On the streets of downtown Tampa sat John Helinski. Lying cold and helpless with a cardboard box for a bed, it seemed no one would ever notice him or give him a chance. Then the unimaginable happened...
The Sunshine State
The Tampa Bay area in Florida has been battling a homelessness problem for many years. Almost every year, the region is reported to have one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.
For the majority, there's unfortunately no happy ending, as they have little hope of finding a way off the streets. However, for one Tampa street resident, there was a surprising light ahead. This is one man's incredible story of hope, kindness, tenacity, and a whole bucket full of luck...
An American Dream
John Helinski was born in Poland. Like many before him, he packed up his life and set off to America, holding onto The American Dream - the belief that anyone, regardless of race, economic status, or background, can make their way to the top of a capitalist society.
He settled in Tampa, Florida, and began to search for a job and somewhere to live. Full of hope, he was determined to make a life for himself that would be better than the one he had had in Poland. Maybe, if he made enough money, he could even send some back home to his family.
Sadly, his dream of making it big in the United States of America quickly proved to be a far-off reality. As an immigrant, he was already struggling, constantly being discriminated against because of his citizenship status. Unable to find work, sixty-two-year-old John was forced into homelessness.
It was here, on the streets of Tampa, where things then took a turn for the worse. His identification records which he kept on him, were all stolen. Now left with none of the necessary paperwork and no way to prove his rights to work, John lost all hope of escaping the streets.
A Different Reality
For many, Tampa Bay in Florida is a safe, peaceful, and affordable place to live. With its thriving business park, highly-rated museums, the famous amusement park Busch Gardens and buzzing nightlife, it's an incredibly popular city. Niche.com ranks it as the 39th best city in America to live.
However, behind the scenes of this seemingly prosperous city lies a whole other world. The homeless population of Tampa is not enjoying the white sandy beaches and tourist attractions; they're fighting daily to survive. With limited spots in homeless centers and food kitchens, many have no source of rescue.
Managing On His Own
Unable to access any help or assistance, John settled into life on the streets with just his backpack and shoes. With no family or friends, he was forced to fend for himself. "I just managed on my own… I remember having a cardboard box and sleeping by the bus stop," he told ABC Action News.
He was alone every day and night and was forced to sleep in a cardboard box, even on the coldest of nights. It was not the life he had dreamed of, but he had no idea where he could go for help. Were there any places that could offer him a bed? He didn't know if he had any options...
Invisible To The Public
Like many other homeless people, John had no choice but to beg the public for their spare change. Any money he was given, he used to buy food or some warm socks that would get him through another day. However, the residents of Tampa did not often hand over their money to him or the others on the streets.
In fact, with the number of homeless people in Tampa on the rise, the street residents began to blend into their surroundings and were hardly noticed by passers-by. "I'd be underneath the benches there, and no one would see me," John sadly told ABC Action News. This would be his reality for three long years.
The situation was even more difficult for John because of his identity theft. Not only was he invisible to the public, but he was also unable to prove his identity to anyone that might potentially help him. With no record of who he was or where he came from, he quickly fell through the cracks of the aid system.
Because he was born outside of America, accessing additional copies of these documents was an even more complex process. To make this possible, he would need help from someone in a high position. However, these were not the people he was meeting on the streets.
Running Out of Hope
Helinski was utterly hopeless at this point. He was hungry, cold, tired, and dirty - and this was not the life he had dreamed of back in Poland. Was The American Dream ever going to be attainable? When he pictured his future, all he could see was the streets of Tampa.
For one moment, he allowed himself to dream of one day having his own home, a warm bed, and a full stomach. Snapping back into reality, he realized if he were to make this happen, he would need to act now. So he began to search harder than ever before for some assistance.
All John needed and wanted at this point was a bed. Somewhere warm and clean to sleep for the night so he could wake up refreshed and ready to take on life. After he had some sleep, he would be able to start forming a plan. Walking around the area, he faced some rejection but was unwilling to give up.
Finally, he came across the Community Housing Solutions Center in the Hillsborough Country area of Tampa. After hearing his story, they told him about DACCO - their new local hostel for homeless people. John waited anxiously as they looked into their bed availability.
Established in 2015, DACCO provides accommodation for homeless men and women. According to Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative's Chief Executive Officer Antoinette Triplett, their goal is "to reduce the number of people who experience homelessness, and also the length of time people experience homelessness."
