BELLE GLADE — The great desire of the Rev. Pastor Eric Payne and his wife, Theresa, to go all out in helping homeless people, arose from an extended traumatic experience she had that she wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Theresa Payne knows firsthand not only what it is to be homeless but what a single mother of four young children might go through when she has to flee a physically abusive relationship for her own safety — literally.
The couple want to prevent other helpless women from being in a situation like she was — where she had to run for her life from a man who had brutally raped her and, worse, done so with one son asleep in the same room and the other three kids in an adjoining bedroom. That man was her husband at the time.
Mrs. Payne had to make the tough choice of taking her children and becoming a street dweller, depending only on faith, friends, hope and relatives, or staying and maybe being killed the next time he demanded sex and got violent. She chose the route that seemed to offer some hope.
Except she couldn’t get public assistance, said the Rev. Payne.
“My wife has a powerful testimony … her homelessness was due to — and this is public information — her husband (now ex) raped her in a brutal manner, and the kids were in the next room. One was sleeping in her bed. It created some internal damage, the way in which he raped her. She, in an effort to get away from him, took the kids and left him,” said Mr. Payne.
Mrs. Payne explained that the attack happened in Palm Beach County in 2016. Her youngest son was 4 at the time. The other three ranged in age from about 5 to 10 then.
She married Eric in 2018; their first anniversary was Oct. 7.
She had been married to her attacker for 15 years when she left him after the rape. “The whole time it was an abusive marriage,” she said, and not just physically. But she declined to seek prosecution of him for the sexual assault, fearing the possible fallout to her children.
“The children and I were homeless a few times. That was the most recent, from 2016 until we moved here. I’ve only lived here since 2017. I was in Riviera Beach with a woman friend, and my kids and I stayed in her spare room. I left to go to Orlando, also lived in a van there, stayed with a female friend for four months, two months in a Salvation Army shelter.” But she was forced to leave and return to Palm Beach County because she lost the part-time work she’d found and had nowhere else to go.
Mrs. Payne said that the county’s domestic violence services office gave her some money but she had only a certain time to use it, so rather than get a place she’d later have to vacate, uprooting the children again, she paid it to her friend in Riviera Beach and stayed a few months more with her.
Van living is ‘not homeless’
“Every domestic violence shelter told her the same thing,” said Pastor Payne — “too many kids, not enough room.”
So she couch-surfed for months at a time. While she and the children were living out of a van, said Mr. Payne, “she went to organizations that said they help homeless people and … they’d say, ‘Where’d you sleep last night?’ When she told them, they’re like, ‘Well, you don’t qualify because sleeping in your van or car is not considered “homeless”.’ So we know firsthand.”
Mrs. Payne’s ex-husband was not prosecuted for sexual assault because he would have been labeled a sexual predator. “I asked them not to because I was afraid of what could happen to the kids if he got labeled.” But because of a plea deal he worked out with Palm Beach County prosecutors, he went to jail for weekends for a period of time, is undergoing mandatory counseling, cannot contact Mrs. Payne for a minimum of five years, and is on probation.
His offense was felony aggravated assault.
Mrs. Payne, who said through the grace of God she’s still able to have children, has found a secure new life with her husband of 13 months.
That is their motivation for their quest at Glades Family Services Inc.