The life and death of Canandaigua man inspires locals to ramp up outreach to those in need, and redefine homeless stereotypes.
CANANDAIGUA — He was more than a headline. Family members say 47-year-old Donald A. Dailey was a beloved son, grandson, brother, twin, uncle, nephew, cousin and friend.
And don’t call him homeless — he always had a place to call home, they said.
Mr. Dailey was one of two Canandaigua men found dead within hours of each other on Aug. 18. His much publicized death — along with that of 45-year-old Daniel Mendez, whose body was found in the water in the area of the City Pier, captured headlines and the attention of a community used to offering shelter from the cold to those who needed it, not escape from the heat.
For Mr. Dailey it was the combination of heat exhaustion and dehydration that led to his collapse and death in the tall, cool grass just off Main Street sometime during the week of Aug. 18.
Now his life, and death, are inspiring locals to double down on their efforts to reach out to those in need, and to redefine stereotypes and common misconceptions about what the word “homeless” really means.
What police say
Sgt. Scott Kadien, of the Canandaigua Police Department, said this week his office is still awaiting the results from the evaluation of medical evidence. Those results may take a few more months to finalize, he said.
In the meantime, the investigation has led to the theory that Mr. Dailey's health and lifestyle, along with the extreme heat, contributed to his death, Kadien said.
“Unfortunately, the gentleman was homeless and exposed to the elements 24/7, so that may have played a part,” Kadien said.
But Mr. Dailey’s nephew, Michael Fox of Penn Yan, said his uncle’s autopsy ruled the cause of death to be simple heat exhaustion paired with dehydration. The official report received by the family showed a healthy 47-year-old man with no presence of alcohol, no cirrhosis of the liver, and with all vital organs healthy and functioning at the time of death, Fox said. With some water and shelter from the heat, the outcome might have been completely different.
A 1987 graduate of Penn Yan Academy, Mr. Dailey was an all-star running back and long distance runner, Fox said.
“Donnie was the smart one in the family, a natural athlete, the one things came easy for,” said Fox.
That all changed when Mr. Dailey was about 21 and at a party. A friend pushed him off the roof of a three-story building, said Fox. From the fall he suffered a broken neck, multiple fractured vertebrae and traumatic brain injury. For the 26 years that followed he lived in constant pain, and that’s why he drank, Fox said. That led to more arrests, and more than one short jail term.
“People saw him as homeless, people saw him as crazy, people saw him as a disheveled human being,” said Fox. “And they never got a chance to sit next to him at Thanksgiving or go running with him. He was a fantastic runner. We had connection.”
Beyond the headline
Jordan Health nurse manager Kate Bluett said Mr. Dailey is one of the reasons that the community grassroots organization NoWhere to Go was started.
“Jordan Health and the NoWhere To Go team were never fortunate enough to have met Donnie before his brain injury,” said Bluett. “We knew Donnie as a free spirit, able to speak off the cuff, laugh at simple jokes, smile and take things as they were.”
Mr. Dailey lived life the way he wanted — on his terms, Bluett said.
“He never forgot where he came from, though,” she said. “He loved his hair and the way that his sister, Sheralyn, cut it for him. We often offered Donnie free haircuts and he would think about it then kindly say no, ‘my sister would be mad at me.’”
Often resistant to long-term housing, Mr. Dailey would stay at friends’ houses, Bluett said. He would sometimes camp in wooded areas in the community, and would rely on community support for items like new and dry sleeping bags, socks, hats and gloves — especially leather gloves.
One of her fondest memories of Mr. Dailey was when the two shared a sub outside of Parkway Laundry and Dry Cleaning in Canandaigua.
“He just kept laughing at our conversation,” said Bluett. “He was so happy that evening. It was hard to leave him that evening in the cold and rain, knowing that he would be sleeping in a tent outside. He preferred it that way.”
CareNet Executive Director Donna Besler also had a chance to interact with Mr. Dailey regularly.
“Donnie was smart and kind, and a joy to see as I walked down the hallway to our office,” said Besler. “He had his favorite group of people that he meant the world to. He was a real person with a real life but was faced with many challenges.”
His death impacted many, she said, and has increased community awareness of those in need and helped put a face with a name or a statistic.
