One day last September, Robert Rashford rolled his suitcase down a weedy sidewalk in Tampa.
An hour before, he'd gotten into an argument with his roommate. They'd parted ways. He was homeless again — the fifth time in four years.
As he made his way down the sidewalk, Rashford mulled over his options. He'd moved to Tampa four months before. He didn't have any other friends. Should he even stay in Tampa?
Then he had an idea. Rashford stashed his suitcase in some woods. He made his way to a booth at McDonald's. He pulled out his scuffed Acer laptop.
So here it is Day 1.... again! I've been here before and am not so scared this time (that's a lie)! Less then 50$ in pocket doesn't help. I said to myself if this happens again I was going to document it and I wish I had a video camera. So I'll blog it all down instead. Day 1 is always hard ... I'm getting to old for this (32) ... But for anyone who wants to see someone that has just hit the dirt hard (for the 5th time) and see how they handle it (will he make it? will he fail?) read on!
He was shooting off a flare and hoping somebody would notice.
Rashford is an unemployed machine operator, a father of two. The most he'd ever written was a paper in high school. His spelling was horrendous. But he didn't care. Writing soothed him. It gave him some control over his situation, allowed him to feel competent even if it was at something that no one aspired to.
He slept in a park that first night. He found shelter from a downpour beneath a porch in front of a bar the second night. He found the lobby of an office building open the third night and curled up on a tan love seat.
During the day, he would go to a day labor office in Town 'N Country. Sometimes he got sent out to jobs. Sometimes he waited all day in the plastic chairs that lined the wall.
He loaded tires onto a truck. He ferried materials around a construction site. He moved furniture for a home restoration company. At minimum wage, he often made $48.50 a day. They took out $8.50 in child support for his two daughters, who lived in Vermont.
He had made $23.51 an hour at a Vermont ball-bearing plant before he was laid off four years ago. He'd moved with his girlfriend and two girls to North Carolina, found a factory job making oil can lids for $9 an hour. It didn't pay the bills. His girlfriend and kids returned to Vermont. He ended up on the streets.
In the four years since, he'd been homeless in North Carolina, Maine and California. He'd moved back in with his parents. Gotten himself an efficiency. Stayed with a friend. The constant, though, was the streets.
He realized he'd gotten pretty good at being homeless, so good that he had advice to give:
Homeless tip 1: Know the deference between being a bum and being homeless! I'm homeless but not a bum! I have drive, ambition, dreams, and determination! A bum has (or chooses not to have) any of these things.
But for all his tips — and he had 14 of them — he just hadn't figured out yet how to stay off the streets.
As far as I'm concerned I'm yelling into the wind. I hope someday this stuff helps someone (if you can get past my bad spelling that is). I just feel like right now I need to do this.
He'd never been homeless in Tampa before. He noticed lots of homeless stood at intersections, holding signs.
He did not want to hold a sign. He hated the idea.
He stayed away from homeless camps and homeless shelters. "It's a quick way to get hurt or stolen from," he wrote. After most days' labor, he made his way to the McDonald's in Town 'N Country, where he bought a double cheeseburger and a soda, charged his computer and wrote on his blog.
All I want is my life and my little girls back.
He couldn't picture it though. Not on $40 a day.
He had an idea though. In a burst of optimism, he changed the name of his blog: Homelessrob Has a Plan.
Less than two weeks in, he went to the woods where he'd stored his suitcase and found someone had rummaged through it. They'd taken a hat and his soap, scattered his clothes. He gathered up the pieces of his life, buried them deeper in the woods.
He ran into a homeless man lying on pieces of cardboard amid tall grass. The man was reading a novel. He couldn't imagine reading a book. Why wasn't the man trying to figure out a way to not be homeless?
He headed to the office building with the tan love seat. He waited for the office workers to leave, walked to the door. It was locked.
He felt discouraged. It was his favorite spot.
He walked a mile to a park and slept on the playground equipment, inside the tiny house at the top of the slide.
Day 10: Some homeless people just expect to be taken care of I think. Or are hoping for some sort of miracle to happen. . . . Me, I can (not) do that and I won't hold my breath. Now I won't ask for help from anyone, but once or twice someone asked if I needed help and I said yes. I don't feel bad for that.
