MANATEE — In a two-month period, Betty Harrison lost her job, her car and her duplex apartment.
She spent the next year and a half living in the woods.
"It was rough. It was cold and I didn’t have a tarp or anything,” she said.
Walter Bessent is another local resident who fell past every safety net and ended up on the street.
Harrison and Bessent have a couple of things in common, in addition to their descent into homelessness.
Both are mending their lives through the Bill Galvano One Stop Center at 701 17th Ave. W., Bradenton.
And both received bicycles from the first Tour de Ranch cycling event last May.
“That bike sure saved my life. I had blisters on my feet from walking back and forth every day,” Harrison said.
“It’s a Roadmaster with a headlight and a taillight and it’s like brand-new,” she said.
Bessent said the lack of transportation never kept him from getting anywhere on time. He just had to start earlier to get there.
But he is grateful for the bike.
“It makes a big difference,” Bessent said.
Judi DeWalt, who owns Natural Discoveries stores in Lakewood Ranch and St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, came up with the idea of a cycling benefit last year after she heard how the area’s homeless often have no way to get to a job or appointment, unless they walk.
That first Tour collected 88 bikes that were distributed to local homeless people.
The homeless population in Manatee-Sarasota is now estimated at 1,500, according to Richard Martin, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.
With the prolonged economic downturn, a new class of homeless people has emerged, said Martha Childress, One Stop coordinator.
Some still have a few pieces of jewelry when they show up at the One Stop Center, which Childress calls “ground zero for homeless people.”
She sees the doubt and fear in their eyes and tries to get to them right away.
“I let them know it’s OK to ask for help,” Childress said. “These are people who have done everything right. They went to school. They went to work on time. And they still ended up homeless.”
Childress was happy to hear that there will be a second Tour de Ranch on April 24, and that organizers are hopeful they will be able to collect twice as many bikes as last year.
“Think about having to walk everywhere you go and carry all your belongings with you,” Childress said of the daily struggles of homeless people.
The gift of bikes created a buzz in the homeless community, she said.
“I’m asked a million times a day about them,” Childress said. “They asked, ‘Where did those bikes come from?’ They could hardly believe how nice they were.”
Childress recalled the joy on the face of one of the clients who received a bike.
“The air around him just crackled. It makes your hair raise up to see that,” Childress said.
Harrison and Bessent still have those bikes and use them to travel to and from the One Stop Center daily, where they donate their time helping others.
Harrison said her life has gotten incrementally better. She went from being in the woods with nothing, to receiving a tarp from a church group, to finally getting a tent.
She first came to the One Stop Center to shower, and then began volunteering as a bathroom monitor. After a few weeks, she was moved to the laundry room for six months, and then finally to the collection point for donations, a place they call the “bat cave.”
“Praise God for this place. We would have no place to go without it,” Harrison said.
Harrison has since moved out of the woods and has a roof over her head. She has lined up a job with Volunteers of America and is hopeful that she will be able to eventually get her own place with the help of federal Section 8 housing subsidy program.
Bessent says he has stabilized his life with the help of One Stop and is now living with a cousin.
“This place has helped me so much,” Bessent said.
To register for Tour de Ranch or for more information, visit http://tourderanch.us.
For more information about the One Stop Center, visit http://tinyurl.com/ycfw6un.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.