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Tragedy pushes family to brink of homelessness before help arrives


Only a handful of the glitterati who will gather Saturday night for the Mayor’s Ball at the Palm Beach County Convention Center will have met Carnell Olofin.

In suits and sequin, they will exchange pleasantries and smiles, secure and happy in the knowledge that, again, their efforts have raised lots of money to combat homelessness.

But they, like most people, probably don’t know what homelessness really looks or feels like.

They haven’t met Olofin. They weren’t there when, exhausted from fighting cancer’s angry recurrence, his wife asked him to take her home. They didn’t see his children’s sleep interrupted by tears, or field the kids’ gut-punch questions. They didn’t have to wonder how to find a place to live — where he could finish the job of raising the family he’d do anything to protect.

The voices of the homeless are often muted. They don’t hold press conferences or write legislation, and they’d don’t attend balls, either.

They fight on, and, sometimes, people they never know or never will know ease their awful burden.

•••

He had seen the trim woman with the bright smile serving customers at the restaurant where they both worked. He saw her, and he kept to himself.

“I was the quiet one,” Carnell Olofin, 33, said. “I just bus my tables and keep to myself.”

But Taketia Akins had noticed the quiet bus boy, and she wanted to get his attention.

“She faked like she was going to bump into me,” Olofin said. He could see that she knew what she was doing, could see that she was smiling all the while.

Olofin didn’t bite. Akins was his boss’ daughter.

“I went on about my business,” he recalled.

Akins wasn’t taking that quiet for an answer, though. She gave her telephone number to another of Olofin’s supervisors, who passed it on to Olofin. After days of sitting on it, Olofin called.

The chemistry was instant.

“We would go out to eat all the time,” Olofin said. “She was a church-going woman.”

Church was important to Olofin, too, and they took church trips together — to Virginia, to Mississippi, to Detroit.

In 2008, four years after they met, they married.

Theirs would be a big, boisterous family. She had three children from a previous relationship. He had one. And together they had four more children.

They rented a house in West Palm Beach. Life wasn’t easy, but they were happy.

Olofin supplemented his restaurant pay with disability payments he received because a birth defect shortened his right arm, which limited the types of jobs he could get.

Two years into their life together, things took a turn.

“She kept complaining about her breast,” Olofin said. “She said it was painful.”

Sitting on a bench under a tree at the Senator Philip D. Lewis Center, a homeless assistance facility on 45th Street in West Palm Beach, he spoke with a matter-of-fact calm.

“One hospital said it wasn’t cancerous,” he remembered. “It was nothing to worry about.”

But the pain persisted, and Akins Olofin got a second opinion. The diagnosis was devastating: cancer.

The cancer was limited to one breast at that point, but Akins Olofin decided to have both removed.

Mastectomy is a hugely traumatic, often limiting a woman’s sense of her own femininity. Men are sometimes uncertain and hesitant and avoid intimacy.

“People thought I would leave, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Olofin said.

Olofin said he made sure his wife knew those people were wrong.

“I told her I wouldn’t leave her,” he said. “I married her. I loved her.”

The cancer, Olofin said, went into remission, but on its heels came another diagnosis — Crohn’s Disease, a painful, inflammatory bowel disorder.

Akins Olofin was no longer able to work. Money got tighter. Then, in 2011, the cancer came back.

“They were seeing bits and pieces of it,” Olofin said.

It kept spreading.

“They kept giving her dates,” he said. “They’d say, ‘You’ll live this long. You’ll live this long.’”

Akins Olofin kept fighting.

“She kept beating those dates…until the last one,” Olofin said.

Doctors had given Atkins Olofin two weeks to live.

In the hospital, Olofin said his wife squeezed his hand.

“She said, ‘Take me home,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Take you home?’ She said, ‘yes.’ That’s when I knew it was the end.”

•••

Taketia Akins Olofin died on Dec. 10, 2015. She was 37 years old. Her father had died in April, also of cancer.

“It was a terrible year,” Olofin said.

