WILKES-BARRE — Dave Wasnalas has died — at least that’s the word on the street.
The street was Dave’s home, having been homeless for many years. I used to see Dave on Public Square, usually by Dunkin’ Donuts. He would ask me for a buck and I would hand him a five with the condition that he not use it for booze.
Dave always swore to me that he was going to get a coffee and maybe a sandwich, but his breath was not of liverwurst.
Despite always being in a somewhat alcohol-induced alternate state and dealing with several medical issues, Dave was always a happy guy and very chatty. He would keep me informed of what was going on in his homeless world — especially about his close friend Lynn Bell, who he shared much time with on the street.
So when word came out that Dave had passed away, Aimee Dilger, our award-winning photographer, and I tried to confirm the news. We talked to a police officer, a pastor and a former director of a homeless drop-in center — they all had heard the same, that Dave had died, but nobody knew for sure.
That’s really the way it is when a human being, for whatever reason or reasons, finds himself or herself out of luck — no job, no money, no support system. They become homeless — dependent on soup kitchens and generous passersby to survive yet another day. They search for a dark corner, an empty building or the shelter of a bridge to curl up to rest for the night before they resume their meager existence the next day.
I know a lot of the homeless in downtown Wilkes-Barre. They always say hello. They offer me news on each other, often not good news. And the amazing thing is that for the most part, they are a happy bunch, totally accepting of the way things are for them and thrilled when they can find a way to purchase enough alcohol to help lessen the pain, both physical and mental.
Dave was that way. Several times Aimee or I found him asleep on Public Square — just so damn tired, a concrete or granite slab provided all the comfort he needed to catch a nap.
In June of last year, Aimee and I did a story on Dave and his good friend, Lynn. Aimee’s photographs really captured the lifestyle of these two.
I asked Lynn how she and Dave met. Her answer was that one day, Lynn found herself in a church on North Franklin Street, hoping to find some clothes or something to eat — when she found Dave Wasnalis.
When we did the story, Dave, who was 51 at the time, had been in the hospital recently. He said he didn’t benefit from the stay. When caregivers asked if he smoked, Dave said yes, about three cigarettes a day, low-balling the estimate.
Dave told me he was in the hospital because he collapsed on his way to the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen, hitting his head. He said he was very tired that day.
“I guess sleeping under the bridge is not good,” he said.
I learned some things about Dave when we talked. Dave graduated from GAR High School in 1984. He held many jobs over the years — in retail sales, as a warehouse stocker, and as a cook. He never married and has no children. He has a brother and sister, both of whom wanted nothing to do with him, he said.
Dave told me he didn’t remember exactly how he ended up on the street. He said he lost his job and couldn’t pay his rent. When he met Lynn, they shared a place that cost $600 a month. He said it was an extra $50 a month if you had an animal.
“I guess I was the animal,” he said with a faint laugh.
Dave said his days consisted mostly of just walking around downtown Wilkes-Barre. He would go to St. Vincent de Paul to eat and tried to hustle a little change from strangers.
“When dark comes, we all just kind of disappear,” he said.
Dave said if the kitchen doesn’t serve dinner, “We starve. We eat lunch and that’s it.”
Always with no place to go, Dave was faced nightly with trying to find some place to be.
The stories of the homeless often are complicated. Did Dave have reasons for his situation, or just excuses? The reality probably lies somewhere in between.
When the winter comes, Dave told me he would have to find a warm coat.
“We’ll freeze a lot,” Dave said.
I hope the reports of Dave’s death are untrue. I hope to see him on Public Square soon. If he’s there, I’ll give him a five to get a coffee.
And I’ll see that crooked smile once again.
And I’ll hope that something more will be done for the homeless in our community — better accountability, perhaps.
Like Dave told me last year, “We’re always hoping. See ya later.”
And he was smiling.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle, or email at [email protected]