Sue Carlton: A homeless soul who was loved to the end

A friend contacted Debra Exum after the name of her brother, Steve Gruetzmacher, appeared in the newspaper.
A friend contacted Debra Exum after the name of her brother, Steve Gruetzmacher, appeared in the newspaper.
Published May 2, 2015

I met Steve Gruetz­macher at his office, which is what he called the bus bench he regularly commandeered near the Walgreens at the edge of downtown Tampa.

You could find him there sitting with a friend — the streets are safer in twos, he said — or reading the paper, or holding his ragged cardboard Anything Helps sign asking motorists for cash, or just watching the world pass him by. When we met, he kept a can of beer in a paper sack within arm's reach.

I stopped to talk to him that day four years ago about the city's pending panhandling ban. I met people on the streets that day who were inebriated, angry or not quite lucid, but not him. He spoke of the folly of pushing a problem into the next town and said government should put the needy to work on public works projects. He was funny, too.

I wrote my piece and forgot him until the phone call. His younger sister on the other side of the state had long been searching for her wayward spirit of a brother — who had gotten off track, who drank, who disappeared. A friend in Tampa read the distinctive name, Gruetz­macher, in the Times. Had the name been common — like Johnson, another homeless man I quoted — what happened next might not have.

I hoped this would be a rare positive story to come out of this town's perpetual homeless problem, one about hopelessness and addiction, but also faith and family and changing the alienation of living how he did. I hoped for a happy ending. For a while, maybe it was.

Debra Exum reunited with her brother in a Burger King parking lot, got him new shoes and glasses and wrote her phone number in permanent ink inside his coat. They spoke on the phone, sometimes three times a day. She loved him even if she couldn't change him.

Their name opened another door. The same week his sister found him, Steve went to the Thursday evening meal served at the beautiful red brick Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church. Someone noticed his last name was the same as that of a parishioner, Mark Gruetzmacher. Who, it turned out, hadn't seen his cousin Steve since Steve was a little boy.

His life started to change. He had found blood family and a church family. Finally, he agreed to go to a Christian rehab facility in North Carolina — though by then, his liver had begun to fail him. He spent a week in a cabin with his sister and her husband to get strong enough for rehab. He loved the creek, her housecats, the home-cooked meals.

He came out of eight weeks in rehab clean and sober and stayed that way six months. But the lure was always there.

People who cared about him, including his cousin's wife, Jan, worked to get him the basic documents necessary to function in the world. They worked to get him disability money through the federal government. Though it is notoriously difficult to find housing for single homeless men, people who cared about Steve finally found a place off Busch Boulevard — a roof, walls, a bed, a home — through a homeless ministry. Sundays, he took two buses across town to get to the church's services.

He said he was lucky — so many people he knew on the streets had alienated their families or had no one. His sister said he was happy. "He had a reason to live," she said.

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Then he was back in the hospital, his liver failing. She said he knew he was dying before anyone else did. Steven Curt Gruetzmacher was 58 when he passed last week.

This week, more than 100 friends, family members and church family, gathered at the church he loved for his memorial — more people than gave him a dollar on the roadside any given day. His ashes will be spread near the rehab facility in the mountains — a place he loved, too.

"His life changed wonderfully over the last four years," his cousin Mark said. "He would tell you he had been blessed more than he had in his entire life. I think even with his struggles, he felt very comforted at the end."

His sister says she is grateful. "He could have passed away in the streets and I wouldn't have even known," she said. "He died knowing a lot of people loved him."

And for a man who would have been just another weathered, anonymous face through the car windshield to most of us, that has to be something.