Remembering Our Friend, Dave
It was a typical Syracuse winter day in 2015 – cold and snowy with a strong wind. Jim Hawley, a member of the Rescue Mission Street Outreach team, was under a bridge near Park Street in Syracuse. He heard someone might be living outdoors there. Though Jim did not find any signs of an encampment, he did meet Dave. “[Dave] told us he had a place to live at that time, but now, after knowing him for so long, I am not sure that he did,” Jim says.
Soon after Jim’s first encounter with Dave, program staff began receiving calls about a person wandering around the city. Jim quickly realized this was Dave, the same man he had met under the bridge. Jim began to spend more time with Dave. He learned that Dave had served in the United States Navy in the late seventies and early eighties before being honorably discharged. Jim, also a Navy veteran, found that this common connection helped to build trust between them.
Over the next eight years, Dave developed a close relationship with Jim, other members of the Street Outreach team, and Amber Vander Ploeg, Rescue Mission Chief Programs Officer. The Rescue Mission worked with Dave to help him find housing and medical care, and maintained contact to ensure he was safe.
"A lot of people told us we would never get through to him. And for Jim, he really had to work hard to make that initial connection."Amber
Dave faced many challenges in his life. He had post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in the Navy, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and struggled with drug and alcohol use. He also spent so much time living outdoors, he had severe damage from frostbite on his fingers and feet.
Dave was placed in several apartments over the years, including two units owned by the Rescue Mission. However, Dave found it difficult to remain housed because of his mental health diagnosis and substance abuse addictions. Amber recalls that Dave always wanted to help other people, so he would let strangers stay with him, creating conflict with landlords. Even when he was housed in an apartment, Dave spent most of his time living outside. His location of choice was the porch of a friend’s home on the northside of Syracuse.
“He was definitely a special man, very unique,” Amber fondly recalls with a laugh. “He said some real wild and funny stuff.” She reflectively pauses. “Everyone has the right to exist in this world however that is, even if it is not what someone else thinks is ‘normal’.”
Often Dave would walk from the northside to the Rescue Mission. He could never keep track of a cell phone, but Dave always knew where to find Jim and Amber. He became well known on the Rescue Mission campus. Many Rescue Mission staff members, not just program staff, would recognize Dave, and would call Jim or Amber to let them know he was on campus looking for them.
"I think he felt safe. We were his safe haven. It gets pretty bad out there on the streets, so even if I just took him for coffee, he liked that. He also knew that if we didn’t see him in a while, we would go out and look for him."Jim
Over the last few years, Dave’s health declined. He developed cataracts that caused a loss of vision. Last summer, Dave was admitted to the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital with a blood infection. While there, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
After his lung cancer diagnosis, Dave’s health deteriorated very quickly, and he was placed in a VA nursing home. Amber and Jim continued to work with his VA caseworker, and would often go up and visit Dave at the nursing home. In April 2023, Dave passed away.
Jim says that he is thankful that when he passed, Dave was surrounded by people who knew him and were taking care of him – the staff at the VA, Rescue Mission program staff, and a handful of friends.
“There was this little group of people working together to make his last few weeks as good as possible, that’s not something everyone gets,” he says.
Dave’s funeral service program hangs in Amber’s office, a memory of a special Rescue Mission friend.
“If you look at the big picture, we knew Dave for such a short time considering his sixty years,” says Amber. “We had just a snippet of the full picture of Dave, but with all the hurdles he faced, he was successful in his own way and he was happy.”
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