Everyone loves a happy ending, but when it’s raining and you’re homeless and sleeping at a bus stop, happy endings aren’t always so easy to see. Especially when you’re blind.
“I was working on Washington Road at a hotel,” explains David Hedglin, sitting in a first floor office at the Maxwell House apartment building on Greene Street. “I’d been working there for eight years and seven months, and one day they came in and told me they didn’t need me anymore, so I left.”
When you’re blind and living at the place that just let you go, your options are limited to say the least. But Hedglin didn’t sit there feeling sorry for himself. He took a leg off of a table, put a Coke cap on the end of it and started walking down the road.
Homeless and blind, he started walking down Washington Road.
“I knew the area pretty good, but when you go walking down Washington Road and you know you’ve got to cross the street, you’ve got to really, really listen,” he says.
He walked all the way up to Kroger from the area around 1-20, crossed at Alexander and worked his way to one of the covered bus stops he remembered. And there, sitting by himself on the bench, he waited. In the rain. For two days.
“People would come up to me and they would give me food and give me money,” he says. “It touched me hard. I was crying. I don’t know if I was crying out of pride or out of joy, but it was just an unbelievable feeling.”
Like most who find themselves on the streets, Hedglin never expected to be homeless. He’d lived an interesting, varied life. When he was young, he traveled the county for a time as a boxer. Out west. Up north. He started working with five time welterweight champion Vernon Forrest when “The Viper” was less than 10 years old, and the two were friends until the boxer’s death in a robbery near Atlanta in 2009.
Boxing is how he damaged his right eye, and by the time glaucoma robbed him of his sight four years ago, he was an on-site maintenance man at that hotel on Washington Road. Even after he lost his sight, he continued doing the maintenance — plumbing, electrical, whatever problems might pop up. He could do it with his eyes closed, so to speak.
“I even amaze myself sometimes at what I was capable of doing,” he says, looking back.
Between the boxing and his time at the hotel, however, Hedglin was something of a local institution because he owned the venerable Whataburger restaurant that used to be on Broad Street by what is now the Kroc Center.
“That’s me — I’m the Whataburger man,” he says with a laugh. “My father and mother had the Whataburger, and when they passed away, I bought it out of their estate and I operated it for many years.”
Frustrated by local politics that left him unable to open an antique car lot nearby, he eventually sold the restaurant and moved to Lincolnton, returning to Augusta some time later to help a friend remodel a kitchen. Then, “somehow or another,” he got the job at the hotel, and later, eventually, everything else happened — he lost his sight and ended up homeless, sleeping on floors and in garages until he finally ended up at Garden City Rescue Mission on Fenwick Street.
When he first arrived, the staff was having a hard time replacing a water heater, so Hedglin sat in a chair and talked them through disconnecting the old one and hooking up the new one. That knowledge, combined with his inability to move confidently through the neighborhood, prompted Garden City to bend the rules a bit and allow him to stick around.
“Most of the time at the homeless shelter they make you leave,” he says. “Well — they didn’t make me leave. They turned me into a helper.”
He spent 30 days at Garden City. While he was there, he was directed to Walton Options, an advocacy and educational organization that focuses on providing support and services to people with all types of disabilities, and while working with a peer mentor, he learned about Action Ministries’ permanent supportive housing program, which helps put homeless people with disabilities into permanent housing.
Hedglin qualified for the program, and he’s been living in his own apartment at the Maxwell House since August 28 of last year. Not just living, but excelling. In fact, he recently won a dart tournament.
“I took the top of my cane, found where the target was, lined myself up and threw,” he says. “The first two times I threw I think I missed bad, but I lined myself up again and was fortunate enough to hit the target. The first time I played I came in third place and the second time I won.”
Hedglin’s happy ending was 94 days in the making and represents a success story not just for him, but for the network of organizations that exist to help homeless people and people with disabilities find happy endings of their own.
“That’s the way the system is supposed to work,” says Danielle Meyer, director of Augusta Housing Partnerships, one of two housing programs she manages within Action Ministries.
One agency, Meyer says, simply can’t do everything.
“We can’t do what Walton Options does as an agency and they can’t provide housing like we do,” she says. “But he was able to get to Garden City, he was able to get connections to Walton Options and Walton Options knew to send the referral over here to Action Ministries. That’s a beautiful dance that happened, and we want that to happen for a lot more folks.”
According to Tiffany Clifford, executive director of Walton Options, it’s all the different voices and experiences interacting with each other on a case by case basis that makes the dance so successful.
Walton’s peer support model ensures that the people seeking services are assisted by people with an intimate knowledge of the specific struggles they’re going through. By law, 51 percent of the staff has be people with disabilities.
“That’s what makes the peer model so unique, because I draw on the resources of my staff’s experiences and how they’ve connected within the community based on their personal and individual experiences with disability,” she says. “One person will know, in this case, about Action Ministries and what they provide, where another person might have more familiarity with the Salvation Army. As a team, we kind of jigsaw and weave all that together.”
Action Ministries’ permanent supportive housing program, sometimes referred to as shelter plus care, is designed for homeless individuals who have disabilities. In Hedglin’s case, he was screened by Action Ministries as well as Maxwell House’s property management. When he passed, he was able to get an apartment in his own name.
Financial support depends on the amount of disability they receive.
“As long as they’re maintaining the lease like any other individual in the building, they can remain in the program,” Meyer says.
The rewards are obvious, and not just to the individual with the disability. Clifford was reminded of how valuable independence can be when she talked to Hedglin in preparation for her interview for this story.
“I have never worked with him directly, however, I can tell you that I was one of the ones who took the call from him initially sometime last year, and when he first called he was still focused on the trauma that he had experienced,” she says. “The person I spoke with today was of a whole different mindset.”
Because each person is unique, Clifford says everything they do at Walton Options is based on helping people achieve their individual goals, whatever they might be.
“Sometimes people are so fresh in a situation or they are so deep in it that they don’t always realize the opportunities that are there,” she says. “Kind of like what I experienced with David today, once things start happening that neutralize the emergency part of it, they start acknowledging other ways to improve their quality of life.”
For Hedglin, those things include mobility training and aids like a talking watch, a special wallet with dividers to separate bills by denomination and a pedestrian GPS that gives him the ability to move around Augusta with confidence, all of which were provided by Walton Options.
“I’ll go across the street and get on the bus,” he says.
And getting on the bus allows him to get groceries, go to the Social Security office or anywhere else he decides to go.
Now in his fourth year of blindness, Hedglin insists he doesn’t let his situation get him down.
“I figured blindness was part of my program, my journey,” he says. “The first day I was totally blind, I lay there and I gave it deep thought. I could lay there and hurt from it, or I could feel the good things from it.”
Feel the good things? From being blind?
“I’m proud to be blind because eyes are such distractions,” he says. “I didn’t realize that until I went completely blind. It’s easier to be 100 percent you without your sight.
“I couldn’t tell you how I look because we, as humans, look in the mirror and we see ourselves,” he says. “I left my picture in the mirror.”
Though he knows his disability has come with a cost, he also knows that his training has relieved many of his worries.
“The only thing I have is what I remember,” he says. “My memory and what someone tells me — that’s all I have, and knowing this town so well takes away a lot of the anxieties you might have about being blind. Now, I don’t live with anxieties.”
And without the anxieties, Hedglin can concentrate on living.
“The thing about it — Action Ministries really made my life complete,” he says. “I didn’t ever think that I’d be homeless, and then all of a sudden I was, and when you’re homeless and you don’t have any money, you’re lost.”
He moves his head back and forth as if taking in his surroundings, which in his own way he is.
“But I’m not lost now.”