Safoschnik, who is 66, will tell you that he doesn’t tend to get close to that many people. He will also tell you that he considers the man in the bunk below him, Claude DeHart, more than just a roommate.
“He’s more like a brother to me,” Safoschnik says when we talk on a recent afternoon. “I help him. He helps me. We’re good together.”
DeHart sits nearby and nods. He is a month shy of turning 64, relies on leg braces or a wheelchair to get around and knows that every morning when he wakes up, he can count on Safoschnik to make sure he also gets a cup of hot coffee with those eggs.
“This friendship means the world to me,” DeHart says. “We’re from very different places, but we’re also very alike. We’re both stubborn and brutally honest. We also both have a respect and love of life, and that helps us appreciate each other.”
Safoschnik and DeHart talk about their friendship with an ease that makes it seem they have known each other for years or decades. They met less than six months ago. Each man arrived at the SERVE Family Shelter, which is run by Northern Virginia Family Service, in a different way and on a different day.
But when the pandemic ends, if all goes as planned, they will walk out of that shelter together and head toward a senior housing complex, where two apartments wait for them.
Theirs is a success story on pause. The coronavirus forced them to put their plans on hold just as they were about to take a significant step forward in lives that have seen a lot of steps back. It has also left them more diligent than ever about taking care of each other and other residents in the shelter because they know what they stand to lose if anyone gets sick.
If you drew a Venn diagram of all the factors that leave some people at higher risk of falling victim to covid-19, Safoschnik and DeHart fall into that space where several circles overlap. They’re older adults who are experiencing homelessness and are now living in a group setting with people who aren’t their relatives. DeHart also has high blood pressure and muscular dystrophy.
“It’s a scary world right now,” DeHart says, “and it’s particularly scary for us.”
There have been plenty of powerful stories about organizations that are helping people in the streets and in shelters right now, and those efforts are important because that population remains one of the most vulnerable to a virus that has already caused tens of thousands of deaths across the country.
But every day, in unseen and unrecognized ways, people who are experiencing homelessness are also helping one another.
Michael-Sean Adams, the manager of the SERVE shelter, calls Safoschnik and DeHart his “other staff.”
He has witnessed DeHart go through the building in his wheelchair to wipe down every doorknob, and he has seen Safoschnik clean floors, counters and any surface that needs it.
“We’ve come to depend on them,” he says. He describes them as “invested” in the place and in themselves.
The shelter — which is set up to house 92 people, with children making up about half of that number — put in place a coronavirus contingency plan three weeks before Virginia went into lockdown. As a result, Adams says, the staff has had to put just two people in quarantine and has not seen any illnesses related to the virus.
They have also managed to continue moving people out of the shelter and into permanent housing. Adams says Safoschnik and DeHart are exceptions because their situation is unique. They are moving into a senior housing complex that has to be cautious about bringing in new residents. It is also located in Bristol, Va., which means they need to find a moving company that is willing to make the over five-hour drive to transport the furniture the organization plans to give the men for their new homes.
On the day the two finally move out, Adams says, the staff will celebrate in the way they do each time a resident walks out the door with keys and lease in hand. They will applaud and play a song to commemorate the moment. He already has one possibility in mind — “I’m Movin’ On” by Rascal Flatts.
“I’ve dealt with my ghosts, and I’ve faced all my demons,” the song begins. “Finally content with a past I regret. I’ve found you find strength in your moments of weakness.”
DeHart describes the shelter’s staff as saving his life.
“When we come through the doors, we’re told we’re part of a family,” he says, “and they mean it.”
He was sleeping in a patch of woods in Manassas in August, he says, when a snake bit his leg. He watched his leg turn black from the knee down and learned at the hospital that the culprit was probably a copperhead. He was worrying about returning to the woods, when he received a call from the shelter saying a bed was available.
“I came in here that day a wreck,” he recalls. He says the staff let him eat alone in a quiet room for three days. They then helped him get his Medicaid reinstated and back on track with his blood pressure medication. Slowly, he says, he started to feel better and began participating in classes the shelter offered. He now has money saved in the bank for the first time in his life.
“The most important thing they do is they teach you how to help yourself,” he says. “That was something I needed at the time. It was nobody’s fault I was in the mess I was in but mine, and it was up to nobody but me to fix it.”
DeHart, who was born in Haymarket, says he earned a college degree in human services and worked as an assistant manager in a group home in Massachusetts. But a broken relationship and a lost job, he says, led him back to Virginia feeling “angry at the world.” He says he started writing bad checks and was in and out of jail for years. A criminal record search supports that.
“I’m an alcoholic,” Safoschnik says, explaining how he ended up homeless. In Brooklyn, where he’s from, he says he had a wife, two sons and a good job with New York City Transit.
“And I was so wrapped up with the alcohol that I just threw it all away,” he says. He says his wife left him and he left his job after 21 years, just four years shy of when he would have been able to retire with a good pension. “One day, I just walked away.”
He was living with a friend in Manassas and working in construction when that friend died of cirrhosis of the liver. After that, he says, he stayed at a hotel and then started showing up at an overnight shelter. In November, he got a call from the SERVE shelter telling him a top bunk was available if he wanted it.
DeHart says his first impression of Safoschnik left him doubtful they would become friends.
“He’s a Yankees fan. I’m a Red Sox fan,” he says. “I definitely didn’t think we’d get along.”
Now, when talking about their friendship, he doesn’t even pause to carefully pick words. “People are scared to death to let people know they need them and appreciate them,” he says. “It’s called respect. It’s love and respect and appreciation.”
DeHart found the senior housing complex in February while searching for an affordable apartment, and he immediately told Safoschnik about it. Soon after, a shelter staff member drove the men and six women to Bristol and back so they could see the area.
Safoschnik says he’s not sure how close their apartments will be to each other, but he knows what they’re going to do shortly after moving into them. They have plans to go fishing. He’s never been, and DeHart found a nearby dam that has a handicap-accessible area.
“I guess me and this guy are going to be together for the rest of the time we got,” Safoschnik says. “Now, if I could just get him to give up the Red Sox.”
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