Down and out in Orlando: A homeless couple near the lap of luxury
Ray Forthuber, 54, looks for one of his many benefactors along Park Ave. in Winter Park, Florida, Friday, September 28, 2012. Ray and his wife Sally, 69, are homeless, living out of their car with their two dogs, Abbey and Jeb. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
ORLANDO, Fla. — They linger at a sidewalk table on Winter Park’s Park Avenue — he in a French-blue dress shirt, tan slacks and snakeskin boots; she in a silver halter dress with pixieish, strawberry-blond hair and a fragilely thin frame.
With them, as always, are their “children,” a lanky, vigilant hound and an exuberant Shih Tzu-poodle pup.
“We are a colorful attraction here on Park Avenue,” Raymond Forthuber admits. “But I’m sorry — it’s not what I set out to do.”
They may spend their days chatting up passers-by, debating the state of humanity, sipping coffee and puffing cigarettes with the exaggerated manner of movie stars from a bygone era. And when they are freshly showered and sharply dressed, which is often, they may be mistaken for eccentrics or artists.
But they are not.
Raymond, 54, and wife Sally, 69, are homeless.
And for six months they have lived, more or less, in this most unlikely of places: amid the rich, trendy and powerful of Park Avenue.
They’re an $11,000-a-year Social Security couple in an $111,000-average-household-income city.
“Where am I supposed to be, begging at Lake Eola?” says Ray, indignantly. “I grew up in Winter Park. This is my home. And Sally loves it here.”
But the love has not always been mutual.
Evicted from a garage
Kellie Strawley, a 29-year-old jewelry maker who works at the Morse Museum along Park Avenue, first noticed them last spring.
When she arrived for work each morning, they would be in the spot next to hers in the parking garage, Sally and Ray and dogs Jeb and Abbey all curled up in the couple’s peeling 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis.
“At first I wasn’t sure whether they were homeless, but then I got the impression that something was up, and a lot of other people who work on Park Avenue started talking about them, like, ‘Are those people OK?’ But eventually I just started talking to them, and I tried to help.”
Yes, Ray was odd, what with his penchant for dressing like Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp, but he also struck her as brilliant. He could quote the Bible and Jack Kerouac with equal ease, and he could captivate a crowd of strangers with historic tales of the Civil War.
Strawley began calling shelters, churches, charities — anyone who might take them in or offer aid. Some of the shelters had long waiting lists. Others said they had room, but that Sally would have to stay in one facility and Ray in another. No one would take the dogs.
And Ray and Sally weren’t going anywhere without them.
“They’re very, very nice, and since the summer (was) excruciatingly hot, I don’t know how they managed to stay so nice,” Strawley says. “But I didn’t have any money, so there wasn’t much else I could do.”
After a while, a few of the garage’s regular patrons began to complain, and the aging Grand Marquis and its occupants were evicted. For a few weeks, the family found a new temporary home in the parking garage for Rollins College, at Park Avenue’s southern end.
But then they were evicted from there, too.
By that point, it was the dead of summer and they were in a car with power windows that didn’t work, no functioning air conditioner and leaking brakes — a car that averaged 17 miles per gallon in its prime. At night, they would park beside the town’s golf course, doors open, trying to catch a few winks between the intrusions of passing trains.
‘That isn’t the story’
“Raymond, please!” Sally interrupts. Her husband of 31 years is recounting the sad confluence of events he blames for their predicament: how he lost his job as a tour bus driver in the early days of the recession. How the College Park farmhouse they rented for years became riddled with mold, making them both sick. And how an aggressive skin cancer on Ray’s face led to expensive surgery when he had no health insurance.
His unemployment had run out in April 2010, and they watched their savings slowly evaporate, until all they had left were Sally’s monthly Social Security checks: $900 and change, a large cut of which always went to the steep fees of payday lenders. There was never enough to save for rent or security deposits.