While his wife had fought for her life, Olofin said he was wrestling with the Social Security Administration to keep his disability payments.

When the $703 payments were eliminated, Olofin said the family struggled to pay their $1,475 per month rent.

Some months, he could pay. Others, he couldn’t.

The four youngest children, the ones he had with Akins Olofin, struggled to sleep, to cope with their shattering loss.

Remembering his own bewilderment when, as a teenager, his mother died, Olofin hadn’t shielded them from what was coming.

“I’m a straight-forward guy,” he said. “I don’t like to sugarcoat things. I made the hospital’s doctor tell them everything. To this day, they remember everything that happened.”

Questions come now, still, with the sharpness of a blade.

“‘Why did Mommy have to go?’” he said the children ask him. “‘Why couldn’t she stay a little bit longer?’ The same questions I ask God.”

The kids — and Olofin — soothe themselves with memories.

“They’ll say, ‘Dad, you remember when we did this with mom? You remember?’”

•••

Homelessness is add-on awful, a wolf that takes down prey already weakened. Alcohol or drug abuse. Mental illness. Catastrophic illness and the resulting pile of medical bills. Or the loss of a partner whose companionship and financial assistance are vital.

Marilyn Munoz, executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County, said homelessness isn’t only sleeping on a park bench or under a bridge. It’s also not knowing where you’ll sleep.

In January of 2016, Olofin’s landlord had enough.

“Eventually, she said, ‘You’re going to have to leave,’” he said.

Olofin hadn’t been able to pay his rent consistently in the last year of his wife’s life, and, he struggled even more when he lost his job. He had worked his way up from bus boy to cook, he said, and the restaurant wanted to give his hours to another cook, one they’d pay a lot less.

Out of a job, Olofin would soon be out of the house he had shared with his wife.

His sister, Alicia Olofin, who lived in Riviera Beach, stepped forward, offering a place to stay.

Olofin said his stepchildren went to live with their father. His oldest child went to live with her mother.

Even then, though, his sister’s home was stuffed — and Olofin wasn’t on the lease, meaning he wasn’t supposed to be there.

When the landlord came around, Olofin said he would make himself scarce.

“I’d put the kids in the truck and go somewhere,” he said.

He knew he couldn’t stay. He also knew he had nowhere else to go.

“Nobody had a place to live,” he said. “We were sitting there like ducks.”

Olofin said his sister suggested he reach out to the Lewis Center.

Last year, with money raised from the Mayor’s Ball, the Lewis Center helped 144 families move on from homelessness.

Olofin’s family was one of them.

“This is the whole reason we have the Mayor’s Ball,” Munoz said.

In August, the Lewis Center, the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County and Adopt-A-Family helped Olofin get into a two-bedroom apartment in Riviera Beach — four streets over from his sister.

The organizations had paid his first and last month’s rent, and they covered the security deposit, too.

The National Council for Jewish Women purchased beds for the family. Another anonymous donor bought other furniture.

Olofin found work as a bus attendant for the School District of Palm Beach County. He wants to stay with the district, but he’s hoping to work his way up to another job there.

“Soon, maybe, bus driver,” he said.

The landlord at the apartment said he’d allow Olofin to break his lease if Olofin could find a bigger place that would more comfortably house his family.

On Feb. 23, Olofin moved his family into a three-bedroom home in West Palm Beach. He had needed help in the aftermath of his wife’s death, but this step he took on his own.

As he told his story Friday, his youngest children sat next to him: Nehemiah, 8; Solomon, 7; Tyliyah, 10, and Carnell Jr., 11.

Hearing a description of his mother, Nehemiah offered up something he wanted people to know.

“She was a singer,” the boy said.

His father smiled.

“There’s always help out there,” he said. “There is always someone somewhere.”

The tragedy of his wife’s death and the pain and uncertainty that followed knocked him down hard, Olofin said, but he had no intention of staying on the mat.

“I’m a fighter,” he said. “I train my children to be fighters, too. My sister would always say, ‘No matter what, no matter what the situation is, the show must go on.’”



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