Many people in the hustle and bustle near the main entrance to the University of Tampa have come across Jerry “Red” Bodiford, who called Kennedy Boulevard and West Grand Central Avenue home for years.
Few knew him by name, but they recognized his shaggy red hair, friendly smile and tanned, freckled skin. He rolled down the streets in his wheelchair, watching and smiling at businesspeople and students who passed, usually without a glance back.
Until last month, Bodiford, 55, enjoyed the freedom the streets provided him to come and go as he pleased for over 30 years.
Despite persistent efforts from Tampa police Officer Daniel McDonald, a member of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, Bodiford declined any help offered to him. He wasn’t ready to make the move inside.
Police received regular calls from people worried about the safety of the red-haired man in the wheelchair. Concern heightened in recent weeks as Bodiford seemed to have disappeared.
Instead, he has started a new, more settled chapter in a life marked by more than its share of twists and turns, highs and lows.
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Born and raised in Benton, Ark., Bodiford grew up in the country.
At the age of 8, he said, he took to stealing beer from his dad, pilfering a few cans from the case hidden under the house. His father always wondered how his stash dwindled because Bodiford’s mother was never much of a drinker.
The father didn’t suspect his young son.
“I guess that’s how I became an alcoholic,” Bodiford said, staring into his lap.
Through the alcoholism, a couple of stints behind bars for petty crimes, family feuds and health challenges, he never lost his affection for living outdoors, hitchhiking as a young adult to move from state to state.
For Bodiford, homelessness came primarily by choice.
For three decades, he said, he lived on and off the streets in Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi, to name a few states.
He has been in a wheelchair for over 10 years, after he was hit by a car while walking to the liquor store to look for his girlfriend at the time.
He said he had the right of way and received a settlement of more than $300,000. But most of it went to a lawyer, he said, and despite discussions at the hospital, he never underwent the surgery he needed.
“I hoped it would take place,” he said. “Maybe if it had, I’d be walking now.”
Still, he remained reluctant to stop drinking and get off the streets.
Officer McDonald and others before him encouraged Bodiford to seek rehabilitation. He always declined, insisting it wouldn’t do him any good because he’d get out and start doing the same thing.
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McDonald’s relationship with Bodiford began in 2012.
“I call him the Mount Everest of homelessness because he was the most difficult client, resistant to change,” McDonald said.
Through the years, McDonald never gave up hope on Bodiford.
“It’s part of my job to never give up,” McDonald said.
He kept nagging Bodiford until Bodiford was willing to make a change for himself. McDonald takes street engagement seriously, he said, and works to show his clients he’s there for them any time — a pledge that builds trust so they’ll make the leap to accept help.
As McDonald sees it, getting homeless people off the street saves taxpayers money. The cost of supporting one homeless person can be $30,000 to $40,000 in public services, including jail, doctor visits and trips in an ambulance, he said. Housing, on the other hand, averages $12,000 a year — “a bargain and more humane,” McDonald said.
Bodiford eventually grew weary of his condition, including the constant theft of his money and having no bed to sleep on.
“I got tired of the cops messing with me and making me move,” he said. “They wouldn’t leave me alone.”
McDonald proved to be different. He finally won Bodiford over.
“He’s just a good friend, I know that,” Bodiford said.
Last month, Bodiford finally agreed to move off the streets, as long as he could get into his own place.
Today, still quiet and somewhat sullen, Bodiford spends days watching The Price Is Right in his living room. With a roof over his head, he is looking forward to a better life, off the streets and with a lock on his door.
“Officer McDonald was totally different. He’s just a good friend, I know that,” Bodiford said with a smile. “He was trying to get me off the streets for the longest — and he did.”
Contact Brianna Kwasnik at [email protected]