'It was a miracle': Ocean County homeless man moves in with friends, and keeps his dog

·5 min read

Two weeks after they spent a freezing night sleeping behind a strip mall in the Bayville section of Berkeley, Dustin Maggard and his dog, Surfer Baby, have come a long way.

Literally.

The duo, whose plight sparked an outpouring of generosity from locals and Asbury Park Press readers, relocated to Tennessee and moved in with friends there. In a phone interview Monday, he said he’s lining up job interviews.

“It was amazing. It was a miracle,” Maggard said. “I never expected so much support. It made a tough situation a lot easier.”

Maggard’s situation also shed light on the larger issue of homelessness at the Jersey Shore, and that’s particularly timely during the current cold snap and ahead of this week's point-in-time count, a crucial annual census of the homeless that helps determine government funding for social-net programs.

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'So much support'

The 42-year-old Maggard, who came to Berkeley from Florida in the summer of 2020 to be reunited with his teenage son and the boy’s mother, was expelled from their home Jan. 8 due to a domestic dispute. Maggard said Berkeley police tried to find him a place to spend the night, but none of the shelters they called would accommodate his dog.

Rather than part ways with 8-year-old Surfer Baby, who had helped Maggard recover from a deep depression after his fiancée was killed in a car crash, he slept next to a dumpster.

The next morning, Beachwood resident Susan McGrath spotted them sitting in the rain outside the Bayville McDonald’s, bought them breakfast, learned their story and posted about it on Facebook. After the Asbury Park Press reported on her generosity, McGrath was flooded with 200 emails and raised $3,000 for Maggard and his dog.

Susan McGrath (right) with Dustin Maggard and Surfer Baby
Susan McGrath (right) with Dustin Maggard and Surfer Baby

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“There’s good people out there; people are still reaching out,” McGrath said. “We raised enough money for him, and I told people to donate to either a homeless shelter or a dog shelter.”

After Maggard and Surfer Baby stayed in a motel for a week, McGrath rented a car for them, and they drove to Tennessee to start anew. McGrath said Maggard insisted on paying her back for the car from the donated funds.

Maggard currently has COVID — he said the symptoms are mild — and said he's lined up job a handful of interviews with local warehouses and stores. He said the public’s kindness made a huge difference.

“In that situation it is very easy to allow yourself to get angry, which will just spiral everything downward,” he said. “There was so much support, I haven’t had a bit of anger.”

McGrath said the episode was eye-opening to the challenges faced by people who have fallen on hard times.

“If you don’t have housing, it’s hard to get a job,” she said. “And if you don’t have a job, it’s hard to get housing.”

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Dustin Maggard recently found himself without a place to call home.  When a Beachwood woman crossed paths with him and his dog, she rallied the community to help
Dustin Maggard recently found himself without a place to call home. When a Beachwood woman crossed paths with him and his dog, she rallied the community to help

The bigger picture

Versions of Maggard’s hardship are playing out across Ocean County and elsewhere, but not everyone is so fortunate to have the community unite behind them.

Paul Hulse of the nonprofit Just Believe Inc., which helps those in Ocean County who are homeless or facing homelessness, said Toms River’s Code Blue shelter has been near capacity for the past few weeks.

The Code Blue initiative is a chain of overnight warming shelters that open when the temperature dips below a certain mark (the temperature varies depending on the municipality). Though endorsed by the government and aided by police, the shelters are powered by volunteers and goodwill organizations.

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U.S. Rep. Andy Kim meets with Bill Southrey (l) and Paul Hulse (r) of Haven Beat the Street at Riverwood Park Code Blue facility in Toms River.
U.S. Rep. Andy Kim meets with Bill Southrey (l) and Paul Hulse (r) of Haven Beat the Street at Riverwood Park Code Blue facility in Toms River.

Just Believe runs the site at the Riverwood Park recreation building in Toms River. Hulse said Code Blue has been triggered for four straight weeks, a record, and Riverwood is taking in 23 to 25 people per night, which is close to the 30-guest limit.

Local restaurants donate dinners, but Hulse said there are other needs.

“We can definitely use some more Wawa gift cards, snacks, soda and water,” he said. “Right now we’re open seven days a week and feeding about 30 people a night, including volunteers who stay as overnight staff.”

Hulse, who learned about Maggard and Surfer Baby after the fact, said he welcomes guests with pets — people have come in with their dogs and cats in the past — as long as the animals are comfortable around people.

“If it doesn’t make sense to them to stay with us, we’ll get them put up in a hotel,” he said.

The Riverwood Park Code Blue site was one of several area locations used for the point-in-time count. For the count, homeless service providers interview people who stayed in shelters, transitional housing programs, hotels paid for by agencies and the woods — as many as can be located. The data collected helps influence social service policy and, this year, will shed light on how COVID-19 is impacting New Jersey residents experiencing homelessness.

The count continues Wednesday at Lakewood's town square (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and Thursday at New Life Christian Center in Lakewood (11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.).

The 2021 statewide Point-in-Time count found 8,097 homeless men, women and children, in 6,210 households, across the state.

Contributions to the Toms River Code Blue warming center cam be made through Just Believe Inc. at www.justbelieveinc.org.

Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Ocean County homeless man moves in with friends, and keeps his dog