Steve Dutton is on a mission to help the homeless so that others won’t experience the pain he did
When his husband, Tom Lang, was attacked earlier this month on a downtown Miami street, Steve Dutton said he went through the various stages of grief. His first thought was to pack up and leave the city that he and Lang had quickly grown to love.
But then he decided to do something different. He decided he would turn his husband’s murder into a lasting legacy of hope that would help other people.
And Dutton was just the one with the experience to do it.
On Sept. 7, Lang and Dutton took their dogs out for their morning walk. Lang stopped at Starbucks for his coffee and Dutton stopped at nearby La Provence for his.
Across the street, a homeless man — later identified as Evans Celestin — was panhandling, yelling and cursing at anyone who didn’t give him money. Dutton said a woman who was with Celestin was seemingly cowering in fear.
“I’ve seen him hitting her and screaming at her in the past,” Dutton said.
Dutton snapped some pictures of Celestin, intending to pass the photos along to the police along with a complaint about the man’s behavior. But Celestin noticed Dutton taking the picture and became infuriated.
He stormed across the street toward the couple, approaching Dutton first. When Dutton defended himself, Celestin moved around Dutton and pushed Lang, 72, to the ground. Lang hit his head on the concrete and began to bleed profusely from his ears.
Celestin ran but was later arrested by police and charged with assault. Lang was rushed to the hospital but died of his injuries three days later, and officials upgraded the charge against Celestin to murder.
It wasn’t the first time Celestin had been in trouble with the law. In 1999, Celestin he was convicted of a similar assault, but was out of prison by 2007. The manager at the Starbucks Lang had visited daily said Celestin had been stalking her and was glad he was off the street.
Envisioning a legacy
Before retiring to Miami, Dutton spent 20 years as CEO of Samaritan House in Fort Worth. The facility was originally an AIDS hospice, but now provides affordable housing, nutrition, social services, substance abuse recovery, life skills training and follow-up care for people with HIV.
During his last two years in Fort Worth, Dutton also served as CEO of Fort Worth’s Mental Health Housing Development.
By a few days after the attack in Miami, Dutton said his anger over his husband’s death — which at first had had him figuring out how much he could get for a quick sale of his condo and deciding where he should move — quickly turned to compassion.
He said he understands that homelessness combined with mental health and drug issues were what killed Lang — the same issues he dealt with as CEO of Samaritan House. So Dutton began the process of establishing the Thomas P. Lang Jr. Foundation, with plans to turn his fledgling organization into a resource for the homeless.
He explained that he’s currently on a mission of discovery — not trying to replace any existing services for the homeless, but looking for ways he can supplement and build on the efforts of others.
“My goal is to raise funds to help inspire more efforts to make the urban core of Miami safer for everyone — including the homeless, residents, visitors and businesses,” he said.
He compared downtown Miami to downtown Fort Worth, noting that both have seen resurgences within the past 10 years. But one thing Fort Worth did successfully, Dutton said, “was transform downtown into a beautiful and safe neighborhood through a public and private commitment.”
For example, he cited Fort Worth’s use of private security on bikes to patrol downtown streets.
In his neighborhood in downtown Miami, Dutton said, thousands are living in new, high-rise condos built in the urban core. Cruise ships depart from the world’s busiest cruise port, which lies directly across the street from his Biscayne Boulevard condo. Almost 5 million passengers board those ships each year, and all of those visitors pass the area where Lang was murdered.
According to official figures, about 400 homeless people live on the streets of downtown Miami, but the actual numbers are probably larger. Dutton said that according to one count, more than 50 people spend the night in the alley behind Macy’s a few blocks away. And during the winter, the numbers swell as some northern cities give bus vouchers to their homeless to go south to get out of the cold.
Dutton began his mission of discovery in Fort Worth. He spent the past week reconnecting with people and businesses that helped fund his work at Samaritan House, organizations whose work he admired and with city officials. He said he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going with his work, but he was in North Texas to collect ideas.
When he returns to Miami, he’s scheduled to meet with various people he hopes can help take the next steps.
In Fort Worth, Texas Christian University created volunteer opportunities through its MBA and undergraduate programs that benefited Samaritan House and other nonprofits, Dutton noted. So among the people he’s scheduled to meet with in Miami are officials at Miami Dade College and Florida International University, in hopes those schools will be inspired to create similar programs.
“These students live in the neighborhood,” he said. “They can be part of the solution.”
Echoing concerns voiced by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Dutton said Miami police are also understaffed and are expected to solve every problem.
Police need an option other than taking someone to jail, Dutton said; they need case workers who can help find a place for homeless people to spend the night until they can transition into more permanent housing and receive the mental health help they require.
Dutton said he hopes to help create an integrated system that provides case management, immediate assistance including a safe place to sleep, and then develops long-term housing.
AIDS Services of Dallas CEO Don Maison said Dutton was the right person to get this project going. He said Dutton had a good handle on the AIDS epidemic in Fort Worth, where HIV was transmitted through injection drug use at a rate three times as high as in Dallas, Maison said. Dutton created programs at Samaritan House to deal with that issue, he said.
Dutton “understood where the epidemic was and how to provide long-term housing,” Maison said, adding that if anyone can make a difference for Miami’s homeless, Dutton is the man who can.
The Rev. Carol West agreed. “Steve had his hand on the pulse of the homeless community,” she said. “He was very active in dealing with that population, feeding them, and dealing with their needs. He’s top calibre and exactly what is needed.”
Dutton said keeping busy was a way to deal with his grief, although eventually he will return to his retirement. But that won’t be until his new foundation had made a dent in the problem of homelessness.
“I’m going to be an advocate who isn’t going to go away,” Dutton pledged.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 23, 2016.