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Homeless in Paradise: Alice and Dwight

We lost a good friend to the grim reaper a month ago.  A great conversationalist and world traveler (he’d been an airline pilot), Bob hadn’t wasted a minute of the 94 years of life he’d been granted, and he left behind a multimillion-dollar estate to his son and daughter.  They held a “life-celebration” gathering at his home—a virtual mansion located in an upscale area (only five gated manor homes per block)—and at the conclusion of the evening, friends and associates from his time on earth released helium-filled balloons into the night above the spacious evergreen-lined lawn with personal tributes to Bob penned on their surface.

The neighborhood where Bob’s residence stands is known as Sunset Hill West, and just across State Line Road, looking west, one’s eye encounters the sweeping green grounds of the Mission Hills Country Club.  And beyond that for miles stretches the homes, churches, schools and shopping areas of the county dubbed “Kings County” in Whitney Terrell’s semi-historical novel The King of King’s County, a depiction of how the region came to be developed as an exclusive province for the upward-bound middle class.

Approximately 40 blocks west of Bob’s property then, as the crow flies, stands a main post office and across the street towers a brand new luxury retirement complex.  On one corner of the nearest intersection, however, meekly seated in the grass of the parking, is a woman with a cardboard sign.  A brunette of slight build, she has brown eyes, a timid smile and a gentle demeanor.  Printed on the sign with a black marker are the words: HOMELESS WIDOW OF A DISABLED VETERAN.  PLEASE HELP.  The woman’s name is Alice.  She’s 63 years old.  And she’s homeless—and nearly destitute.

Three years ago Alice and her husband Edward were anticipating a change of lifestyle as they entered into their “later years.”  They’d sold their small home, purchased a modest camper trailer, and were looking forward to some leisurely exploring on the road.  But that was not to be.  Edward had a heart attack and died.  His disability entitlement they’d depended on was drastically reduced for Alice.  Certain health restrictions of her own made employment virtually out of the question.  She had to sell the trailer at a loss.  And her savings over time became depleted.

Now Alice utilizes the monthly “widow’s” check for lodging in a cut-rate motel, and when the money runs out, she sleeps in her rusting, balding-tires Chevy.  As for food—to paraphrase the famous line from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—Alice must depend on the kindness of strangers.  Although, with winter approaching, it’s imperative she arrange some alternative course of survival, but so far other agreeable options haven’t presented themselves.

Back eastward, located about midway between the country club and the post office, bounded triangularly by a freeway and two streets, is an open field slated for grandiose development.  It’s known as the Mission Gateway project and has been subject to several false starts and delays.  Bordering the west side is a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant patronized mainly by laborers on lunch hour and drive-thru customers.  And seated in a back booth with all his worldly possessions in cloth bags tied to a metal suitcase carrier on wheels is a diminutive, gray-bearded man slouched down into his parka, hungrily spooning up a small cup of chili.  He has deep-blue eyes and a deliberate manner and appears to be closed off in a world of his own.  The man’s name is Dwight, and he’s also 63.  But he’s chosen to apply his inadequate disability check toward food rather than shelter.

Dwight is the youngest of nine siblings, although he’s no longer in communication with any of the family.  In the past he’d worked at manual labor jobs—maintenance in warehouses, for example—and for a while belonged to the Teamsters Union, but for unspecified reasons he’s not employable any longer.  He never served in the military, doesn’t smoke or use drugs and alcohol, which is one reason why he avoids the homeless city mission where alcoholics abound—evidence of his resolve to retain an humble, yet glowing, ember of human dignity.

Dwight was born and grew up on the Kansas side of the city, but no longer has any connections there.  He lived in Florida awhile, until he was severely beaten and robbed on the street, and then departed just before the recent hurricane swept through.  His situation is further complicated by a diabetic condition that requires his administering insulin to himself daily.  Yet he commences each day with the outlook and hope for, as he phrases it, “a tiny miracle or two.  And occasionally a really big one.”  An instance of the latter was when he had been pushing his carrier in the street and had just pulled it up over the curb when a speeding auto chased by the police cut the corner, missing him by inches.

The unsettling thing about Alice and Dwight is the mind’s inability to rationalize and concoct some basis for their circumstance.  Some “reasonable explanation” one can appeal to and then simply shake his head.  No, it would seem any sensible justification for the fate that’s befallen them is fearfully lacking.  And so, one can only wonder, in these times, how many others, now hidden in the shadows, struggle against exposure to that same heartbreak that only time itself will reveal?

The Kansas City Star carried an article recently concerning the revival of progress on the Gateway project.  Construction will commence in 2018 on 170 apartment units with small retail shops underneath, and a later phase will include two hotels, an office building and up to 190,000 square feet of larger retail, restaurant and entertainment space.  The developer was quoted as saying, “We are looking at a large-scale food, entertainment, market concept that is going to be architecturally stunning!”  Well, perhaps.  But that will hold little relevance to the “Alices-and-Dwights” on the street.  Residing in a seam of a glamorous world is no guarantee of ever actually partaking in it, and the closest they may come might be on a good day observing it out a window at Wendy’s.  After all, that’s simply what it means to be “homeless in paradise.”

