From this day forward
November 23, 2011
This is not a fairytale love story.
Over the course of 23 years together, Denny Lyons and Terrie Madrid have lived in an improvised lean-to on a deserted restaurant patio. They’ve had—and lost touch with—a now-teenaged daughter and son. They’ve battled illness, unemployment, substance abuse.
In short, this chronically homeless pair has lived on the bleak side of “for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health” in a way most couples can’t begin to imagine.
But now, after more than two decades of bad choices and bad breaks—and with a big assist from an initiative called Project 60—they just took a step in a new direction.
They got married.
Their wedding, celebrated Friday on the beach in Santa Monica and captured in the video above, clears the way for them to live together in their own apartment under a recently-issued federal housing voucher.
Beyond that important practical benefit, the ceremony also marked something of an emotional milestone—a tribute to staying together against long odds.
“It’s time,” said Lyons, 58. “She stood by me through thick and thin. It’s been real hard on her.”
Or, as the V.A. chaplain who performed the wedding put it: “This is a good example of love in action.”
Things started looking up for the couple about 11 months ago, when they entered the Santa Monica shelter called Samoshel, run by the Ocean Park Community Center. For now, and until they get their own apartment, they bunk down every night in separate men’s and women’s sleeping facilities. But they were able to bring their little dog, Bambi, with them into the shelter—a crucial point as they debated whether to come in off the streets last winter.
Progress has accelerated in recent weeks with Lyons’ admittance into Project 60. The initiative is devoted to finding what’s known as permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans like Lyons, who served in the Navy Reserve. It’s a spinoff of the better-known Project 50, which has targeted some of the most chronic cases on downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row with a holistic approach to housing, health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment. It’s estimated that 7,000 veterans are now homeless on Los Angeles County streets. Project 60 aims to help some of the most vulnerable among them, like Lyons, through a partnership of the West Los Angeles V.A., Los Angeles County and other government and nonprofit agencies.
Lyons is now receiving veterans’ benefits. He has been granted probation for what he described as old drug warrants that had him “living the life of a fugitive, more or less.” And he’s no longer panhandling on the street with a sign reading: “Smile. It could be worse. You could be me.”
Lyons, who said he once worked regularly in construction, said he’s been unable to find employment since he developed vascular necrosis in both hips. “It wiped out my ability to work,” he says.
And Madrid, 56, said she has lost touch with family—the18-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son she and Lyons had together, and her six other adult children. She said wistfully that she has tried unsuccessfully over the years to get back in contact with her mother and youngest child, who she thinks are living in Whittier. As she and Lyons sat down on their wedding day to list some of the good things that have happened to them lately, she said all that was missing was a reconnection with her family.
Still, “compared to where they were a year ago, it’s just night and day,” said Ben McAvay, who served as Lyons’ best man.
McAvay said he first met the couple 2½ years ago when they would stand every day at his bus stop as he headed to law school classes at UCLA. He said the wedding is just the “icing on the cake” in a saga of struggle and life changes.
“This is just like the cool part of the story,” McAvay said.
The wedding ceremony took place just south of the Santa Monica Pier—not far from where Lyons and Madrid once settled their sleeping bags into makeshift foxholes they’d dug in the sand to sleep each night during a particularly tough 8-month stretch.
A small knot of friends (human and canine) gathered to watch, as cyclists, rollerbladers and Hot Dog on a Stick customers wandered by, oblivious to the big occasion playing out in the shadow of the pier’s carousel. Lyons wore a tie and jacket (courtesy of a local thrift shop) and Madrid arrived in the wedding dress that the residents’ council at Samoshel bought for her, using money earned collecting bottles and cans. The bride had to keep reminding herself that she could now smile broadly for photos, thanks to a gift of dental work funded by her maid of honor, Linda Nixon.
Bambi, prompted by Samoshel project director Patricia Bauman, delivered the rings at the appropriate moment. Then it was time for retired U.S. Army Chaplain Herman Kemp of the V.A. to pronounce the couple husband and wife. There was applause, and a few happy barks.
Many challenges lie ahead, including surgery to replace both of Lyons’ hips.
But on Friday, there were blessings to be counted—among them the resilience to keep moving forward together over the course of many years.
“Hope,” Lyons said, “is the one thing you’ve got to keep.”