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New Smyrna Beach woman has no illusions about homeless brother, just love

Debra Exum of New Smyrna Beach recently found her homeless brother, Steve Gruetzmacher, who lives on Tampa’s streets.

Courtesy of Debra Exum

Debra Exum of New Smyrna Beach recently found her homeless brother, Steve Gruetzmacher, who lives on Tampa’s streets.

The stranger who called me that morning turned out to be a woman named Debra Exum. She works in publishing, lives in New Smyrna Beach with her husband. But she grew up in Tampa back when her name was still Gruetzmacher, like her big brother, Steve.

They were close, romping in orange groves that would one day be suburbs, fishing and playing guitar. Both went to Chamberlain High. She went off to Florida State, but his life was more troubled.

He drank, she said. He was a "wayward spirit." While she was building a life, he was melting into the streets. He disappeared.

She knew he was homeless, and every time she came back to Tampa over the years she drove the streets, looking into faces on street corners for her brother, who would now be 55.

On a weekend in October, she came for a visit, saying her prayer about finding Steve as she headed down Interstate 4. That Sunday, she called an old family friend for lunch. I don't want to upset you, the friend said, but I just read an article about panhandling. They quoted Steve.

I had been interviewing homeless people about Tampa's then-pending and since-passed ban on street begging, asking why they were out there and where they would go. The complexity of the problem gets obvious really fast: You meet people inebriated, mentally disabled, just out of work and just terribly unlucky.

Steve and a buddy sat on a bus bench. He was talkative and smart, with ideas about putting people to work on public improvement projects. And funny, how odd details can make or break a thing: If the name in the paper that day had been Johnson, like another man I talked to, maybe no one would have noticed.

Upset? Exum thought. No. Steve was alive. For a long time, she hadn't been sure. She and her best friend got in the car and hit the streets named in the story. They talked to a lot of homeless people, each with a different path to where they had landed. She showed a mug shot of Steve she found on the Internet from an open container charge.

Someone pointed her to the busy intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive, where a man in a baseball cap stood by the passing cars. He was about the size she remembered her brother to be.

Her friend called out and asked his name. "Steve," he called back. "Steve Gruetzmacher."

They met up over in the parking lot of the Burger King. The woman with the long blond hair and the man whose face showed his years on the streets held each other a long time.

They talked and laughed and talked more. She got him sneakers at Walmart to replace his ragged shoes. Her friend, being that kind of friend, had packed a pillow, blankets and a sleeping bag, sure they would find him. Her brother was legally blind, so she paid for glasses at a one-hour place.

She got him a jacket for the winter. Inside the hood, she wrote her phone number in permanent marker. She made it clear she's there if he wants help.

He's called a few times. He hopes to get a roofing job soon, and yes, he's wearing his glasses. He can't believe how clear everything looks.

She told me she has no "grand illusions" her brother's life will drastically change. She just wants him to know there's someone in the world who loves him. Always has.

New Smyrna Beach woman has no illusions about homeless brother, just love 11/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 12:23pm]
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