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Mark Scheel

Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.


12 comments to Homeless in Paradise: Alice and Dwight

  • arekhill1

    Jesus, Mark, have you been drinking? You sound like a Democrat.

  • Stanislaw

    Mr. Scheel,
    You should shadchan a meeting between Alice and Dwight at Wendy’s.
    They can pool together their assets and with a little love and understanding
    they can have an ordained Wendy’s customer perform a wedding ceremony followed
    by a Baconator combo for two, a celebratory Frosty for each and an insulin chaser for Dwight. A marriage made in the hallowed halls of Wendy’s. Yummy.

  • markscheel1

    Sir Richard,

    Actually I had you and muse in mind when I decided to write this one! Gotta throw you guys a bone every now and then! 😉

    Mark

  • markscheel1

    Stanislaw,

    Not so sure you would have seen any humor in this had you been with me doing the interviews. Update, Dwight was thrown out of a fast food place over the weekend due complaints about his carrier and dozing off.

    Mark

  • mistermuse

    Mark, thanks for the bone — I’ll try to not let it go to my head. 🙁
    As for the post itself, I must say there’s hope for you yet (must be that your associating with the likes of Ricardo and me has finally begun to infiltrate your defenses). But seriously, great post. Who says “compassionate conservatism” no longer has a home in Republican country?

  • markscheel1

    mistermuse, and thank you for the compliment! As for “Republican country,” remember this is Johnson County in Kansas City–strong “moderate” influence here. Or, as real conservatives term it, RINO influence. Ha. 😉

  • Don Frankel

    Mark,

    You give an excellent description of two people suffering from mental illness.

    Don

  • markscheel1

    Hi Don,

    Ah ha! There you are! Well, unfortunately it’s not that simple, and why I posed the question about lacking rationale. I interviewed both at some length–they’re real people, names changed–and “Alice” seemed a little naive, but mentally quite stable. “Dwight” had moments when one could catch a slight glimmer of, let’s say, slight non sequitur with the “real,” but over all he was quite logical and pretty grounded. Having been a psych major and with my Red Cross counseling encountered a good many with mental problems, these two certainly were frightfully close to being absolutely normal. And that’s what pains me the most. But, yes, the greatest reasons for homelessness at present still are–drug dependency, mental illness and PTSD. But lack of a family connection is a big one too! Thanks, Don, for your comment and input.

    Mark

  • Mark,
    Mental illness is hardly simple. Perhaps our definitions are slightly different. When I say mental illness I don’t mean just Schizophrenia and maybe bi-polar I include the whole gamut from personality disorders, mood swings, to various forms of depression. Many people function quite well with a mental illness and some do not function well at all. I worked with the homeless or the formerly homeless for seven years and 99% of them had a mental illness. Almost all of them were quite lucid. One of things the mentally ill can’t do is maintain their primary relationships. Their social structure is shredded or non-existent..

    When I bring this up people tend to get angry or upset or something. I”m not pitching a cure or a social program. It’s just my observation. It seems a whole lot of people would like to believe that they’re two paychecks or some health related incident away from being homeless. If so don’t let me interrupt. But most everyone who I worked with which were thousands of people over those seven years were mentally ill to the point where they didn’t function well.

  • markscheel1

    Don,

    Most trenchant observations and contributions! Indeed! Yes, we’re using a somewhat different definition of how broadly and inclusively we categorize “mental illness.” Remember, Michael Savage (psychiatric background) wrote a book called Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder. Good heavens–that would make half the people I know nuts!!! Ha.
    You say, “Mental illness is hardly simple.” Absolutely correct. You also say, “Many people function quite well with a mental illness and some do not function well at all.” Bingo! Correct again (IMHO). Again, quoting you, “One of things the mentally ill can’t do is maintain their primary relationships.” You’re batting a thousand! 🙂 Even many who function okay in the work world leave behind a string of broken family relationships.

    Looking back, a number of girls I dated in earlier years I now think were partly crazy (but they probably think the same about me). I remember as a small boy my father hiring men who’d fought in WW II to help on the farm and most were restless and unstable and didn’t stay in one place long. I’ve also known some writers who were creatively “brilliant,” but odd as people. So, is it really just a matter of degree? Or what?

    Thank you for your expertise in moving the discussion forward! Much appreciated.

    Mark

  • Mark,

    Thank you. I’m not pushing any kind of a social agenda and I don’t have any grand solution to the homeless problem. Just that mental illness is a huge component as it is in drug addiction and crime. Usually it is addressed on TV with two people yelling talking points at each other then they break for a commercial. That seems to be the way most issues are dealt with in our society now and it’s far more intelligent for people to come here and have a sensible discussion.

    Don

  • Don,

    Bingo again! I couldn’t agree more!!!

    Mark

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