Correction: The original version of this story had incorrect information about how Helton lost his eye.
By all accounts, Donnis Helton — known on the streets as Caveman — could be a menacing figure.
Standing well above 6 feet tall, and missing an eye and a few front teeth, Helton had been homeless for many years and was a familiar face in downtown Springfield.
“He was a big guy, one eye and a deep booming voice,” said homeless advocate Jennifer Cannon. “On the surface, he looked scary. And inside he was a big marshmallow.”
Helton died early Friday morning. He was about 55 years old. The cause of death has not yet been determined, but Helton died in his sleep while staying at a friend’s apartment.
“We know he went loved,” Cannon said. “And the fact that he went in a bed is just fabulous. He went in his sleep.”
Cannon is a founding member of Gathering Friends, a grassroots group of volunteers who help the unsheltered community in Springfield. She figures Helton was among the first homeless people she met when Gathering Friends started nine years ago.
“He was a good man. That seems so short and simple for how big he was, but he was a good man,” Cannon said. “There were times when he would talk about it, a lot of times when he was drinking, and he would say, ‘I’m a monster. I’m a monster. People turn their heads. People won’t look at me.’”
“He had a thick, thick skin,” she continued, “But there were times when he was really sad about not being accepted completely by people because of his outward looks.”
According to Cannon, Helton struggled with both generational poverty and generational mental illness.
But to those who knew him, Helton was “Springfield royalty,” she said.
Homeless man taught photographer to not judge
Photographer Randy Bacon first met Helton back in 2015 when Bacon was working on the Road I Call Home photography project. But prior to that initial meeting, Bacon said he’d seen Helton around downtown and had formed his own preconceived notions about the homeless man.
“I was so wrong,” Bacon said. “I judged him from afar.
“After I talked to him for like 30 seconds or 60 seconds, he grabbed my heart,” Bacon said. “He was seriously one of the most loving people I’ve met. He would always bring a smile to my face no matter what his condition was at that point.”
Bacon said he is often invited to give presentations about the Road I Call Home project, which featured photos, videos and interviews with the unsheltered community in Springfield.
The photographer said he almost always talks about Helton and how Bacon initially judged the homeless man before getting to know him.
“He had that impact on me,” Bacon said, “teaching me that I personally have to look past the surface of people. And I think that’s a big message that he brought to the world.”
In his 2015 interview with Bacon, Helton said in part: “These streets made a monster out of me — the monster made out of love. … If I can make someone smile that don’t even know me, they will remember me the next time they see me. And that is the love that I see.”
Longtime homeless advocate Katrin Scott has known Helton for at least eight years. He was originally from Pedal, Mississippi, but Scott said she isn’t sure how or why he ended up in Springfield.
“His big bear hugs were the best,” Scott said. “He was fiercely protective over all of us volunteers. If anybody was getting out of hand or whatever, he’d be like, ‘Knock it off.”
Scott spoke of Helton’s gentle and forgiving nature. Some 15 years ago, he was in a bad fight with another man. The man sliced Helton’s stomach in several places. That man spent time in prison over the fight. When he was released, Helton forgave him, Scott said.
Helton had an apartment for a time last year at Burrell Behavioral Health’s Residential Services. But that apartment was located in southwest Springfield, far from Helton’s street family and the Gathering Friends volunteers.
“He said, ‘I hate it out here because I’m all alone. Nobody comes to see me. None of my friends are out here,’” Scott said. “He just hated it, being alone.”
Scott recalled how Helton loved getting big cans of Earthquake (a lager) and the occasional can of chew. Gathering Friends volunteer Lynda Bain would often sneak a can of chew into Helton’s pockets, Scott said.
“He was loved by so many,” she added. “He was the epitome of what it means to see what’s inside people and judge them for what’s inside, not for what they look like outside. He looked very scary, but his heart was soft. He had the biggest heart.”
He battled addiction, mental health issues — but was loved
Helton suffered from mental health issues and an addiction to alcohol, his friends said. He got into housing a few times over the years, but seemed to have a difficult time being indoors.
Cannon said there were times when she and other advocates would help him look for a place to rent.
“One of the things we looked for was something that maybe had a balcony or porch where he could put a bedroll out and sleep outside,” Cannon said. “He wasn’t comfortable in four walls. He was bigger than four walls — his heart and his body and his attitude.”
Cannon’s daughter Delaney was also struggling Friday to come to terms with Helton’s death. Now a 22-year-old Drury University student, Delaney first became friends with Helton when she was about 13.
Delaney said she had grown up thinking homeless people were dangerous and scary. Helton changed all of that, Delaney said.
“He showed me he was understanding. He was sweet,” Delaney said. “He would listen to me and my high school drama.”
Delaney said she often saw Helton around campus or when she was out with her friends downtown. She told her mother that Helton seemed to keep an eye out for her in a protective way. Their friendship also gave Delaney opportunities to teach her friends about the unsheltered community.
“When she would be downtown with her friends and she would run up to Cave and hug him, they’d be all like, ‘Oh gosh, Delaney, you shouldn’t do that,’” Cannon said. “And it gave her a platform to talk about — why do you say that? Because of the way he looks? Because that doesn’t matter.”
Cannon said word of Helton’s death was spreading Friday, and folks were taking the news hard. Abbie Dynes, who works at The Rare Breed Youth Outreach Center, would be talking to the unsheltered teens and young adults about Helton’s passing, Cannon said.
“They really looked to him as a father figure,” Cannon said. “He really was.”
Bacon, the photographer, said he regrets not getting to spend any time with Helton since the start of the pandemic. But even so, Bacon said he’s thought about Helton often.
“He had that impact on my mind and heart,” Bacon said. “What I want people to know about Cave is that he was truly a special person and that he brought a lot of light and love into this world.”
Gathering Friends co-founder Whitney Creehan shared the news of Helton’s death in a public post to the group’s Facebook page Friday morning. It read in part:
“We don’t always say something when we lose a friend. But (s)ome friends just make a mark on everyone who meets them. … It is with that in mind that we share of the passing of an amazing man. Cave left us last night in his sleep. The amount of tears and sobbing that have happened this morning speaks volumes of the lives he touched. He was something else.”
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at The Connecting Grounds, 4341 W. Chestnut Expressway.