[Hpn] Street People
Tue, 06 Feb 2001 17:53:14 -0700
Bill Thompson & Don Frazier
Standing roadside, usually dirty and ragged, they clutch a tattered piece of
cardboard that quickly sums up their situation and their request.
"Homeless." "Hungry." "Please help." "Will work for food." And, almost
without fail, "God bless you" ‹ the religious hook that stokes generosity,
if not guilt, and lends some promise of reciprocation: give to them, in turn
God gives to the donor.
It strips away dignity, but at times it can be lucrative.
Roxanne Sobers, a 45-year-old homeless woman living in a makeshift camp in
northwest Ocala, recently pocketed $29.50 by panhandling for just an hour.
"We get by," says Sobers, who opts for flying a sign, which in the parlance
of the homeless is taking the more aggressive route of approaching people
and asking them for cash.
"That's all you can do. Any way you can."
Not much is heard about homelessness these days.
It was discussed plenty in the late 1980s, when Hollywood types, activists
and sympathetic politicians joined in demanding that government do something
for the then-estimated 600,000 homeless.
They were partly successful.
Advocates for the homeless cite the 1987 McKinney Act, which funded the
creation of more homeless shelters, as a triumph. Some say it's had a
significant impact on improving the delivery of services to the homeless, at
least in major metropolitan areas.
Today, however, in the wake of the much-ballyhooed economic boom of the past
decade, little has happened to alleviate homelessness, advocates say.
"It certainly hasn't dissipated," said Greg Mellowe, executive director of
the Orlando-based Florida Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy
"The prosperity has not penetrated this group of folks."
As one man, holding tightly to his dessert as he left the Brother's Keeper
soup kitchen on Ocala's north end, put it, "We're not homeless; we're
Yes, it is survival.
But in interviewing and observing a group of homeless people over the past
few weeks, it's been seen that it's a survival built on the largesse of
others ‹ a confluence of the compassion of churchgoers and the secular
public and the taxing power of the state.
And while there are genuine homeless ‹ those down-and-out, the mentally ill
and substance abusers who have no other way to get by ‹ there is also a
prominent subculture of, for lack of a better term, "street people" who have
become skilled in manipulating a network designed to help the truly needy.
Homelessness, advocates say, is generally seen as a temporary situation,
which makes getting a count of the homeless difficult and largely
On any given day, there are 57,000 homeless people in Florida, Mellowe said.
That number can fluctuate, increasing by three or four times that amount,
depending on circumstances.
Officials from Florida KidCare, a state child health care program, say there
are 2,741 homeless people in a five-county region including Marion, Citrus,
Hernando, Lake and Sumter.
Whatever the number, the long-held stereotype of the homeless ‹ a single
male, likely mentally ill, a drug addict or a shell-shocked veteran ‹
applies only about half the time, with some overlap among the groups,
"That stereotype has long been irrelevant," he added.
Now, there are more homeless families, women and children.
Mellowe attributes that to welfare reform laws signed five years ago by
former President Clinton that decreased the number of available "safety
While some observers acknowledge it, Mellowe disputes that anyone chooses to
"There's a sense of hopelessness or something else that led to that
Œchoice,¹ " he said. "I don't think it's that people hate society that much.
I think it's they're in a situation that they can't rebound from."
One such situation, Mellowe said, is a supposed housing shortage for the
poor. Florida faces a shortfall of 532,000 housing units for people making
$15,000 a year or less, according to Mellowe.
Another sympathetic supporter, Lynn Baquie, senior nurse practitioner at
Community Health Services of Marion County, describes many homeless being
like a "gerbil on a wheel."
The wheel is an endless cycle of poverty, illicit drugs, mental illness
inadequate job training, transportation, or medication, Baquie said.
Meanwhile, "the other side of the gerbil is that there are so few safety
nets that it's like they're trapped in a maze," she said.
In talking to homeless people in Ocala, many of them voice those complaints,
especially regarding transportation.
