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Northeast Queens man recalls his homelessness

Frederick Robert Bedell Jr. is a man who works 60 hours a week, keeps up with his charitable activities and can quote Kipling at the drop of a hat.

The father of two found the time to learn Kipling about 25 years ago, after leaving the military in 1975. It was then that Bedell, now a seven-year Little Neck resident, found himself without any close family, friends or shelter and spent about a month on the streets.

“I started to go to the library a lot,” he said over a cup of coffee last week. “It was something to do, and it’s warm. I memorized a lot of poetry.”

Bedell said he wanted to make his story public after reading recent news stories about the plight of the homeless, an increasing problem as the city comes to grips with a weak economy and the aftereffects of Sept. 11.

February 1975 was a cold and lonely time for the then 25-year-old Queens man who spent whatever nights he could in a day-to-day homeless shelter in Hempstead, L.I.

With little family to lean on and his children put up for adoption without his knowledge, Bedell was floundering after he finished his military service.

“I lost my family,” he said. “I lost my father, I didn’t have a lot of friends. When I lost my kids, I said ‘that’s it.’ I lost my drive.

“Once you lose hope, you have nothing to work for,” he said, reflecting more than 25 years later on his experience of homelessness.

A Vietnam-era veteran who served on two U.S. warships, Bedell grew up in Queens Village and lived there with his first wife and two young sons before the marriage fell apart in 1973, he said.

Bedell struggled to support his children, Thomas and Robert, after his wife abandoned the family, he said. Taking time off from work to care for his sons, who had gotten sick, Bedell eventually lost his $100-a-week job.

With little family to turn to except for his ailing father and an elderly aunt, Bedell decided to put his children in foster care and join the military.

“I thought I would get a job skill by the time I got out and be able to take care of them,” said Bedell, who served from 1973 to 1975 but visited his children every chance he got.

At the same time, Bedell’s elderly father was dying of cancer, and his military salary of $308 a month was stretched thin.

“Those were expensive years,” he said.

He was stationed in the Mediterranean and the Middle East when his ex-wife and former father-in-law decided to put Thomas and Robert up for adoption.

“No one notified me of the proceedings,” he said.

With nowhere to go after ending his military service and emotionally shaken by the loss of his children, Bedell was left with $28 in his pocket. Plans to stay with friends fell through, and Bedell wound up in The Middle Earth, a Hempstead shelter.

Days were spent walking from Hempstead to Mineola, where he could get some money from social service agencies but never enough to pay for an apartment. He would go to the library to try to study and make contacts, Bedell said.

If not for the kindness of a stranger, Bedell said he might never have gotten off the streets.

“When I met him, he was earning a master’s degree in accounting,” said Bedell about Cyril, a native of Nigeria who had a room to rent. Cyril decided to give Bedell the room, although the homeless man did not have enough money for a security deposit.

“He said he’d give me a chance,” Bedell recalled. “I never said thank you.”

After staying with Cyril for only six weeks, Bedell was able to get enough money from social services and unemployment to stay afloat. When the house he was staying in was sold, Bedell stayed off the streets by renting tiny rooms in East Meadow, L.I., and Hollis before getting a full-time job and eventually moving to Bayside.

The GI bill allowed him to go to college, and Bedell took classes at the Taylor Business Institute, Queens College and the New York Institute of Technology.

Those days are long past for Bedell, who is now 52 and married to his second wife, Eva, for more than 14 years. Living in Little Neck, Bedell has been with Northeast Plumbing, a specialty supply store, for over 20 years where he manages the shipping and receiving department. He has not seen his sons since Christmas 1974.

When he passes a homeless person on the street, Bedell said “it’s like flashbacks you get from that period. Some people have lost that drive completely and can’t grab it back.”

He’s motivated, Bedell said, to give back and was recently elected to his third term as the grand knight of the St. Anastasia’s Knights of Columbus. Bedell also serves as a lecturer and usher at the Douglaston church.

“There are a lot of people out there,” Bedell said. “We’re not by ourselves. What we are is really what we do and what we give to others.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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