Since she began going blind, Jeanette Saffold has been evicted and abandoned by her family, and often lived on the streets, which fade into a frightening blur on cloudy days. Last June, her daughter put Saffold, 58, out of the house, leaving her alone on the street at night.
But when Saffold came to the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, which helps people who can’t see, she decided that she was one of the lucky ones.
“I see these people so independent, and they never see anything,” says Saffold, who though legally blind has some vision in her left eye. “And I say, who am I to cry?”
Yet, Saffold has had plenty of reason to weep, with a cascade of the kind of difficulties that can quickly overwhelm someone without resources. The troubles began a year and a half ago, when she was evicted from her Miami Gardens apartment complex because her sister, who was visiting, got into an argument with building staff over moving her car. “I asked, why?” Saffold says. “They said I was responsible for my family and friends.”
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But her sister, caring for their elderly mother, wouldn’t take Saffold in. She put her things in storage and began her odyssey: a month with a friend in Texas, a stint at a Biscayne Boulevard hotel and at the Mother Teresa Mission of Charity homeless shelter, seven months with another friend in a small town in Georgia. She returned to Miami last December after getting word that her mother was very sick, arriving in time to see her pass away on New Year’s Day.
Saffold’s first ex-husband said he’d take her in, then changed his mind when she arrived with her things. She cried then. But the worst blow came after Saffold moved in with her oldest daughter, husband and four children last April, paying $400 a month to sleep on a sofabed. She’d been there two months when, as she was returning from the bank with cash for the rent, her daughter called to say they wanted her out. Saffold’s first reaction was to ask whether it was her fault.
“I said did I do anything wrong?” Saffold says. “And she said “No, we just changed our minds.’ ”
Her daughter left Saffold in front of a Walmart in Miami Gardens. Weeping, Saffold called her longtime friend Willie Harris, a pastor she’d met at the church they both attended back in the late ’90s. Harris had been helping Saffold, who once rented him a room for several years when he needed a home, driving her around; he had dropped her off at the bank earlier that day.
“I couldn’t believe she was at Walmart,” Harris, reached by phone, says. “When I came to get her she was crying, she was broken.”
And yet Saffold suggested that Harris leave her on the street near the Mission of Charity shelter. Instead he took her in, letting her stay at his apartment for free, warning her to stay out of sight for fear he’d get in trouble with his landlord. Soon after, doctors told Saffold the glaucoma that had taken the sight from her right eye had so clouded the left that she was legally blind.
“I told her I wasn’t going to put her out on the street,” Harris says. “I’m gonna manage to let you stay here until you get up enough money to get your own place.”
He also suggested that she try the Lighthouse, which teaches blind people to take care of themselves as well as offering art and music classes. When Saffold first came to the Little Havana center on July 1, she was overwhelmed and depressed, says Yuni Miguez, the case manager who took her in.
“She thought she was worthless and didn’t think she was capable of doing anything,” Miguez says. “She thought I was lying when I said she could learn to be independent.”
Miguez took Saffold into the Lighthouse’s garden, where the sound of a small fountain washes over banks of flowers and green benches, hoping to encourage her.
“I said I want you to come back here and see me every day,” Miguez says. “Because in a week, you will see a change.”
Since then, Saffold has taken classes at the Lighthouse that taught her to negotiate sidewalks and stairs, to use a cane, to cook and care for herself. At an arts-and-crafts class on a recent weekday morning, working amid a lively crowd of other Lighthouse clients and neatly dressed in a black pantsuit and red top, she proudly showed off a bright fuchsia wooden hat rack she was making.
“The first couple of days I was afraid, but people are so kind here I got over it,” she says.
Saffold remembers a stable life, with a job planning menus at Jackson Memorial Hospital, until diabetes and other health problems forced her to quit a decade ago. Thanks to Harris, she saved enough money from the $1,000 a month she receives in Social Security and disability to get a small apartment in August, a crucial step back toward normalcy. But she has almost no furniture: a broken loveseat given to her by a neighbor, a mattress, a chair lent to her by Harris and a glass table he rescued from a Dumpster with the broken side turned to the wall. She wants a sofa that’s not so low it strains her arthritic knees, curtains to hide her vulnerable state from the world outside, a table and chairs, bedroom furniture, a dresser so she can find her clothes. “That would really uplift my spirits,” she says. “I would like my room to look like a lady would like her room.”
With all her money eaten up by rent, phone and electric bills, she admits she could use something to supplement the $90 in food stamps she receives, which runs out before the month does. She spent Thanksgiving alone, with a plate of food sent to her by the Lighthouse. But on hearing that there are many appeals to Wish Book, Saffold hesitates to ask for more. “I don’t want to be greedy,” she says. “I didn’t realize so many people needed help.”
▪ How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook