Sleeping in real bed fulfills once-homeless man’s dream

Moving gingerly because of his bad back, Mike Dennis pulled himself into the driver’s seat of his green Ford Ranger pickup and reclined the seat.

“This is how I slept for months,” he said. “I’d take off my shoes and wrap up in a sleeping bag and comforter.”

Nowadays, the pickup is in the parking lot of a tidy seniors apartment complex in Santa Rosa, which Dennis moved into in September with the help of The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing.

“I’m so grateful to have a roof over my head,” he said, opening the door to a one-bedroom unit strewn with tools from his former trades as a machinist and toolmaker.

It’s been almost two decades since Dennis, 69, became disabled on the job, throwing out his back from the constant hunching over a workbench. That led to a years-long ordeal with nine surgeries that removed some discs and fused some vertebrae, leaving him almost 4 inches shorter than when he’d started. Now 5 feet, 11 inches tall, he walks with the careful precision of someone in constant pain.

He lost his life savings, including 401(k) retirement money, when he bought a house before the housing market collapsed, not realizing that his adjustable-rate loan would soar to unaffordable heights just as real estate values cratered. He had to sell the house for less than he owed on the mortgage, a transaction called a short sale.

Still, he was able to afford the rent on a cottage with a workshop, where he ran a little business repairing fishing reels “to supplement my pittance from Social Security,” he said. “I’ve always been an avid outdoorsman and fisherman, and I was doing a decent business just by word of mouth.”

But two years ago, the landlord raised the rent beyond what Dennis could afford. He rang up credit card debt trying to keep up, and ended up homeless. He “bounced around” — sleeping in his truck for months at a time, house-sitting, subletting a room, and living in a homeless shelter.

While he was living in the truck, he visited a community church in Sebastopol asking for tips on a safe place to park. The church let him sleep in his truck in its parking lot and provided a place to shower.

To show his appreciation for that help, he would bring leftover food that he received from the county food bank to the church’s food pantry. That’s how he met social worker Joanne Matson, whom he calls his guardian angel.

“One day I saw Michael putting stuff in the food donation box in the vestibule,” she said. “He was homeless and living in his truck, but he’d collect food and donate to other people as a little ministry of his own. He was paying back. That says a lot about a person.”

Matson helped Dennis get into a shelter last year during the cold winter months. The shelter helped fast-track him for a Section 8 voucher for a housing subsidy, something that otherwise has a multiple-year waiting list. Section 8 pays the lion’s share of his rent, leaving him with an amount manageable on his Social Security.

But he didn’t have money for move-in costs. That’s where Season of Sharing stepped in. The nonprofit, which provides one-time funds to people in crises, covered his security deposit and initial month’s rent.

He had enough money left over to buy a mattress at Costco and is relieved every time he lies down on a real bed rather than his truck’s front seat. He’s thankful to be able to eat food he cooked himself in his kitchen.

“I’m so grateful every time I wash my dishes,” he said.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @csaid

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