Yet with those gripes ‹ which are often accompanied by woeful tales about
relatives who were killed by accidents or violence, spousal or sexual abuse,
bouts of drug or alcohol addiction, criminal histories or flights into
mental illness ‹ they'll rattle off a list of options, often vague.
Sobers is typical.
"He's got something for me," she says, pointing skyward as she sits in a
beat-up lawn chair in an encampment she shares with Earl DeFrancis, who
calls Sobers his wife but isn't legally married to her.
She frequently mentions leaving Ocala ‹ "Slocala" ‹ and finding something
Meanwhile, just a few days ago, she was changing her clothes, putting on her
dirtiest blue jeans and a grubby flannel shirt to look as downtrodden as
possible, before heading out to the Wal-Mart parking lot where she would fly
"Not bad for an hour's work," she would say afterward about the nearly $30
she took in.
Beyond the grime and the cold that comes with living on the street, Sobers,
DeFrancis and others in their small clique seem comfortable in their
They've tried to make their camp a home.
Scouring trash bins, they've assembled a living room of sorts: a glass-top
coffee table surrounded by a couple of plastic lawn chairs and a dilapidated
wooden bench; their entertainment comes via a small battery-powered
television and a portable radio.
They sleep on thrown-out mattresses, covered with blankets supplied by
charity. A string of clothesline tied between two trees serves as tent pegs;
a blanket over the line covered by a blue plastic tarp is their tent. A real
camping tent, which they found in the garbage, houses their food and toilet
paper. The bathroom is in the woods.
A scented-oil lamp, bought by Red, a camp dweller, highlights the place.
Red, in his mid 30s, purchased the lamp with money he made from a night job
as a warehouseman, which he subsequently quit after about a week.
In their environment, it becomes clear that in many ways these are frugal,
They smoke their cigarettes, which they roll themselves, down to a nub the
size of a pencil eraser. They then drop the butt into the foil tobacco pouch
for adding to one final cigarette later.
Nearby lies a jumbled pile of strands of black, white, red and green
electrical wire. These will be burned later to extract the copper wires
hidden beneath the colored insulation.
DeFrancis, who keeps a canvas bag filed with tools he's found diving into
trash bins, can readily recite the price recycling agents will pay for
copper or other metals. That includes aluminum, which is gathered primarily
on "canning" missions.
On one occasion, DeFrancis became almost giddy by finding a discarded
aluminum snow ski pole, which can be used for spearing cans at the bottom of
The camp, through it all, exhibits a certain self-reliance and unity in
their detachment from society.
"People in the world are selfish. They're only out for themselves," says
"Chance," a bespectacled towhead about 30 who frequents the camp and passes
the time reading Dean Koontz novels.
It's easy to see how many street people wind up this way.
DeFrancis, 37, who has been homeless since 1997, said he spent 13 years
working in the horse racing industry in Florida and Kentucky until he broke
his right forearm in a farm accident. The farm owner didn't have workman's
compensation insurance and DeFrancis lost his job.
Sobers, who has lived on the streets with him for 16 months, claims to have
a veterinary technician degree from an Ohio college. Instead of pursuing
that, she became a tractor-trailer driver.
She did that until she lost her commercial driver's license, which
eventually led to a prison stay when she was pulled over and had an invalid
license. She doesn't like talking about it, but it seems that and an abusive
spouse forced her into homelessness in 1998. An asthmatic, Sobers also
maintains she has lung cancer.
Richard Hollis, another 30ish homeless man, is a trained electrician and
also a diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic. Hollis hurt his back a while back
and now collects $500 monthly disability.
That, he said, isn't enough to pay for expenses, so he chooses to live on
To get by once they're homeless, Hollis, DeFrancis, Red and many of the
others turn to canning and day labor. Panhandling is almost an individual
It would seem the day labor may offer something promising.
DeFrancis, for example, has held a variety of jobs through that. He's built
roof trusses, installed heating and air-conditioning units, routed computer
wires through several Ocala schools, and worked other construction jobs.
