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'I've stood with a sign all day and made nothing'

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Venice DiMartino met Craig Dennis years ago, when he was a regular at the casino where she worked. So when she saw him on a Federal Way street corner last October, she stopped and offered him a place to stay.

Craig had been homeless for months, living on the streets and in the woods around Federal Way, surviving on food stamps, free community suppers and the unpredictable generosity of strangers.

Venice has a host of her own medical and financial problems, but she’s organized, deliberate and persistent, with a direct gaze and a wry sense of humor. Craig is mild-tempered, but gets frustrated with bureaucracy and tends to throw up his hands in despair when he hits a wall. Venice offers encouragement, talks to agency staff on his behalf, prods him to keep at it. If she wasn’t there to walk him through the process, she said, he’d most likely be in the same place he was six months ago. He agrees.

Craig filed for bankruptcy in early 2000, but he was only two or three payments from paying it off when his house burned down in July 2001. It was a terrible loss, but his insurance policy covered the structure, the replacement of his things, and loss of use, which would cover the cost of temporary housing until his house was rebuilt.

Little did he know the second catastrophe was lurking inside him.

Little did he know the second catastrophe was lurking inside him.

Craig had a minor accident at Boeing: A commercial door closed on the upper part of his leg, he said, and the deep bruising injury formed a large blood clot. Shortly after his house burned down, part of the clot broke off.

He said he doesn’t remember what happened, but his co-workers told him later he went ashen and collapsed. When he woke up at Valley Medical several days later, nurses told him they were moving him out of intensive care.

His insurance agent called him at the hospital to tell him he needed to pick a contractor to do the work on his house. Craig said he wasn’t in a position to do that at the moment, but said he’d get to it soon. When he got back to work, he asked around and settled on a contractor who sounded good.

Shortly after that, he was laid off.

House gone and penniless, he heads for the streets

Any one thing would be a significant setback for anyone. That Craig was hit with all three in a six-month period was devastating. He tried to keep it all straight while he paid off his bankruptcy and recovered from the stroke. He responded to requests for information related to the fire, and waited for Boeing to recall him.

Progress lagged on his house, and Craig grew impatient with Safeco’s investigation. On Oct. 8, 2001, he e-mailed a complaint.

“They should have started work on my house by now and should have settled on my contents by now. I only have six months on my full replacement and they have used approximately 3 months so far,” he wrote. “They are not trying to settle this in good faith.”

On Oct. 10, Safeco confirmed they had received his complaint, and on the 16th, they sent a letter stating that because he’d filed for bankruptcy, the claim might have to be submitted to the bankruptcy estate. “This is an issue you will need to address with the bankruptcy trustee directly,” the letter said.

The next day, Safeco sent a letter to the office of the state insurance commissioner, where Craig also filed a complaint. The insurance company stated it had received Craig’s inventory in August 2001, but it was incomplete. Because of some inconsistencies, Safeco wanted to schedule an examination under oath.

The clock was ticking.

The contractor notified Safeco by letter that he could start work on Craig’s house in November, and Craig passed along a check from Safeco to his mortgage lender. Meanwhile, Craig contacted his Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee, who confirmed the estate had no interest in Craig’s insurance money, and a hearing was scheduled in November for the examination under oath.

Unfortunately, the ball didn’t roll fast enough, and Craig’s time ran out.

In January 2002, Safeco sent a letter stating “delays in construction of your home have not been the result of fire damage or delays on our part. As such, we will not be extending your loss of use coverage past January 31, 2002.”

Craig hired an attorney, moved out of the apartments where he’d been staying since the house fire and into a motel, where he racked up thousands of dollars in hotel bills. He still expected to be reimbursed.

But after Safeco agreed to extend his loss-of-use for a month, his lawyer dropped him.

He was out of luck.

Craig moved in with his elderly mother in Federal Way. His credit was ruined and his life was falling apart, but he didn’t sign up for public assistance or medical coverage. “I kept hoping Boeing would recall me,” he said.

In March 2005, when his family decided it was time to put his mother into an assisted-living facility, Craig found a tent and headed for the streets. “I was homeless shortly after that,” he said.

He slept under overhangs at a Lutheran church and a library in Federal Way from March to May, then took up residence in a homeless camp with a couple friends.

Other homeless people directed him to the state Department of Social and Health Services office in Federal Way, where he signed up for food stamps and general assistance-unemployable (GA-U) benefits.

He had a hard time figuring out the system and soon grew distracted by hunger. Even with food stamps, he couldn’t get enough to eat. He resorted to standing on street corners panhandling for change.

“You try to use food stamps every other day to make them last. You supplement that with someone giving you a sandwich, or a church dinner,” he said. “This thing about homeless people making $40,000 a year is a joke. I’ve stood outside with a sign all day and made nothing.”

He said he continued trying to clear up the misunderstandings with Safeco but, eventually, his claims agent transferred to another office and he became more concerned with survival.

As the days grew shorter and wetter, Craig settled into his home in the woods with a couple friends and a suitcase filled with molding papers: The 27-page list of his personal belongings he said Safeco never replaced, a copy of his insurance policy, copies of receipts from Wal-Mart and the King Oscar, his contract with Cobble Court, and every letter from attorneys, the bankruptcy court, the contractor and Safeco.