“Out of his death and his family’s loss has come great things,” said Besler. “I want his mother to know this more than anyone. For I know first-hand the pain of losing a child. I want her to know that her loss is allowing new doors to be opened and great things to happen for others who are faced with similar struggles.”
A dangerous place
The streets aren’t always a friendly place for people who look or sound different from others, Fox said. His uncle was “street bullied to the point where he was hospitalized on numerous occasions,” he said.
“Kids threw rocks at him once because he looked different,” said Fox. “He’d wave his arms, talk to himself and laugh at nothing.”
And he was generous to a fault, which made him a target of sorts. If he had a dollar or food vouchers in his pocket and thought someone needed them, he’d give them away.
“He lost apartments because friends would come in and party and trash his apartment and steal from him,” said Fox. “People who were so-called friends took advantage of him, using up the minutes on his cell phone. Even the individual who was housing him took advantage of him a few times.”
But there were also kindnesses shown.
When family members came and picked Mr. Dailey up for lunch this summer, he was carrying a few bags with him, Fox said. Inside was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, food for the next day, a box of crackers, a loaf of bread and a couple bottles of V8.
“He’d just come from the CCIA food pantry, he said. “He was utilizing the CCIA services, not abusing them. It gave me chills.”
Beyond the stereotype
CareNet Executive Director Donna Besler said the picture that comes to mind when people hear the word “homeless” is a one-dimensional stereotype.
“They think of the man on the park bench with newspapers covering his body for warmth, or the lady in the city parking lot with a grocery cart filled with her belongings,” she said.
But in Canandaigua and surrounding communities, homelessness has many different faces.
“It can be an executive who has lost their job and can no longer pay their mortgage, who’s now in foreclosure with no place to go,” said Bluett. “They may choose to live with supportive relatives or friends.
“It can be someone recently released from jail in the midst of transition, living in a motel room and has to start over,” she said. “It can be a family unit living in a car, seeking permanent shelter. It can be a man or woman living in the elements.
“It can be the student from FLCC who had housing covered during the main school session but finds themselves without a roof over their head for the summer,” she said.
“It could be the woman who has walked out of an abusive relationship, or the family who is unable to reside in the home they once lived in because the main bread winner has been unemployed and the bills were left unpaid,” said Besler.
It could be a single mother who is working hard to make ends meet, but can't seem to get enough money set aside to move forward, she said. Instead, she moves from place to place, staying with any friend who will take her and her child in.
“It could be the family of five who recently moved to the area and believed that they could live with a family member,” she said. “But regulations where this family member is living will not allow for this to happen. That family is forced to live out of their van until they can implement an alternative plan.” Compounding matters, the family may have moved here with only a few suitcases of clothing, so now they’ll have to set up an entire new household.
“It can be the person leaving the Ontario County Jail who believed that her rent was being taken care of, only to find that not only is their apartment gone, but all of their belongings were given away,” said Besler.
One of the reasons Besler said she was moved to help start the group now called NoWhere to Go was because she heard from a number of pregnant clients that they wanted to keep their baby, but believed they had no other choice but abortion. If they continued with the pregnancy, they believed their boyfriend or parent would throw them out and they had noplace else to go.
Many, but not all, struggle with mental illness and/or addiction issues.
“They are searching and in such a dark place at times, and have just given up on society,” said Besler. “There are so many faces of homelessness — and they need the love and support from everyone around them.”
In Ontario County
Working with The Partnership for Ontario County and the NoWhere to Go Community Forum, 10 food cupboards in Ontario County surveyed 450 households in July 2015. While it represented just a fraction of the total population served by the cupboards each year, the polling did reveal important anecdotal insights.
About 25 percent of food cupboard clients also faced immediate or periodic housing instability, the survey found. Roughly a quarter said they felt in danger of losing their housing and, once lost, had trouble finding shelter.
At least 45 individuals said they’d been homeless in the last 60 days, and at least 75 in the last year, the survey said.
Having a job doesn’t guarantee there will be a home to go with it. About 40 percent of those facing housing instability said they have at least one employed family member. And more than one-third of households facing housing instability are families with children.
People of all ages can find themselves in search of a roof over their heads. The average age of those who said they had been homeless in the last year was 44, but ages ranged from 19 to 85.