He's also spoken of seeking employment doing auto-body repair, something he
did before he became homeless.
But for some reason, those jobs don't last or lead to anything permanent.
The homeless say they know the economy is slowing because the demand for
them at the labor halls is drying up.
More telling, perhaps, is what happens to the money they do make, whether
it's from working, canning or panhandling.
It's not going for the staples of life. Food, for instance, can be found
twice daily at the soup kitchen or at "Sally," the Salvation Army. Those
places and churches also supply clothes and blankets, which become their
Instead, much of their money is spent on beer ‹ generally Natural Ice,
Milwaukee's Best Ice or Busch ‹ loose tobacco, usually Top, sold in a bright
yellow pouch; and rolling papers.
Drugs, at least in this group, aren't a concern. They've told potential
allies who show a liking for illegal drugs to move along.
Most often, even in the middle of the day, they can be found sitting in
their encampment drinking their beer and chain-smoking cigarettes.
One example may illustrate why no one can answer the most persistent
question: Why is no one working to get off the street?
Robert Smith, another member of the camp in his mid 30s and who the others
say isn't bashful about asking people for money, hoists his half-empty beer
can, wiggles it and flashes an impish grin.
Although many advocates for the homeless say the safety nets have been
pulled from beneath these people, it's obvious street people can thrive by
networking government-funded programs and charitable organizations.
For example, they can enroll in the food stamp program. DeFrancis applied
recently and was told he qualified for $197 every two weeks for him and
Single people typically receive $130 a month, renewable after three months,
said officials at the Department of Children and Families, where the process
DeFrancis also got a one-time voucher from DCF for food at Interfaith
Emergency Services. DeFrancis redeemed it, receiving several bags with
canned soups and beans and spaghetti, rice, milk, bagels, fresh apples and
"We try to weed them out," said Gary Linn, Interfaith¹s executive director,
said of the single street people.
"We can't give to every street person. It would wipe us out. So we have to
cut back in other areas."
Linn said Interfaith, whose supplies and funding come solely from donations
made by individuals, churches and civic groups, will give to single street
people during the summer months, if there's enough left over.
"They're a nuisance. It gets frustrating sometimes. I'm trying to help the
ones who really need help," Linn said.
The public also helps out with another of the street people's basic needs,
Most often, they go for treatment at Community Health Services, a clinic
that operates out of a county-owned building just south of downtown Ocala.
The clinic is jointly funded by Ocala's hospitals, the nonprofit Munroe
Regional Medical Center and Ocala Regional Medical Center, which is
Maureen Donovan, an MRMC spokeswoman, said each hospital has budgeted
$314,000 for this year to treat the homeless and indigent at the clinic.
That amount will cover whatever costs aren't paid by the patients
themselves, Medicaid, or other insurance, if the patient has it.
Should a homeless person go to the emergency room instead of the clinic, the
costs are absorbed by the hospital and other payers, she said.
Baquie, the senior nurse at CHS, said there's no way to tell what percentage
of the 9,450 patients that came there last year were truly homeless. But it
doesn't matter to her.
"I don't think the percentage of bad apples is as high as the public's
perception of the percentage of bad apples," she said. "I'm not willing to
give up on the rest of the deserving poor for these people. I'm willing to
deal with the deadbeats."
There are other tangential costs for dealing with street people.
For instance, a group that lived under a U.S. 441 overpass utilized a
makeshift latrine on city property. While city officials didn't have hard
numbers, an unofficial estimate put the cost at around $10,000.
And though the largely invisible people tend not to draw attention, there
are run-ins with the police. Those occur because a landowner wants them
moved, if they are fighting or loitering, or simply being reported as
As Sobers summed it up, "I feel like a card, just being shuffled all the
The question remains: Who's going to pay their ante?
Don Frazier is a Star-Banner photographer; Bill Thompson covers community
issues and can be reached at 867-4117, or at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2001 Starbanner.com
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