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John Van Hyning: Homeless But Not Friendless

Nov. 7, 2004 – A handful of people gathered at the Salvation Army chapel late last month to say goodbye to a homeless man. It was the final farewell for John Van Hyning, 61, a longtime resident of the streets of Charlotte Amalie.
Marie Ferreras, a St. Thomas businesswoman, met Van Hyning for the first time when she answered a knock at the office door of the Catholic Church, where she was working. "He announced, 'I've come to use your computer; the CIA wants me to send a report of all the information I've been gathering for them.'"
That was about 15 years ago, the beginning of a unique friendship which came to its almost inevitable end in August, when John died. He was not accounted for until late September when Ferreras found that a body which had been nameless in the morgue was, indeed, Van Hyning.
She told the small group gathered at the Salvation Army chapel, "The biggest legacy you can leave is the people who remember you and miss you." Though Ferreras referred to his persona, Van Hyning was, in fact, physically missing for almost two months.
Ferreras ran an ad in a print newspaper for several weeks: "Have you seen John? Homeless white male ….speaks English and Spanish, very talkative and friendly, missing for several weeks, usually seen about town, but walks all over. People concerned about his welfare. Please call…."
Ferreras says she was moved by how many people responded to her ad. "When John went missing, friends looked for him, people called, people who didn't even know John, but who wanted to help. Dozens of concerned people, including the editor of the newspaper who had delivery trucks daily searching for him."
At the tiny September service, Ferreras says, "There were people from the street," and the Methodist Church ladies, and Diane Parker and Bill Kenney from the Catholic Church, and Alicia Fellner, who owns the beauty salon in the neighborhood, one of a group who made sure Van Hyning had sustenance. "We made up 'snack bags' for him," she says. "If he was too drunk, we would save them to the next day."
And, of course, Salvation Army Captains Debra and Enock Sams, who knew him well, she says. "He was a frequent visitor to the Salvation Army, which serves a free lunch. Debra's father knew John, too. He met him when he came to visit, and he would always ask after him. When Debra's father died, she thought, 'Now, who will ask about John?'"
Ferreras said after that first encounter many years ago, "John would come by to tell me about the new book he had written, or to announce he was going to an important meeting with the governor."
"No person should ever live and die and not be remembered by somebody," Ferreras says. For her children, and grandchildren, she wrote,"The Story of John." She says, "Now, before I'm too old and feeble, I want them to read this and know what's important in life."
In part, the story tells the children, "John was a slight man with layered clothing, and always carrying his satchel, which was his life. In it, he would carry pads of paper I gave him, pens, pencils, bits of his writings, all kind of lists, business plans for companies that didn't exist, and God knows what else. He spoke English and Spanish fluently. But when I asked if he was from Puerto Rico, I got a variety of answers."
Ferreras talks about a hospital visit of John's a few years ago where he was not expected to come out alive. "He had either been beaten or hit by a car. His leg in a cast, head injuries, and without his layers of clothing, John was revealed to be a very thin, badly injured, sick and weak man. Days passed and his condition worsened. His lungs were filling with fluids, not a good sign.
"Then, one day I entered his room, and John sat up in bed, tubes removed. 'Maria,' he yelled. 'The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.'"
It was typical of John, Ferreras says, that he should come up with a quote from Mark Twain.
Ferreras ends her story: "He tells me about his important plans and upcoming appointments. He is happy, smiling that so many people came to visit him, and he is talking, talking, talking."
Van Hyning's most distinguished aspect was probably his continual rambling on any subject. He was a familiar sight around town and on the waterfront. Should anyone stop to give him a handout, they couldn't escape without his following them talking, talking.
And he came by it naturally. While writing this story, an obituary notice published in the San Juan Star came to the Source's attention.
Van Hyning had had a distinguished journalistic career at the San Juan Star and elsewhere. According to the obituary, he moved to Puerto Rico with his family in 1956, where he attended high school. He went to college in the states. After attending Reed College in Oregon, he graduated with honors from Portland State University, going on to get two master's degrees, one in history and one in library science, from the University of Wisconsin in 1969.
He worked for the Star in the early 70s, while also working as a stringer for The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, ABC News and the Washington Post. He was a reporter, business editor and assistant city editor for the Star.
He was also a serious amateur musician and photographer, and spoke Spanish, French and Portuguese, the Star says.
It does not say, however, how Van Hyning migrated to St. Thomas, lost contact with his family, lost contact with the real world, created a world of his own, became an alcoholic and took up residence on the streets.
"How appalling the treatment of the homeless and the mentally ill is here. It's really amazing," Ferreras says. "These people become unrecognizable as people after a while.We don't live in India or Haiti; this is the year 2004, and we live in a rational society. It's unbelievable.
"Even though John is gone, we still give out breakfast bags," Ferreras says. "The ironic thing, there was a new man this week. He was lying in a puddle. He came up to me, and I gave him a bag. Once your heart is broken, you can't help but try to do something to fix it."

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