Thanks to a dedicated deputy, the community rallies around a homeless veteran to give him the dignity he deserves
For two years, U.S. Army veteran Richard Pajula, 80, slept outdoors on public benches throughout Sanford.
You never would have known it to look at him.
Richard was always nicely dressed and groomed – wearing tucked-in polo shirts, dress pants, and sporting fresh haircuts. Though he didn’t have anywhere to live, he made regular trips to the laundromat “every three days,” he says, and kept his clothes folded in a red suitcase so they wouldn’t get wrinkled.
With the suitcase in hand, Richard looked like any other traveler making his way through Sanford – waiting to be picked up by family or friends, perhaps, or on his way to someplace new. It was easy to see how folks downtown could regularly shuttle back and forth past Richard and not think anything was amiss.
But things were amiss, and it took Carl Tipton, a Seminole County Sheriff’s Deputy who was downtown having lunch with his sisters one day, to speak with Richard and learn his story.
“He reminded me of my grandfather,” Carl says.
The two struck up a conversation on that day in July, and in turn, the wheels of change were set into motion.
A Michigan native, Richard moved to Florida in 1979, drawn as many are by the warm weather. He said he has an aunt he is still in contact with, but no other family nearby. He told Carl that he couldn’t afford to pay much for rent with his Veterans Affairs check each month but was looking for a room or apartment, ideally where he could pay $400 a month.
Carl – who is also Lake Mary High School’s Resource Officer – jumped into action.
From Benches to a Bed
Carl took a photo of Richard as he encountered him sitting on his walker-chair in Sanford, with his suitcase and Bible, and posted it on his Facebook page. He explained Richard’s story.
Carl was initially mobilizing an effort to raise funds for first- and last-month’s rent and a security deposit so Richard could find an apartment somewhere. A thousand dollars was raised in a matter of hours, and the effort blossomed. Carl’s followers continued to donate money and other forms of aid.
Then, something happened that brought the search for an apartment to a halt... in a good way.
Sanford residents Tom and Penny Sheipe offered to let Richard live in a travel trailer on their property, where they run a ministry. With his immediate housing needs met, Richard could use the flood of donations from Carl’s followers to purchase a travel trailer of his own.
Carl took Richard RV shopping and landed on a nice, 34-foot model. The community stepped up again to handle the logistics – getting the trailer set up and filling it with housewares like linens and pots and pans to make Richard comfortable.
As of August 17, $17,392 was raised for Richard’s housing and other immediate needs, like a doctor’s visit and dentures. More than 376 people contributed to the cause in just 24 days.
Carl and others even organized a ribbon-cutting celebration to welcome Richard to his new, air-conditioned, fully-equipped home. The August 14 event was also to thank those who had made it all possible.
Pairing Up for Progress
“People have been calling us Mutt and Jeff,” Carl says of his new friend, Richard. The pair became a regular sight in Sanford. On the day Carl took the veteran to be fitted for his dentures, they enjoyed lunch together afterward. The two had known each other about a week-and-a-half at that point and were discussing the media attention their story had already received.
“I’m not sure why so many people want to do a story on us,” said Richard at the table.
Carl turned his head and looked at him.
“Because I’m a cop and you’re a veteran,” Carl replied, comparing their feel-good story to the joy of a new puppy. “Let’s get a puppy!” Carl joked, earning a big laugh from Richard.
Though he claims he was OK sleeping outside, Richard couldn’t hide his emotions when he received the keys to his new home. His life is headed in a new, positive direction with a roof over his head and a safe place to live, out of the elements and out of Florida’s heat.
As Richard told one TV news team about Carl, “He’s the best man I’ve ever run across.”
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