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Gun violence and housing shape lives of South Florida family

One August morning, Jacqueline Dawston-Blash's 22-year-old son called with a terrible message: They were being evicted. Right away.

Seven men had barged into their two-bedroom home in a Brownsville housing project, taking food from their kitchen, clothes from their closets and wrapping it all in their very own bedsheets.

Dawston-Blash was blocks away, trying to secure a grant for the rent money she owed. She hung up the phone, then called everyone she knew who could help.

She prepared for a long day, perhaps the hardest since that February morning two years earlier when two police detectives knocked on her door. They, too, had a terrible message: "Ma'am," she recalls one of them saying, "your son has been shot."

The incidents did not tear and separate a mother from her son, but strengthened their bond and transformed each into outspoken advocates in two of Miami-Dade's most pressing causes: stopping violence and gaining affordable housing.

Dawston-Blash named her son Robert Leroy Bozeman Jr. People throughout the county know him as "The Messenger." They see him at concerts, youth panels and banquets. No matter how formal, Bozeman always wears something to cover his head.

He tells this story: Before Feb. 27, 2005, he was a directionless 21-year-old who didn't listen to his parents and hung out with the wrong crowd. That night, he went to a club in Cutler Ridge with a group of friends. One of them groped a girl, drawing the fury of her boyfriend. Bozeman tried to break them up.

The boyfriend pulled out his gun and started firing. Bozeman ran outside, then lost feeling in his body. He collapsed in the street, a bullet lodged in his head.

As he lost consciousness, he saw friends running away, shadows fading in the night. Police found him in the middle of U.S. 1, bloodied and motionless.

By this point in his talk, the audience is usually enthralled. Then, Bozeman removes his head covering. The crowd gasps. Bozeman is missing a quarter of his skull. The skin on the right side of his head sinks almost to his eye sockets, deep like a footprint in the sand.

"I have to wear this helmet because there's nothing between my brain and the skin," he says. "Do you want to end up like this?" Silence. And then his message: "Stop the gun violence."

Bozeman spent five peaceful days in a coma. Consciousness bred challenges.

"I was like a child," Bozeman said. "I didn't know how to do anything." He had to learn to walk again, learn how to speak. To this day, neither his stride nor tongue are as swift as they once were. This month, he was diagnosed as legally blind, with no peripheral vision on his left side.

He lives with Dawston-Blash in a two-bedroom home with no air conditioning at the Annie Coleman housing projects. Residents there complain the project is a drug hot spot, with small plastic bags scattered all over the lawn.

And then there are the gunshots, the menacing noise that once begot a complete transformation of Bozeman's life.

No arrests have been made in his case.

The incident forced Bozeman to rely more on his mother -- a security guard who works the graveyard shift -- bringing them closer together.

They argue about cleaning his room. They share laughs. Dawston-Blash, her head full of hair, sometimes jokingly calls him "three-quarter head."

Bozeman likes to refer to himself as 'the sexiest half-headed brother in America."

She's a religious woman. Her favorite biblical character is Esther, who spoke to help her people when the King of Persia planned on killing all the Jews. Esther, a Jew herself, risked her life and her good relationship with the king to confront him. She succeeded.

When Dawston-Blash sees a crowd moved by Bozeman's testimony, she thinks of Esther. He's bold, courageous, conscious. Even with his disfigurement, she's proud to look at him -- more than ever.

In April, Dawston-Blash lost her security guard job when her company moved out of Miami. She found a new job, but it paid less. She could no longer afford the monthly rent. She tried giving partial payments, but the Miami-Dade Housing Agency doesn't accept them.

By June, Dawston-Blash had received an eviction notice.

Bozeman used the stack of business cards he collected at his speaking engagements and started calling community leaders for advice. Eventually, he put his mother in touch with members of the representative council for Miami-Dade public housing residents, and Patty Macias, who works as a housing specialist for the Liberty Community Revitalization Trust.

They told her about grant programs for people in her situation.

"I suffered from a lack of knowledge," Dawston-Blash said. "There were all these programs, all these people that can help me, but no one ever told me about them."

On Aug. 22, Dawston-Blash came straight from her graveyard shift to fill out the final paperwork. That's when her son called to tell her about the imminent eviction. By the time Dawston-Blash came home, Macias was already there. They gave each other a kiss on the cheek, then got to work.

One by one, a stream of community leaders came to help. They offered donations to cover the rent. They chanted when the movers brought out the family's clothes. Neighbors peeked through their windows, as did a police officer driving around in his car.

Bozeman paced around the complex with business cards in hand, looking for television reporters he had met. He couldn't get in touch with them.

"Don't transfer me to the help line," Bozeman told the phone operators. "I'm being kicked out right now. I need help now."

Diane Strozier-Bryant, president of the public housing council, wasn't surprised the media didn't show up en masse. Tenants still suffer, despite all the talk about public housing after The Miami Herald's House of Lies series.

"This is the House of Lies. This is a good woman being kicked out of her apartment," Strozier-Bryant said.

By 4 p.m., the movers had taken away virtually everything, save for a microwave and a Bible. The 30 residents formed a prayer circle on the lawn, amid the plastic bags. "Lord, we ask for justice," one prayed. "Please keep this woman in her house."

An hour later, a representative called Dawston-Blash. The family, he said, could stay. The impromptu team rejoiced.

Representatives from those teams helped Dawston-Blash in a series of meetings to get grants for the money she owed. Dawston-Blash said she is now working with the agency to readjust her rent payment.

As she walked out of one such meeting, Dawston-Blash stood in the lobby. She looked at the community leaders who came to help her and smiled.

"This is the time," she said. "We are warriors, standing up. We are all Esthers. I need to go and help my neighbors. I'm going to keep working for the rent, but helping my neighbors is my new occupation."

The next day, Dawston-Blash told the neighbors her story. The next week, she sat in the front row at a housing advisory council meeting, ready to share the tale. The week after that, she came straight from her graveyard shift to an event for the HotSpots campaign, which encourages residents to report problems to the police.

And when someone asks why she's out there, she speaks of her journey navigating through the agency. The messenger's mother now has her own message: "You can fight your eviction."