Now rebranded under the umbrella company of Cove Behavioral Health, they "provide a safe and secure environment to help residents obtain housing and employment." The staff provides the residents with food, accommodation, onsite vocation counseling, life skills classes, and additional support services.
A Vicious Cycle
There was no way John could have known how this organization would come to change his life around entirely. For now, though, it was just a bed and somewhere safe to be. Before anything life-changing would come to be, there would be plenty of stumbling blocks along the way.
Although the center confirmed that they did have a spare bed for John, they required him to prove his identity first. Without these documents, they would not be able to offer him the space. In a true catch-22, he needed the center's help to access this paperwork. It was a vicious cycle he could not escape.
In what was seemingly John's first stroke of luck in a while, one case worker at the center took a liking to John and decided to help him with his case. Charles Inman did not have it in his heart to send the helpless man back onto the streets and promised to see what he could do for him.
Although he wasn't technically allowed to do so, Charles decided to make an exception to the rules and allowed him to stay for the night. The following day, the pair would sit down and begin to investigate his case. Charles was hopeful he would be able to help.
More Bad News
However, they would soon discover that John's case was a lot more complicated than they initially thought. Not only were his documents lost, but on top of that, John's origin story was missing details. Although Helinski was born in Poland, he was a U.S. citizen because his mother was. How would they manage to prove this?
"This situation looked really difficult, and I wasn't sure how it was going to end up," Inman recalled. They racked their brains on what would be the next possible steps. "He needed to have an identification, but we couldn't get an identification without a birth certificate," he told ABC.
“No Other Option Than To Succeed”
However complicated the situation looked, Charles was not one to give up without a fight. "There was no other option than to succeed," he told ABC Action News. "You know, the thought of putting a 62-year-old man back on the street wasn't acceptable."
Charles Inman was not willing to give up just yet. He was determined to get John's life back up and running. Knowing this case was anything but usual, he knew he would need the help of an expert to make it happen. Luckily, he knew just the man to call.
Homeless Liaison Officers
In 2012, the Tampa Florida Police Department set up its task force of Homeless Liaison officers. Since its establishment, the unit has helped countless homeless subjects transition from the street to successful housing options as the officers help them find solutions to end their homeless situation.
This unit is made up of two police officers who work full-time directly with the homeless people of Tampa. The unit's funding is used to purchase clothing for job interviews, purchase bus passes to attend job interviews/medical appointments, and relocate homeless subjects to other states/jurisdictions.
Calling For Backup
At the time that John's case came about, Officer Charles McDonald was on duty. Working as a Homeless Liaison Officer for many years, he had become an expert at dealing with issues such as these. Immediately after receiving the call from Charles and hearing John's story, he drove over to DACCO to see how he could help.
"As a homeless liaison officer, the bread and butter of my work often involves hopping department to department trying to help homeless people find the ID they need in order to get things like work and housing," McDonald told ABC Action News. "I like a challenge," he said.
McDonald had seen all sorts of cases over the course of his career, so he understood the correct steps that needed to be taken. Reviewing all of John's information, he began to create a step-by-step plan which he believed would help him to get off the streets.
"First, I drove him personally to the local tax collector's office, where he was able to get a temporary State of Florida ID card," McDonald explained. This would then enable the team to start the process of formalizing John's citizenship. What was the next step?
A Consular Record
According to the U.S. Embassy, "A Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) is evidence of United States citizenship issued to a child born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents who meet the requirements for transmitting citizenship under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)."
With John's mother having U.S. citizenship and giving birth to him outside of the U.S., they were confident he would have met the criteria to receive this document. After finally figuring out that they needed a consular record, they then had to find a way of actually getting one.
Back Into Society
Once the consular record was in their hands, the plan could continue. Officer McDonald and Charles escorted John to the necessary offices where he could process his driver's license and social security card. For the first time in three years, John Helinski was finally able to prove his identity.
Talking to ABC Action News, John discussed the work and efforts of his case officer, Charles Inman. "He went beyond the call of duty!" he told them. Because of this kind caseworker, John was no longer invisible. He had been effectively brought back into society. Now it was time to reap its benefits...
Social Security Services
"With his consular birth certificate and temporary ID, we went to the Social Security office, and I just walked up to them and said, 'This man used to have benefits, can you help us?'" McDonald said. As far as John understood, the benefits he had once received had been canceled.
Inputting John's social security number into the system, the officer began to look into John's case to see what services he could offer the man. After a suspenseful few minutes, where the worker looked at his computer intensely, he finally looked at John's team with a stunned face. What was going on?
