From living in a car to a house: Donors make homeless man's dream a reality

October 23, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

Instead of Delroy Matthews coming home to his 1984 Datsun yesterday, a house came to him, ending five years of homelessness.

In the dark yesterday morning, a Chase building and moving company arrived at Banneker Park in southwest Baltimore County to move a house to Mr. Matthews' property three-quarters of a mile away.

"I'm just so happy I don't know what to say," said Mr. Matthews, 42, who became homeless in 1989 when his grandmother's house in Oella -- across the Patapsco River from Ellicott City -- burned down, leaving him to live in a battered blue car most of the time since then.

When the movers were done, he didn't waste a minute removing plywood over the windows and doors. Inside for the first time, he marveled at the three bedrooms, the bathroom, laundry room, kitchen and living room.

Missing ceilings exposed tangles of pink insulation, and pieces of wood and plaster were strewn about each room. "It really didn't make me no difference what it look like," he said. "I just want to be like everyone else; to be able to go inside and watch TV."

That's different from what he'd been doing for the past five years while living in a car. "When it got dark before, there was nothing to do but sit there and look out. And I was drinking heavy then," he said.

This summer, the recovering alcoholic offered to do gardening at Banneker Park in exchange for the prefabricated house that the county owned, but had not been using.

County officials accepted the offer, but Mr. Matthews didn't think he would be able to raise the thousands of dollars needed to move the house to his property -- until readers of The Sun made his dream a reality.

His good fortune began when Joe Robertson, who runs Equipment Transport Inc., offered to move the 24-by-55-foot house at cost. After The Sun reported that, two anonymous readers offered to pay his costs -- between $1,500 and $1,800. Telling Mr. Matthews was memorable, Mr. Robertson said. "He was overwhelmed with joy. His voice got a little brighter."

The donors are expected to reimburse Mr. Robertson for supplies and to pay his eight-man crew. The crew, with two forklifts, two flatbed trucks, and about 250 wood beams, finished moving the two halves of the one-story house and placing them onto cement blocks in the yard by mid-afternoon. But Mr. Robertson will not mind if the donors don't come through. "There's no better feeling, really," than helping someone, he said.

The movers, Mr. Matthews and three friends got the first half of the house moved by 11:30 a.m., and the second half by 1:30 p.m. The job was "a little hairy" because the ground was soft, the terrain was hilly, and the house did not have metal underneath it.

Mr. Robertson spent the week rounding up workers, checking Banneker Park and Mr. Matthews' property three times, gathering oak blocks and beams, and filing papers for permits and insurance.

Meanwhile, Mr. Matthews chopped down two rotting apple trees, moved the car, and showed surveyors the property in anticipation of the big day.

"I been overjoyed, too overjoyed," he said. "I remember they brought the first piece down, and I thought it was going to tumble. I said, 'Oh, God!' I was all excited, and scared at certain points . . . but they knew what they was doing."

Since The Sun's first story Oct. 9 about Mr. Matthews' plight, about 50 people have given donations. Inside one envelope was a $100 money order. In the spot for the purchaser's signature the donor had scrawled in messy black pen, "from a friend."

Odessa T. White, 67, who knew Mr. Matthews' grandmother before he was born, also left a check for him. Strangers and friends alike offered a total of $2,300, $500 of which paid county surveyors, and $150 paid for a chain saw and fuel for it. The balance is in a fund for him at Mount Gilboa AME Church.

Donations also came in the form of services. Stephanie Porta of Troy B. Porta & Son, an Ellicott City concrete company, said, "I can't get him off my mind," so she offered to have a sidewalk put down for him. Another Ellicott City company offered windows and shingles.

Boots for Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that donates construction boots to men so they can get jobs, gave Mr. Matthews a new pair, size 8 1/2 . "Good luck!" Sherrill Nash, co-founder of the group, wrote on the box. "You're on your way."

Casey Willis, 49, thinks so, too. She was Mr. Matthews' English teacher when he was a junior in high school, and she spoke to him on the phone this month for the first time in about 15 years. "I remember him as a hard-working student who was trying to overcome a difficult time . . . really, a difficult background. . . . I think life dealt him some bad cards.

"He had gotten to the point where he didn't think people cared about him. I just told him, 'People really do care about you; all you really have to do is touch them.' "

Mr. Matthews said he sees that now. "You tell me God don't bless?" he said, as he sat in his new hallway. As soon as he gets a foundation permit, he will have the house moved by crane onto a permanent concrete foundation. Next, he plans to start his gardening work for the county. After the house is on the foundation, he will put up gray vinyl siding and burgundy shutters and clean the inside. He has also received a few job offers that he plans to pursue.

One of the only things that will stay the same for Mr. Matthews is that he will still cook outside on his potbellied stove, where the meat cooks more tender. "I wouldn't go back to cooking inside for nothing!" But he wants to wash some clothes in a washing machine that someone donated to him. "I ain't never had a laundry room!" he said.

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