“Dumpster” Don Dezanett picks up the sleek, silver convertible. With the nudge of his finger, the car’s doors fling open.
The miniature vehicle rolls backward and forward in the palm of his hand. “Cool, huh?” Don says. “I couldn’t afford the real thing, so I thought, ‘What the heck?’”
Trinkets like these have transformed Don’s one-bedroom apartment into a home. Beside the car sits a small Jesus figurine that plays hymns. Paintings and photographs adorn the walls.One depicts a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Another shows a secluded cabin sitting beside a peaceful river. Maybe it reminds Don of the woods, where he lived for nine years.
Six months ago, W.T. Realty and several other organizations helped him snag this apartment on the south side of the city. He pays for it with disability checks he started getting earlier this year after many years of untreated arthritis and broken bones.
“Actually, I miss being in the woods,” Don says, looking longingly out the window. “I used to love to hear the cardinals and the birds singing in the morning. I miss that. I miss having my pets; my squirrels coming up and visiting me. ... It’s lonely here.”
Don looks much healthier these days. His frail 5-foot-11 frame, which dropped to 145 pounds last winter while living in the woods, has rebounded to 170 pounds. He no longer has constant bags under his eyes and, on a recent day, he wore a new pair of jeans and a clean blue T-shirt. His once stained hair looks as white as the snow that covers the ground, no longer bleached with yellow streaks that came from constant exposure to the sunlight.
He’s also discovered the magic of Goodwill. “I got these jeans for $2!” Don exclaims.
He also bought the pictures on his wall for $1.25, he says, and a cross behind his bed for 50 cents. A red, mint-condition bike in his bedroom only cost $10. “That place is amazing,” he says about Goodwill.
Although out of the woods and seemingly well-nourished, health concerns persist. The smell of tobacco hangs in the apartment, heavy like morning dew. It sticks to the carpet and furniture, and stretches into every room. He’s drinking, too, albeit less. Silver beer cans no longer fill the kitchen trash can like they have in the past, but he occasionally takes a swig from a 40-ouncer.
His wrists still hurt, remnants of long-ago untreated injuries, and he walks with a slight limp, likely from arthritis exacerbated by homelessness. Nonetheless, his popularity persists. He has two plants in his apartment, which Sondra Anderson, director of homeless services at Volunteers of America, gave to him. A Christmas card from First National Bank — with the smiles of the bank employees on the front — dangles from a hanging plant. And the Register receives dozens of calls and letters each month asking how Don’s doing.
He thanks everybody for their support and love, but you can tell a lack of true companionship weighs on him. “When I get a chance every once in a while, I’ll go back where I used to live and visit my friends,” he says. “I’ll take popcorn out to my squirrels — I love it. Take apples and throw ‘em around the rabbits. It’s cool. “I’m kind of disappointed because with the weather I can’t get over there. But I’m sure they’ll survive. They’re survivors like me.” He extinguishes a hand-rolled cigarette in a plastic coffee mug and leans back on his maroon, floral-patterned couch.
“Sometimes I wonder: Living in the woods saved me a lot of money. Now I have to pay rent and utilities,” he says with a laugh, flashing a grin missing some teeth at the top and bottom. “But oh well, I’m managing. ... It sure is nice being out of the weather.”