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Homeless in St. Petersburg: David Hawk and the kindness of strangers

02-17-2010 Sarah E. Gerard

David Hawk grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the eldest of five children. His father was a neurosurgeon and his mother was a teacher. There was always music playing in the house, Mary Poppins or Fiddler on the Roof. Sometimes they went to the theater.

“And mom would play the piano and sing. And there was singing and dancing around the house, and it was joy,” says David.

We’re sitting on the porch of his apartment at Hide Away Storage, 3950 34th Street South, where he’s lived for almost a year. If it weren’t for Virgil and Patty, Hide Away’s managers, David would still be living on the streets.

He moved down to Florida three years ago after serving eight months in an Ohio prison hospital. His mother was lonely without any kids around, she said. He could come down here and clean himself up. He was forty-eight years old.

“They all think I’m done with crack and—twice I’ve quit crack before, but then I’ll have some drinks and it opened up my mind for thinking that’s a good idea.”

He had gotten into crack doing missionary work in New York after-hours clubs. Even while he was there, he had a number of spiritual experiences that shaped the course of his life. The whole time he was doing drugs, he says, God never left his side.

“God and I, we went through a couple of really big missions and it got pretty intense. I mean, guns out. I got stabbed a couple times. Getting beat by three guys at a time.”

He had decided to pursue acting as a career after having an epiphany one night in Texas, where he had gone to work on oilrigs with his cousin instead of going to dental school.

“I had to be happy,” he explains. “I had to figure out what it was I really wanted to do.”

He moved back and forth from L.A. to New York three times, trying to get his acting career off the ground.

“I had some close calls. I did soaps. The last movie was Tequila Sunrise … 1988 with Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell.”

He still gets little checks in the mail for that one every now and then. His stage name, Austin Hawk, is the last name in the credits.

When he came down to Florida, his acting career was over and his latest work experience had been waiting tables. He did odd jobs and panhandled to get by. Then, his father cashed in the kids’ trust funds early to buy his mother a new car. He used the rest of his trust fund money to get an apartment in Gulfport and start a lawn business.

“I got the equipment, got a truck, I got advertising, business cards, magnet signs on the sides of the truck. I’m trying for weeks to get a business together,” but he only got one call for service, from a “nasty” little old woman only willing to pay him twenty dollars to landscape her entire yard.

When the man he was landscaping with cheated him out of $600 in paychecks, he had had enough.

“And one Friday night, I’m sitting there drinking some beers, and I think, ‘You know what? I got a little money in the bank. I could go get high.’ So I went back to getting high. And that was the time I realized, it was the last one. I lost everything.”

He was camping up and down U.S. 19. in a matter of months. It’s amazing how fast it can go, he says.

“That’s when I realized how much it had me. That’s the only thing your brain hears to say and think, is that it’s the best? It’s the only thing that’s important, the only thing that matters?”

For eight months, he slept on a mattress behind the south side Pizza Hut with a tarp over his head, showering in the boat marina, eating day-old pizza and surviving on the kindness of strangers.

He’d use his panhandling money to buy bus passes to go work at the malls. Twice, people gave him $100.

“I prayed that God would lead me to nice people that I could pray for and with. And the ones that were nasty, and treated you crappy, I prayed for them, too.”

And was he still doing drugs during this time? “Oh, the whole time. Every day. Every day I did, minimum, thirty dollars to two hundred dollars a day panhandling, and I did drugs every day, and I’d be back in the woods partying every day by myself.”

The first time he met Virgil and Patty, about three years ago, they got him a hotel room, gave him a Publix food card, and gave him hygiene money. They also put him to work occasionally, doing yard work or cleaning, or simple maintenance.

Then, one night, a local Walgreens called the police because they thought he was panhandling in the parking lot. He had just scored some crack, and was hiding it on his person when the cruiser pulled up. The cop was friendly, as most of them were to David, but they had to run his ID.

“I’m saying, ‘God, I’m not going to be afraid. It’s whatever happens. I’ve got nothing to hide. If it comes up clean, I’m going to go smoke. If it comes back that I got warrants, well, then this is a good time to say no to it.’”

His name came back with warrants attached.

“That was the saying no to drugs for good. That night.”

He went to drug court with Judge Farnell and was remanded to Simple Hope transitional housing. He was moved from one transitional house to another for several months, and was getting tired of the packing and unpacking.

Then, he called Virgil. Did Virgil have any work, maybe something in the yard that David could do? Virgil asked him to come down and talk about hours. He took the bus two hours down to Hide Away.

When he walked into the office, Channel 10 was there and Virgil was being interviewed. Another man was standing behind the counter whom David didn’t recognize.

“I found out in listening that Hide Away Storage was giving people that were in legal foreclosure, and could verify it, a free month’s rent—maybe even longer, really trying to bend over backwards—and then the next month would be half price or something.”

He heard the reporter say that it was refreshing to see a business putting their words into action.

David interrupted, “Well, you want to hear about godliness in the business? Can I tell you something?”

The reporter nodded.

“I said, ‘I was on the streets not so long ago. I came to Virgil and Patty, they got me a hotel room, they gave me money for hygiene, they gave me food money. That’s how these people put it into action. I love these people.”

The man standing behind the counter turned out to be Steve Wilson, Hide Away’s owner.

David started doing maintenance full-time at Hide Away and within a few months was living in the upstairs apartment at the far corner of the lot. He gets paid time off, gets birthday and company anniversary gift cards to nice restaurants, bonuses, health care, and, for him, free housing. Now, they’re training him for management.

“I am really blessed to be a part of this organization.”

And he’s still attending AA meetings once a week out at Bay Pines. The other day, he had his first person ask him to be their sponsor