“Raymond, that isn’t the story,” Sally persists. “You know, how you are oriented to life will determine whether you even recognize the opportunities. Otherwise, life gets stinky. And everybody has stinky from time to time. But this story is about what we have received despite this.”
There were the Winter Park police officers who brought them food for their dogs. The merchants who offered them something to eat. The investor who occasionally gave them money. The museum director’s wife who helped Ray print his resume. And there was Sally’s sister-in-law, who sent enough for a week’s stay in a cheap motel, where they could bathe and rest.
But some of those trying to help the couple were baffled.
Every suggestion she made, each job opportunity she found was met with resistance or excuses, says Winter Park police Officer Lina Strube, who works in the community-services division.
“They’re very sweet people; they’re honest; they’ve not had any criminal complaints about them,” Strube says. “But I just felt like everything had to be on their terms. I said, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.’ “
Others suggested they had worn out their welcome on the avenue and it was time to move on.
But Charles Lyon, the 37-year-old securities director for a Fortune 500 global financial services company, has had sympathy — and the occasional contribution. From his office two floors above Park Avenue, he has seen the couple come and go, growing thinner and wearier as the months wore on. Some days, he would have long, philosophical chats with Ray.
“Ray talks about it being a slow form of insanity to not sleep well night after night — and I can certainly imagine that,” Lyon says. “The course of our conversations has depended on how much difficulty Ray has had sleeping. But, unfortunately, what they need now is a sort of reset button.”
Once, he asked Ray what it would take for the couple to regain stability, for Ray to get a job and afford a place to live, to which Ray answered: “A place to live.” It was like an existential riddle.
“But it has been a long time since he has had stability,” Lyon adds. “And I think sometimes you get to a spot where it becomes incredibly difficult to turn things around.”
By late September, Sally and Ray had found a place to park each night across from a church.
Both had grown raw and contentious from street life — Ray launching into a rant when a policeman asks him politely to move his car, Sally complaining that her husband had failed her, that this was never where she was supposed to end up in life. Her teeth are falling out now. She has early signs of congestive heart failure.
“You can’t walk around dressing like Wyatt Earp and expect people from Heathrow and Maitland to hire you,” she says. “Would it kill Ray to put on a pair of khakis and oxfords and apply for a job?”
“I’ve got to get off this train,” she says one night. “I’m done.”
But, eventually, she settles down, Ray puts out the dogs’ food, and they open the car doors to stretch their legs, falling into a fitful slumber.
Diana McLaughlin, a 56-year-old real estate agent who works on Park Avenue specializing in high-end listings, had a co-worker point them out one morning.
“You see that couple with the dogs?” the woman said. “They’re homeless.”
McLaughlin almost cried at the sight. Sally, in particular, looked emaciated.
After that, McLaughlin began to notice them regularly. Surely, she thought, someone would take pity on them and take them in. But weeks passed and no one did.
A few weekends ago, McLaughlin was leaving church and saw them again.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she told herself.
She approached the couple and invited them to her Maitland townhome for a meal, a shower and the chance to do some laundry and get a little rest.
The respite turned into days, then weeks. Clearly Ray and Sally had found their long-sought sanctuary.
“How can I ask them to leave?” McLaughlin says. “People have said, ‘But you don’t know them. They could kill you in your sleep!’ But we are all God’s children.”
Yet they are bonded by more than humanity.
The recession has been particularly unkind to high-end real estate agents. In all of 2011, McLaughlin earned $7,000 in commission. So far this year, she has earned $19,000. Despite moonlighting for a cleaning service and baby-sitting and even painting houses, she fell behind in dues to her townhome association.
That led to fines and attorney fees and ultimately, after 17 years of living there, foreclosure proceedings.
Sooner or later, she, too, will be forced out.
“As long as I have a place, I’m going to help them,” McLaughlin says. “But that may be only another 30 days.”
©2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HOMELESSCOUPLE