Friday, January 26, 2007

If being homeless means you sleep in a different place most nights because your addictions and demons steal your rent and sabotage your job, then David Heath was homeless.

But if being homeless means you have nowhere to go and no one to take you in, then Heath was something else: a drifter, a free spirit, maybe a transient. He had an extensive circle of family and friends, and they say there was always a couch or a spare room for him. He needed only to call.

Either way, Heath's death has helped put the spotlight on homelessness, just as his life illustrates how nuanced and complicated the problem can be.

David Heath spent the last years of his life searching for a program that would finally get him off drugs.

Always he faced a wait to get in, or a dealer waiting the moment he got out, or a fellow addict who waited for "lights out" to light up. He never really got away from the chloroform haze of crack, but he never quit trying.

Heath spent the last minutes of his life bleeding to death in an alley. Police think he was gunned down by the same three teenagers who killed another homeless man nine blocks away. Both died just after midnight Jan. 17.

Heath, 53, will be buried today.

With his family and friends and a thousand-watt smile, David Merlin Heath should have owned a bungalow in Pass-a-Grille or a condominium on Beach Drive. He should have had a job as a midlevel manager and driven a Toyota Camry.

In the end, he had none of those things - not even a driver's license. But the father of three considered himself rich in family, his siblings and parents say.

"He was a good guy. He just had a hard time. He never gave up," said Heath's mother, June Bartke.

In college, he changed

Heath came from a family of prominent restaurateurs. They owned the Causeway Inn, the Rocky Point Dinner Theater, the Careless Navigator Restaurant on Treasure Island, the Red Cavalier on Madeira Beach. Heath often worked at those restaurants as a young man. Baseball teams in town for spring training regularly stopped by, and Heath and his family became friends with ballplayers and managers.

Heath even became a spring training bat boy for the New York Mets, including the "Miracle Mets," who won the 1969 World Series.

He graduated from Boca Ciega High School and briefly attended Florida State University in Tallahassee, where his grandmother paid for him to join a fraternity.

It was while at FSU, Heath's parents say, that he began experimenting with drugs. He was still chatty and friendly, a natural salesman. But somehow he "just wasn't satisfied," said his father, Glen Heath.

Heath married, had two children, and divorced. He worked as a telemarketer and beer salesman. He wandered to Texas, then Hawaii. He married a second time and had a third child before he divorced again.

When things got really bad, Heath would enroll in a drug rehabilitation program. He tried Operation PAR, a church program in Central Florida, Alcoholics Anonymous. He even took a trip with his father to see the Ohio hospital where the AA organization was founded.

He would call up his father and tell him, "Boy, this is going to help me."

Then, Heath would walk away.

"We would always try to get him into a long-term program, but he was never able to put himself through it," Glen Heath said.

Eventually, David Heath developed symptoms of bipolar disorder, a brain malady characterized by periods of depression and mania. Some 60 percent of the homeless and transient populations are mentally ill, according to annual surveys by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and 26 percent are substance abusers.

He tried to do better

Heath's substance abuse and mental illness led to a long string of relatively minor crimes, including cocaine possession, driving without a valid license, criminal mischief, battery, probation violation and shoplifting, for which he served probation and short jail terms.

But Heath also had long stretches of sobriety and sanity, his family said. He'd visit them, spend time with his children, hold down a job, date. He'd travel, see the ocean, listen to music. He'd dream about getting all the pieces put back together.

Then he'd get caught up again in the cycle of substance abuse and he'd drop out of the picture for a while, not wanting to hurt or embarrass his family.

"He had a complicated life," said brother Nick Castrinos.

Heath, who read the Bible regularly, frequently counseled the homeless he met when he did stay at a shelter. He attended AA meetings, sometimes even twice a day. But he didn't talk much about his own problems there, and instead focused on the troubles of others, his father said. He even spoke about becoming a counselor someday and helping other addicts recover.

"He was kind and generous," said Bartke, his mother.

Friends and family say Heath had a talent for getting people to trust and like him.

Billy Rogers, a 43-year-old painter, met Heath outside a convenience store several weeks ago. Heath asked if he could use his phone, and Rogers said yes.

Soon, the two were spending time together regularly. Heath talked about getting a job, and eventually rooming with Rogers in an apartment. Rogers said Heath had a knack for talking to people; when a couple bickered over bills or had some other argument, they could count on Heath to say: "Everything will work out. Things will be okay."

While Heath often talked about a more stable life, he still wandered around and slept wherever he could, Rogers said. He had a lot of friends in the city and stayed on their couches, or in their spare rooms. Heath also frequently stayed at local homeless shelters.

But life was cut short

The night he died, Heath stopped at a Burger King on Central Avenue near 35th Street. An employee there, someone whom Heath had never met, let him use her cell phone. He called friends, asking for rides. Eventually, he began walking. He was headed to Rogers' house, where he sometimes slept on a hammock in the back yard.

He was killed a few blocks away. So was Jeff Shultz, 43, whose body was found nine blocks from Heath's.

But all the friends' couches and shelter cots in the world would not have helped someone like Heath, said Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and national expert on housing and homeless. People whose addictions or mental illness prevent them from keeping their own home need what's called "supportive housing," where residents get counseling and drug rehabilitation.

"Shelters are not an answer," Culhane said. "Once folks have housing, then they're interested in recovery."

Heath may have been on the verge of finding supportive housing. He had planned to visit his father in Ohio in early January. But then he got accepted to a treatment center in Louisiana, and he wanted to go there instead. He was just waiting for Medicare to cut the check.

Glen Heath remembers one of the last conversations he had with his son. "I'm tired of living the way I am," he told his father, "and I want to change."


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