And of those who said they have trouble finding shelter, 52 percent have a physical or medical illness, 34 percent have a mental illness, and 11 percent are victims of domestic violence, the survey showed.
Ontario County Deputy Commissioner of Social Services Robert Kramer said in the last three months his department’s Hopewell office has secured housing in 157 instances — mostly for individuals, but some for families. In August, 52 placements were made, in September there were 51 and in October there are 54 so far, he said.
In addition, there are about 10 open cases “being housed each month,” Kramer said.
Staff in the Geneva DSS office have 73 people — 28 individuals and 12 families with a combined 45 family members — currently living in DSS-secured housing.
Kramer said the department makes use of about 15 area hotels and motels for emergency housing.
Beyond a roof
At 120 N. Main St., there’s essentially a shopping mall of resources for people looking for a hand up. Within the CCIA hallway, there are services such as physical and behavioral health care — regardless of the ability to pay — through Jordan Health Services.
There’s a clothing cupboard and voucher room open to all Ontario County residents that is managed by St. Vincent De Paul Society. The clothing room offers clothing and household goods free of charge that allow someone to re-establish themselves into the community.
CareNet is available to women, men, and children and in need of short-term supplies of diapers and formula. CareNet also offers mission-based counseling for women with unexpected pregnancies and parenting classes for the family unit.
CCIA manages a food cupboard and is open to all Ontario County residents, with a satellite location at Zion Fellowship on Bristol Road.
There is a new Resource Room that will help individuals track down job leads, print out resumes, apply for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, FAX records and applications, and enroll to receive health insurance.
Catholic Charities is available on an as-needed basis to discuss emergency situations regarding severe homelessness issues.
And any CCIA volunteer will be happy to point the way to other community-based services by the Gleaners Community Kitchen, Victor Farmington Food Cupboard, Salvation Army Mobile Food Cupboard, the quarterly Free Community Meal, among others.
Inspired by his uncle’s life and death, Fox has jumped on board with the organizations that offered help to Donnie.
The Partnership for Ontario County Executive Director Bonnie Ross said Fox is now a volunteer for NoWhere to Go and the Partnership. He’ll be assisting in the coordination of services for the Partnership's community-based family support center to start in January, she said.
“Mike brings talent and experience and a caring nature for those we serve,” said Ross. “I am delighted he is willing to join us.”
The family support service will be located at 120 N. main, the same building as Jordan Health, CareNet and other Canandaigua Churches in Action resources.
“Donnie was more than just a ‘homeless man,’ said Bluett. “He was a character, a shining light, a smiling face. Donnie was one of the reasons we founded NoWhere to Go, and one of the reasons we will continue to work tirelessly to make changes in Ontario County.”
Fox hopes his uncle’s story will open the eyes of others who have a “Donnie” in their family, and will keep them from passing judgement on them.
“When you see someone on the street that’s not dressed the way you would really dress, or might not have quite the personal upkeep of someone who has a nine-to-five job, it’s very easy to throw them into a category as a useless member of society. But that’s someone’s son. That’s not useless.”
Hopefully people in the community will start to realize they can make a difference, even in small ways, he said. They can share half a sandwich, support programs that help homeless people, choose not to honk the horn at someone who’s crossing the street too slowly.
“It starts with kids,” said Fox. “They need to be exposed to people with different color skin, with different disabilities. They need to be out helping make lunches and serving up dinners and giving back. Those little moments turn into bright spots that change our future.”
By the numbers
157 DSS emergency housing cases, individual and family, handled by Hopewell office in the last three months
52 Housing placements made in August from Hopewell office
51 Housing placements made in September from Hopewell office
54 Housing placements made in October, so far, from Hopewell office
10 Additional open cases being housed each month
28 Individuals currently receiving emergency housing from Geneva office
12 Family units, averaging 4 people per family, currently receiving emergency housing from Geneva office
15 Area hotels and motels supplying emergency housing
To volunteer or learn more
CCIA - Resource Room — 585-396-2242
Jordan Health Center — 585-396-0222
Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes — 585-394-0190
CareNet Pregnancy Center — 585-393-0437
St. Vincent DePaul — 585-394-3980
CCIA Food Pantry — 585-394-7450