The Persistence of Love
The following article is featured in the Fall 2017 edition of News From HOME, our quarterly print newsletter. If you want to subscribe, click here.
It was not unusual for Joan Hutton, a long-time staff member of Project HOME, to stop and talk to persons on the streets of Center City who appeared to be homeless. But Mike Saunders was special.
Joan first met Mike at his “spot” at 18th and Walnut, by the window of the Anthropologie store. She was immediately struck by his friendliness, his bright spirit and clear intelligence, his engaging conversation. They became friends, and she often visited with him, sometime with other friends or family. Mike had been there for years, the result of many rough times in his life, including incarceration, diabetes, severe anxiety, and the loss of a leg. Joan offered to get him help through Project HOME, for which Mike was grateful, but he continually insisted he needed “my own place.”
Joan wasn’t the only person taken in by Mike’s friendliness. She discovered there was a group of neighbors who had similarly befriended him and who were all supporting him in whatever ways they could. Jane Hickman, who lived in the Rittenhouse neighborhood at that time, also stopped to talk with him often, and they became friends. Whenever he saw her on the streets, she recalls, he would call out a “very endearing” greeting. “He was a sweet guy, and he really cared about our friendship.” John Adams, another neighbor who befriended him, spoke of Mike as “a very kind and loving person.”
At one point, Mike’s various friends began to note his absence, as did the nearby merchants. Weeks passed, and nobody knew what happened to him. Then, in early January 2016, Joan received a call from Mike. He told her that on Christmas day he had been hit by a bus, suffering a concussion and serious injuries, requiring a pin in his leg. He doesn’t even remember what happened, only that he woke up in a hospital bed. He would soon be discharged from rehab.
Now in a wheelchair and physically weakened, Mike’s needs were more pressing. He had a brief and difficult stay in a shelter. Project HOME’s Outreach staff as well as staff from our Stephen Klein Wellness Center worked with him and were able to secure him a temporary room at our St. Elizabeth’s Residence. We put him on a waiting list for his own apartment at our Kate’s Place residence – a prospect he called “his dream.” But the next 18 months were a roller coaster of ever-more complicated medical issues, including stints at hospitals and rehabs.
During this time, his various friends came together to form a “Friends of Mike” group, committed to helping him achieve his dream. “He had a hard life,” Jane Hickman says, “and we all felt he deserved a second chance.” They divvied up tasks – legal support, filling out paperwork, visiting him in the hospital and rehab centers, advocating for him in the hospital, paying his rent. (He secured an apartment at Kate’s Place, but the health needs delayed his moving in.) They purchased a wheelchair for him and paid his cell phone bill so he could keep in touch.
They also learned the difficulty of navigating support systems – the long hours of waiting, the endless paperwork and labyrinthine bureaucracies, but mostly the almost unimaginable obstacles a person must overcome to get much needed healthcare, housing, or other services. As determined and positive as Mike was, his complicated needs and the inhospitality and stinginess of social systems made it painfully clear how hard it was to be poor in America.
This past May, Mike finally achieved what he had long sought: He moved into his own apartment at Kate’s Place – just a couple blocks from his usual spot on the streets. After months of travail and seemingly endless roadblocks, he had arrived home. Even though his health was still frail, he wanted to get involved, to be active in the Project HOME community. During our voter registration drive during the recent election, Mike was willing to make phone calls. He was eager to support other Kate’s Place residents – or do whatever he could to help.
Qasim Moore, who was Program Manager of Kate’s Place at the time, says that even despite his frail health, Mike always had a warm greeting for other residents. “He lit up the room wherever he was.” He was home.
Less than a month later, the many health problems took their ultimate toll. Mike passed away peacefully in the night – on his own bed, in his own room.
At his funeral, a large circle of family and his many friends from his time on the streets, as well as Project HOME staff, came together to grieve but also to celebrate this remarkable person and the love he elicited from such diverse people. Mike’s mother, Dorothy Saunders, met many of her son’s friends and supporters. “They were so wonderful to my child – there are no words to express how much they did for him.”
It would be easy to say that Mike’s story ended sadly, yet it is also a story that shines through with beauty. A man whose life was marked by enormous adversity nonetheless exuded love and care. A group of people befriended a stranger in need and journeyed deeper into the heart of compassion.
Mike persisted through his many trials. The friends of Mike persisted through many challenges in getting him the help he needed. Through all the pain, love persisted.
And it still does. That’s why we tell this story.
We want to recognize and thank the many amazing people who played such a loving and supportive role in Mike Saunders’ life: Joan Hutton; John Adams; Fred Mann; Jane Hickman and Mike Furlong; Sandy Marulanda and Joe Aversa; and any others we didn’t mention here. We thank you for your compassion and commitment.