I met Michael McKenzie over a plate of spaghetti at Penny’s Restaurant in Jamestown. He told me it was the first place he and his wife had gone to eat when they moved back to North Carolina in 2007. They came from New York and planned to retire here, imagining themselves aging happily together, enjoying much warmer winters and a greater sense of community. Michael is an Army Veteran who served in Germany and later became a private chauffeur, a limousine owner/operator, and a Greyhound motor coach operator. His wife, Elaine, had been a dental hygienist for 40 years. They brought their savings south and bought a house. “It was beautiful!”, he told me, and Penny’s Restaurant quickly became a favorite of theirs.
Michael is currently a resident in the Arthur Cassell Transitional Housing program (ACTH) and a driver for “Uber" and “Lyft”. As we ate our lunch, he showed me how the calls come in and told me about some of the experiences he’s had as a driver. I was fascinated and entertained by this delightful man.
So, how does a charming, educated, softly-spoken gentleman of 76, end up being ‘homeless’? I guess it can only be described as a tragic love story.
Two years after settling here Elaine suffered a debilitating stroke. Michael brought her home from the hospital, determined to look after her, but soon realized he was out of his depth. He found a nursing home where he hoped she’d be safe and well cared for, but it was clear her needs were not being met. He told me she was very patient and understanding as her health requirements evolved, but he knew she was unhappy, and finally she begged to be moved. Michael carefully researched the options, but sadly, when the management changed at the next facility, there were more problems. Her care was inadequate and Elaine was moved yet again.
Michael bought a van equipped for a wheelchair, and he regularly took Elaine out for a change of scenery, but in spite of being her constant advocate, he became increasingly frustrated. He felt he was failing her.
Over the course of nine years Michael did all in his power to remain strong and positive, and to provide the best for his beloved wife. He was always her upbeat champion, but he knew she was trapped in a body that made her dependent on others, and those others were sometimes neglectful. He admits that behind his brave face and encouraging smiles, his own world was unravelling. By focusing all his attention and resources on her, he had failed to look after himself. He was depressed, lonely, and feeling helpless. He was emotionally, physically, and financially drained, and his debts were mounting. In 2014 he lost his home to foreclosure and his van was repossessed. He financed a car so he could still visit Elaine, and for three years he rented an apartment where he lived modestly, but earlier this year he fell behind on his rent. He was evicted in May.
The McKenzie's possessions remained locked inside the apartment as Michael slept in his car… that’s when he knew he had to ask for help. He went to the VA who put him in touch with Open Door Ministries (ODM). Beth Waters, Clinical Director, became his advocate, and he was offered a bed at Arthur Cassell Transitional Housing.
Through Beth, and people like staff member Ali Lundberg, ODM helped him develop a plan. They helped retrieve his belongings, lined up counseling, worked on ways for him to pay off his debts, and offered him emotional support. There was finally a light at the end of the tunnel, until shockingly, one night in July, a devastating phone call came from his wife’s nursing home. Michael was told Elaine had died. There was no explanation and no forewarning. He was absolutely distraught.
Through tears he told me what he remembered from that terrible night; the other residents gathering around him; Beth Waters driving back to the Arthur Cassell House to comfort him; everyone being kind and supportive and offering their condolences. He was grateful to them all!
When I asked Michael what The Arthur Cassell House means to him he responded immediately, “Safety!”, and then added, “Comradery… you have a support system.” He said he doesn’t know what he’d have done without Beth Waters. He told me he and Beth often joke about getting a check from Publisher’s Clearing House. He says if he won he’d pay off his debts first, but he’d also like to help upgrade the Arthur Cassell house. “The offices and the common room need some up-fitting,” he said. He explained there were other ‘priorities’ the organization must fund--that in addition to providing a roof over their heads, plus heat and light, there are services like transportation and counseling which all cost money. Michael understands about expenses, and he knows what a lifesaving gift this organization is to Veterans and our community. Even though everyone works really hard to keep it in good shape, (“We all do chores”, he told me) he’d like to make the offices nicer for the staff who do so much for the residents.
Michael still doesn’t know what happened to his wife on that terrible night, or how she died, (the nursing home will not release her medical records unless he can pay $195 to print off the 200 pages they have on file!) but Michael told me he intends to find out, as soon as he is in the right place ‘emotionally' to handle it, and as soon as he can afford to pursue it! Right now he’s trying to focus on the things he can change. He’s in grief counseling, and is working as a driver whenever he can. He has set up a system by which he can pay off his debts, and through ODM he’s found an apartment he can move into on November 1st.
His voice cracked as he told me about his upcoming wedding anniversary, and how much he misses his wife. He’d like some help arranging his new place, he said. He has his wife’s little ‘collections’ which he wants to display, and then there are her ashes… she’ll be moving with him, of course. With the help of Open Door Ministries, Michael will be starting over, and Elaine will always be with him in his heart!