When homelessness is around the corner, even the helpers can become helpless

Dion Wynne sits in a wheelchair in his furnished rental. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

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Dion Wynne drives slowly through Anchorage, heading to yet another appointment.

“This will be my third time going over there,” the middle-aged man says, his ringing phone cutting him off again.

Dion’s phone rings constantly. First, it’s the nurse, then the pharmacy. He juggles appointments with medical providers and social service agencies. And he’s one of the thousands of Alaskans each year who is on the brink of homelessness.

Dion’s life used to be filled with very different types of appointments.

“Barbecues, birthday parties. Several birthday parties with so many kids,” he says, chuckling to himself. “Birthday parties almost every month of the year, almost!”

Dion and his wife raised three biological children and dozens of foster kids. They ran a therapeutic foster home in Anchorage for eight years. He says at one point, they had 10 young people in their house. For most of his life he’s provided in-home care for people with disabilities.

“I believe that’s what God put me on this Earth for,” he says. “To take care of people. I took care of elderly and I took care of middle-aged people and I took care of kids.”

[Related: Changing what it means to be a foster parent]

Dion left the state for couple years for health reasons but returned in the spring of 2017 to continue working as an at-home health care provider. In early October he rented a large, furnished house in Anchorage for himself and his teenaged daughter, so he could start pursuing his foster care license again. That’s when the trouble began.

Dion’s doctor asked him to soak his foot because of a sore on the bottom, so he did. A few days later, “my leg stopped working. I passed out on the job twice. Didn’t know what was going on. Went to the doctor. He thought it was due to my diabetes, but it wasn’t.”

In mid-October, the day before he was due to move into his new home, he went to the hospital because of a serious infection in his foot and leg, and he stayed there for a month and a half. Doctors had to amputate his big toe.

“And then, when I got out of the hospital, I thought I was gonna be able to go back to work,” he said. “I wasn’t able to go back to work, so that that what put me in this situation.”

Dion can’t pay his rent. He burned through savings while he was in the hospital and was helping other family members. His long-term disability check isn’t enough, and he’s caring for his daughter.

For Dion, it’s not just his housing that’s at stake — it’s the additional income from his dream job of running a therapeutic home.

Dion isn’t alone. Health and safety-related incidents — like illnesses, deaths in the family, and car accidents — cause about a quarter of the cases of homelessness in Alaska.

He’s doing what he can to avoid joining that statistic, but he won’t be able to go back to work until he can easily walk again in a few weeks or months. For now, he’s enlisted the help of his nephew, Latrell Wynne. Latrell runs errands for him and makes sure he doesn’t fall when he does try to get around with his walker.

“I’m my uncle’s feet,” Latrell explains as walks across an icy parking lot to pick up some more of his uncle’s paperwork. “I’m doing all the moves — all the moving for him.”

For Latrell, the experience is strange. He’s used to seeing his uncle living in nice homes and caring for others. Usually Dion is the one looking out for him.

“This is the first time he hasn’t been independent. He’s normally doing things on his own,” Latrell says of his uncle. “It’s a whole ‘nother ball game. It’s a little bit harder.”

[Related: Alaskans are aging in Alaska, so now what?]

The situation frustrates Dion, too. He says he’s doing everything his physical therapist and nurse tell him to do. But healing — and asking for help — take time.

“I just want to get back to work,” he says. “I really want to get back to work, so I can pay my own way. That’s really what I want to do.”

Over the next few weeks on the Solutions Desk we’ll report on the resources and strategies available to Dion and others who are trying to keep their housing.

Have ideas on how to help? Leave them in the comments section or fill out the form here. Make sure you don’t miss any of Dion’s story by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or NPR.