changed. I got off of drugs, I don’t prostitute. I don’t do any of those things and I left. I did something that most women cannot do,” Fontenot said. “I stood up to the person who did what he did to me and I left, and I said, ‘do what you have to do.’ And guess what? I’m alive.”
In mid-July, she had only been in Tallahassee for three weeks and recently lost her source of income, leading her to the Kearney Center.
Raymond Joseph Myers: After 25 years in jail, he’s homeless and trying to help
Raymond Joseph Myers is 59. He has two daughters and six grandchildren.
In 1982, Myers was discharged from the Army.
About seven years later, he was charged with arson. Since then, he has spent a total of about 25 years in prison.
“I ain’t been locked up in three years, which for me is good,” he said. “I’m not bragging, but for me it’s good.”
Myers keeps his belongings in a shopping cart that he pushes around on Apalachee Parkway and Magnolia Drive while panhandling.
“I should probably go back to the woods,” he said. “That’s what I did years ago. I lived in a tent in the woods, but it gets lonely being in a tent in the woods. Out here I can socialize with people.”
Because people are so generous to Myers, he is able to help his friends by sharing with them what he is given, whether it be a hamburger, a dollar or a beer.
“I’m not only homeless, but I help the homeless,” he said.
William White III: The man of few words outside the bagel shop
William White III spends most of his days at the Brueggers Bagels on Mahan Drive.
He also visits the Chain of Parks downtown. He sat on a bench there one fall Sunday afternoon as the sun was setting. He drank coffee in a styrofoam cup from a church around the corner.
“I pretty much come here every day,” said White, a man of few words who didn’t open up about his life while experiencing homelessness.
Originally from Virginia, White came to Tallahassee from California by bus a few years ago.
Marvin Lundy: ‘Drifting away’ after losing his dreams and his job
Marvin Lundy moved to Tallahassee from Miami to attend Tallahassee Community College in 2012.
He attended TCC for two years with aspirations to become a French teacher and travel Europe one day.
“I always wanted to be a teacher ever since I was little,” Lundy said.
Then, he lost his job at Publix.
“I was just living on the streets and in my car,” he said. “I was getting hotels paid for by a church that I started going to once I got here.”
In 2014, his mom told him he should come home to Miami.
He stayed for three years while trying to get back on his feet before one day deciding to come back to North Florida.
He ended up at the Kearney Center, grateful to have a place to eat, sleep and shower. They got him a tuition waiver to return to TCC. He continued his education for another two semesters before finances became an issue again.
“My life has been even more hectic since then,” he said. “I feel like I’m just drifting away and kind of just lost. I’m just ready to go back home again.”
“I don’t like depending on people to feed me.”
Michael Gaston: Drinking too much to numb the pain of cancer
Michael Gaston, 57, said he left Florence, Ala., four years ago after getting a DUI.
“I like Tallahassee,” he said. “I was in the Kearney Center, but it’s just too much riff-raff and stuff so I live out here on my own.”
He hangs out with a group of others who are also homeless around the bus stop at Winn Dixie on Magnolia Drive.
During the summer, Gaston said he worked at a peach stand on Capital Circle, selling peaches and watermelons by day and sleeping there at night to protect them from theft.
But before he was homeless, he had many jobs including being a truck driver and a radio host.
“I’m drinking too much,” he said. “I know that. I realize that. I have to get up and get me a bottle every morning so I don’t shake.”
He drinks to numb the pain he has from getting treatment for throat cancer.
“Vodka helps more than the radiation I think,” he said with a laugh.
Despite his problems, Gaston keeps a positive attitude.
“I’ve had a great life,” he said.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.