He was a homeless senior citizen with a dust mop of a dog, sharing his hopelessness with two drug abusers in a Bloomington motel. Before it was over, the dog, Baby, was missing and his bank account drained.
When I wrote about Mike Heath a couple of weeks ago, calls and e-mails poured in. Scores of readers offered to pay the reward for Baby’s return. Others offered money for Heath. People rarely respond to run-of-the-mill stories about homeless people, but Heath had a cute “service” or companion dog that gave him comfort. He also mentioned in passing that he was a veteran.
The past couple of weeks reveal that compelling stories can also be complicated stories, particularly when they involve people suffering from addiction or perhaps, in Heath’s case, hints of dementia. Truth is a slippery concept on the streets.
One anonymous caller, who seemed to know Heath, claimed he was not a veteran. The woman who took Heath’s dog told police that she, Heath and another man had used drugs or alcohol together at the motel. Everyone involved, it seems, was a poor witness.
It didn’t matter to Bloomington police, who put commendable effort into investigating the case. Mike Hartley, the city’s deputy police chief, said detectives checked video footage and contacted other law enforcement agencies to locate the suspect, a prostitute and addict who is now in treatment. She admitted taking the dog and giving it to an unknown person in south Minneapolis.
Baby is still missing.
“We’re not really concerned about substance abuse or whether he lied about being a veteran,” said Hartley. “We were concerned about the [theft]. We would have to prove he never gave her permission to take the dog. I don’t see an opportunity for charges.”
I wondered how a 69-year-old man ended up with people who have significant criminal histories.
“Loneliness is a human emotion, even connected people feel it,” said Monica Nilsson, director of human engagement for St. Stephen’s Human Services. “For those who are disconnected by depression or not having a sense of place or community, they yearn to belong somewhere, to some group. Some will belong to a community under a bridge, taking turns begging on a corner and pooling the money.”
I felt Heath’s isolation when I called to challenge him on the details of his story. He momentarily put the phone down and I could hear him say to himself, “Well, I just lost another friend.”
“The fact he considers you a friend after meeting you twice shows his isolation,” Nilsson said.
On Thursday, I began writing a pretty depressing story about fuzzy, unreliable facts, a lonely homeless man who admits to memory problems and a dog that’s still missing.
I called Heath to ask again if he was a vet (he maintains he is; it’s difficult to independently verify) and another man answered Heath’s phone, someone who had called me after the column ran. He insists on anonymity, so let’s call him “Sam,” as in good Samaritan.
Sam was sucked in by the stolen dog, but after meeting Heath he knew he couldn’t walk away. Sam found Heath and paid his hotel bill. The retiree then began to negotiate the social services system. He found Heath a homeless advocate. On Friday, he took Heath to a shelter with a new backpack and some snacks. He scheduled a mental health evaluation at the Salvation Army for next week. Working with a social worker, Heath gave permission to Sam to act in his behalf.
I had written that Heath needed a new heart valve. Sam has scheduled a pre-op for next week and surgery the week after, likely saving Heath’s life.
“Whether he served his country or not, he was a homeless man who lost his dog,” said Sam, who had a good professional job before retiring. “He was spiraling into a worse and worse situation and he was in danger. I had the ability to do something.”
After spending two weeks near Heath, Sam doesn’t think he is a drug abuser.
Asked what motivated him to help, Sam said: “Altruism is hard-wired.”
Independent of Sam, another woman started a fundraiser for Heath. The two found each other, and now the considerable money raised through an Internet site will help pay for Heath’s health costs and essentials, coordinated by Sam.
Sam still is not giving up on finding Baby, or forgetting about the others. “Mike is just one of thousands, so I don’t feel very good about all of this,” Sam said. “So many more need help.”
Nilsson said Heath’s guardian angels did the right thing. Instead of simply enabling his life trajectory by giving him money, they directed him to professionals and got him into a system with some hope of long-term stability, while keeping some contact with him.
“It’s easier to have things be black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, but life is gray, messy,” said Nilsson. “Even the documented homeless veterans can be seen as a hero and a bum on the same day.”
More important, like Baby, the concerned citizens did not judge Heath.
“A dog doesn’t decide who is deserving or undeserving of care,” said Nilsson. “A dog doesn’t know if you have a chemical dependency, if your childhood trauma or mental illness hasn’t been addressed. Maybe it’s time we start treating people like dogs treat people.”