Homeless in Sandusky: Don Dezanett does what he has to do

Editor's Note: Hunger gnaws. Pain is acute. Shame is seen. An economic recession
May 24, 2010


Editor's Note:

Hunger gnaws. Pain is acute. Shame is seen.

An economic recession equals a homeless population less hidden and looking more like a cross- section of us.

The Homeless but Hopeful project is a yearlong series of stories about the American Dream lost. It documents the lives of local homeless people struggling to overcome the past and claw their way toward a better future.


They call him "Dumpster Don."

On a cool summer morning behind a store on Venice Road, Don Dezanett rummages through a dumpster overflowing with trash bags, cardboard boxes, books and rotting food.

He finds jeans stained with spoiled milk, sweat and cheap beer, and checks if they fit.

At 60 years and a frail 150 pounds, the size 33 jeans are a little big. But Don throws them into his shopping cart anyway.

Clothes, food, backpacks and materials for his camp are all treasures pulled from dumpsters.

"I go over to Cedar Point. Those tourists throw everything away. Fishing equipment, cameras, you name it, they'll throw it away. ... I like the summer because if they have a case of beer, they'll drink two beers out of it, they leave the whole cooler, ice, beer," Don says with a laugh and smile that's missing some teeth. "I'm like, 'All right, ice it down for me! Thanks guys!'"

Based on a headcount conducted last fall for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sandusky has 153 of the estimated 3 million homeless Americans.

Sondra Anderson, director of homeless services at Crossroads Homeless Shelter, said headcounts produce low estimates, so Sandusky's actual number probably exceeds 200.

Chronically homeless

The government counts Don Dezanett among the "chronically homeless." Officials define it as an individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for more than a year, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Don's disabling condition is severe inflammatory arthritis. At night, his ankles swell to the size of billiard balls. He's been homeless for eight years and is extremely resourceful.

For more than three years now, "Dumpster Don" has called Sandusky home and considers the woods off of Venice Road his domain.

He sleeps in a tent someone discarded long ago. He makes money collecting cans or selling scrap he finds in dumpsters.

With other scrap, he built a homemade shower, hoisting a bucket of hot water up into the trees using a makeshift pulley, and letting it slowly pour down over himself.

"You learn a lot being a Boy Scout and the son of a police chief," he says. "God bless my daddy's soul. He taught me a lot."

He hasn't held a job since 2001. To Don, homelessness is a lifestyle.

He is one of 123,000 people -- about 4 percent of the entire homeless population in the United States -- who fall into the "chronically homeless" category.

For years, Don said he wanted to get a job, but homelessness exacerbated his arthritis to the point where he can't do many tasks involved with low-level pay.

"People get laid off and fired, and it's very, very difficult to try and get a job," he says, his smile disappearing for the first time. "And because of my age, I'm 60, and because of my disability..."

He rolls up his sleeves. His left wrist is the size of a small grapefruit.

"That's just my wrist," he says. "When I get home at night, my knees, ankles swell the same way," he says.

Adding to the pain

Adding to his pain are a growing number of attacks on homeless people.

A report from the National Coalition for the Homeless earlier this month shows a rise in violence against the homeless, with at least 880 unprovoked attacks against the homeless at the hands of nonhomeless people, including 244 fatalities.

Anderson, director of homeless services at Crossroads, where Don occasionally seeks a meal, says Don often gets assaulted while living on the streets.

"He comes in, black and blue, his eyes puffed up," she says. "Teenagers. Beatin' him up for no other reason than he's homeless."

Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said society dehumanizes the homeless and condones violent treatment.

He pointed to a blurb titled "Hunt the Homeless" in the August edition of Maxim, a popular men's magazine. It spotlights an upcoming "hobo convention" in Iowa and says: "Kill one for fun. We're 87 percent sure it's legal."

Stoops said since homeless people are reluctant to go to the police, assaults against them often go unreported, so statistics on the topic are probably low estimates.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Johnson, Democrat of Texas, recently introduced a bill in the House of Representative to make attacks on the homeless a federal hate crime. Ohio, as well as five other states, have considered similar bills to turn it into a hate crime.

Don says it's the worst part of his life.

"Damn kids," he says. "If I wasn't in so much pain, I'd whip all of 'em. But sometimes there are four, five of them. It's unfair. ... But I'll survive. I always do."