The Moment of Truth
In a shocking turn of events, the worker could not believe what he was reading. Looking at John's file, it seemed he had been receiving the social security benefits all this time. "He just wasn't aware because he lost his debit card and had no access to his bank account," McDonald said.
However, where was this money being collected? The social security worker had told John they were available and waiting for him in his bank account, but as far as John was aware, he didn't have a bank account. Looking into the matter further, they uncovered what had taken place.
A New Identity
When John had first moved to America, he had set himself a social security number and organized to receive the associated benefits. The bank he had opened his account with was Landmark Bank in Tampa. However, over the years, the fund had seemingly 'disappeared.'
In fact, though, it had not disappeared. Instead, the bank's name had simply changed, and Helinski had not been aware of this. "It was Landmark Bank, and then it became Bank of America," John explained to ABC Action News, now understanding what had taken place a few years prior.
Assessing the Situation
It's likely that because John had assumed the account didn't have much money in it, he hadn't bothered to look into the matter when the financial institution seemed to no longer exist. With the chaotic situation of living on the streets, the entire thing had managed to slip his mind.
Even now, when the social security office had informed him that there were some social security pension benefits waiting for him in his bank account, he wasn't hopeful about its value. How much could it be already? And could it really be enough to turn his life around?
Securing the Savings
After hearing the news, McDonald and Helinski quickly drove over to the bank in question to investigate the matter further. After handing in John's documents, they could not contain their excitement when the bank manager confirmed the account's existence.
Now that John had temporary forms of identification, he was able to access the account and uncover its value. Sure enough, over the years, the benefits had accumulated to produce a noteworthy amount. "I think we were both stunned, not quite sure what to say," Officer McDonald recalled to ABC Action News.
A Promising Path
While John remained tight-lipped over the account's actual sum, by the reactions of McDonald and Helinski, it seemed clear that the amount was enough to set John down a prosperous and hopeful path. It was a solid foundation that he could build off to create a life for himself.
With these two 'guardian angels' by his side, John was hopeful for the first time in a very long time. John would still need their help to turn this newfound fortune into a sustainable life. McDonald's and Inman's work had just begun, but with this money to work with, it was a solid start.
A Place To Call Home
The first thing on the agenda was to move John out of the homeless center and into his own home. Thankfully with the money in his account, this was now possible. "He has the money now to move into his own home," McDonald excitedly told ABC. "He deserves it. He's a very good, sweet, and genuine man."
The police officer then explained that John's monthly pension payments in his account would be sufficient to pay rent on a small apartment. Furthermore, and most importantly, it would be enough for him to afford food without having to work. Finally, things were looking up.
A Bright Future
For the first time since he had arrived in the country, John was hopeful about his future. Rather than before, when he could not picture himself leaving the streets, he now was confident he could make something more of his life. The options felt endless.
“I guess I’m exhilarated, excited, you know,” Helinski told ABC Action News. The life he'd once dared to dream had now become a reality, thanks to the kindness of these helpful strangers. His future, which had once seemed so bleak and hopeless, was now bright and hopeful.
Power of Kindness
There is an inspirational message of kindness that can be gleaned from this story. Charles Inman and Officer McDonald dedicated their lives to helping others -- and not just helping the elite members of society but also those on the sidelines who wouldn't have access to these resources without them.
Their dedication to giving John a better life serves as a message to all that there is no limit to how far kindness can go. Refusing to give up, even when the case in front of them was full of complications, their generosity directly resulted in a whole new life for John.
While many disapprove of the work of the police force throughout cities, users hailed Officer McDonald and the Homeless Liaison unit as uniformed heroes doing their bit to help the community and using their uniform for good. And perhaps with good reason.
"We're uniformed cops with police cars, but we want homeless people to trust us," McDonald said. "Our job is not to arrest someone. It's to help them. Homeless people are still accountable to the law, but they're now starting to see we can be trusted, and this new model and field of policing is gaining popularity very quickly."
That all being said, while the power of kindness did help to turn John's life around in a way he couldn't have imagined, perhaps another component was in place. John's stroke of good luck might also explain how his story turned up differently from others in his situation.
If John hadn't turned up to the homeless center that day and Charles had not been the caseworker on duty, things could have worked out very differently. Luckily, the once-struggling immigrant was given a second chance at life. And we hope he can finally fulfill that American Dream of his…