A year after the fire, Safeco finally sent him an $8,000 check for his personal belongings. He believes he had coverage for up to $79,000, and Venice said that’s what he should have gotten. Craig never cashed the check, so Safeco sent it to the state as unclaimed cash.

Some reasons to feel better about life

Despite the frustration, Craig seemed optimistic at the Barnes and Noble Cafe in Federal Way two days after last Christmas last year.

“I have some good news,” he announced over the coffee shop clatter. “Santa’s not dead!”

Several weeks earlier, Craig had written in scratchy letters a list of names: Mike, Blaine, Bob, Rick, John and Santa. The list recalled a Jim Carroll poem: These were the names of his friends who had died.

But in late December, Craig beamed, someone had seen Santa walking around. They thought he’d died after he’d been severely beaten at camp with a baseball bat, but he’d just found a place to lie low while he recuperated.

Venice’s stopping that day last October was like someone tossing Craig a rope.

Her mobile home is warm and safe, an address he can use on applications, and a phone number with which he can make and receive calls about assistance.

The stability of her home has afforded him the opportunity to attend to his medical conditions. He signed up for Medicaid, which covers a prescription for a blood thinner to try to reduce the clot in his leg and stave off any more strokes, plus monthly blood tests to make sure the dose is right.

Venice encouraged Craig to apply for his VA benefits — he’s a Vietnam War-era veteran — but his DD 214 Form, which shows he was honorably discharged, burned up in the house fire. He requested a copy, but –– ironically and somewhat bitterly –– the records building in St. Louis, Mo. where the original was kept also burned down a few years ago.

Venice also suggested he call Boeing to see about getting a disability retirement, which would allow him to collect his full pension. Sitting at Barnes and Noble, with the whirl and spin of the cafe around him, Craig shrugged his shoulders and said okay.

Craig spent last Christmas with Venice, her son and her son’s girlfriend. He used some of his meager income — GA-U benefits of $399 a month and $85 a month in food stamps — to buy a small ham, which he cooked.

Venice said that while Craig was preparing the ham, his leg became so swollen they had to take him to the doctor. The physician agreed the swelling was bad and sent him in for an ultrasound. That’s when Craig found out the clot is permanent. He’d always thought it would go away eventually.

Craig’s spirit was up last month because he found out he’ll be getting more than he expected from his Boeing pension — thanks to the call Venice pushed him to make — but he was disappointed to learn he wouldn’t be getting a check until April.

He was on the verge of getting his own place in the mobile home park where Venice lives, but again, he was frustrated by the situation with Safeco.

Craig insists he didn’t sign a lease when he stayed at the apartments, but $1,300 for three months of rent — for which he expected to be reimbursed — was reported as damage. Craig doesn’t understand why, and because it was so long ago, the apartment management company won’t give him a copy of the lease that explains what the damage was. They want him to take it up with collections so he can start making payments.

Meanwhile, all Venice’s mobile home park management knows is that he has a rental ding on his credit report, and that could keep them from renting to him.

Encouragement and frustration

Venice encourages Craig not to give up, but though she’s patient and generous, she gets frustrated when he hits a wall, shuts down and stops trying.

“Followthrough is difficult,” she said. “He gets really upset easily when I’m pushing him to do things. I want to say, ‘Craig, you’ve had five years to deal with this.’”

She suspects the strokes are responsible for Craig’s apparent inability to follow through.

“He just can’t do it,” she said. When he gets frustrated, she related, “he goes outside and has a cigarette. And has another cigarette, and has another cigarette.”

It’s hard for her having a housemate in small quarters. His smoking aggravates his emphysema, which makes him cough until he gags. And there’s still something of the survival mentality lurking in his sense of well-being.

“He still eats like he doesn’t know if he’s going to get his next meal,” Venice said. “I can’t wait until he gets on his feet financially. This Safeco thing is so mixed up.”

Craig and Venice believe if he could get the money they feel Safeco owes him, he’d be able to put his life back together. But it’s hard to predict what will actually happen.

Venice suspects Craig suffers from depression in addition to the impact the strokes had on his ability to process information. She knows medication would help, “but you have to admit first to people you don’t know that you have mental issues,” she said.

No matter what, though, she doesn’t plan to give up on Craig.

“I know for a fact that he’s trying to the best of his ability,” she said.

She’s seen all his paperwork. She’s driven him to office visits and medical appointments, helped him with applications and offered suggestions to help him make the most of his situation. She’s heard him coughing and seen the dark, plum-colored stain on his shin caused by the blood clot. She’s seen him eat.

She’s sure once he gets his situation sorted out, he won’t end up back on the street. He’ll straighten things out with the credit bureau, she said. He’s applied for Social Security. In April, he’ll start getting his pension payments from Boeing.

“Going from nothing to $399 (his GA-U benefit) was miraculous,” she said. “Going from $399 to $1,679 (his pension), he’ll be able to put a roof over his head and buy a car.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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