It was starting to get cold toward the end of the first month and he was having trouble sleeping. One night, he snuck into a church bus, stretched out in the back.
Day 22: Around 11:30 I heard the door open. Scared, I balled up hoping to not be seen. I heard footsteps approaching me. I hoped it would stop ...They will not find me. Just stay quiet. Then . . . I saw his face.
ME: Mister, I know this is wrong.
HIM Still out of view: Your trespassing!
ME: I understand that and I'm sorry!
HIM: There is a park across the street!
ME: Mister, I know that!
Rashford grabbed his backpack, leapt off the bus.
A few days later, he bought a tent and a sleeping bag with his day labor wages. He'd found a wildlife preserve. He made his way deep into the woods, down a trail, off the path, past palms and scrub palmettos. He hid his tent so well he stumbled around in the dark for hours that first night and still couldn't find it.
He ended up at the back of an apartment complex with a pool. He jumped in the pool. Then he slept in the pool bathroom.
The next morning, he saw someone sitting at a gazebo with a computer.
Day 26: Being around people with normal lifes is hard. One thing that gets me upset is when I'm standing somewhere and see people in there cars. I always woulder "so many people with cars, "why cant (I) have one?", "what makes that person so special?", "whats the secret?". I think like this often. It gets me mad! I use to have a car. I miss haveing a car. Right now I'd be happy with a scooter. Just being around people and knowing that I'm different is hard. I cant have a place to sleep, I cant have a woman, I cant do fun things, I cant even have what is mine (my kids). Normalcy is just a another word I cant spell to me. Sometimes I get around people that don't know I'm homeless and deep inside my mind I just want them all to suffer becouse they have better lives then me.
He had read online about someone making cross necklaces out of horseshoe nails. The nails were tied together with wire in blues, pinks, greens. He wanted to make them and sell them online and on the street. Combine that with the day labor and maybe he could make enough to figure something out.
But he couldn't find the right nails. They had to be flat on one side. A friend had sent him the wrong kind. So he spent a day's pay on a grinder to fix them.
Day 37: I don't swear often, but I want to right now! So mad! Spent all this time working on getting this grinder, hoping it would fix the problems. Spent 40$ on it and it has solved nothing ... I'm back at the drawing board with nothing! ... The grinder turns the nails black, which makes the nails look bad ...
He focused on his blog and posted on homeless activist sites. He preached about how homeless people were judged and stereotyped (drug addicts, drunks, useless). Talked about why people were more likely to help a woman on the streets than a man. Complained that Occupy protesters were giving homelessness a bad name by squatting in parks and blocking traffic.
He tried to just feel good that he had made it almost two months. But he couldn't stop thinking about how he was going to get out of this.
Day 56: I'm still alive (that always good). I'm still in the tent, way back in the brush. I actually called it (to myself) my home a few times. I dint like that. . . . I do like that I kind of have a spot of my own though. That is nice . . . I have talked to my little girls a few times in the last couple of weeks. That felt GREAT! They still love me, LOL! I don't know how or why but they still do. I did lie to my littlest on tho. She asked me specifically if I lived in a house or apartment. I forgot what I told her. It was a lie though. I think that's the first time I ever lied to eighter of them. I felt bad about it.
His blog was getting 40 to 60 hits a day. He got 280 hits one day after talking about the cycle of homelessness. He got emails from England, Guam, Canada. A teen from Australia sent him a pocketknife. A lady from Utah sent him $10. A homeless advocate from Los Angeles sent him a videocamera to document his homelessness.
He was getting the attention he had hoped for, but no one was offering the permanent solution to his problem.
Then one day, a woman named Fiona from Ireland contacted him. She thought the blog had potential. She said she would edit the first 88 days of it, get rid of all the grammar mistakes and the misspellings, turn it into an e-book that Rashford could self-publish, put it on Amazon.
Rashford was excited.
He decided to call it Yelling Into the Wind.
He started posting videos on his blog. Shot footage of his journey from the road to his tent in the woods. Introduced people to a homeless guy named Lance who had sores all over his body.
And then — on Day 127 — he announced that he wasn't quite homeless anymore.
He had been going to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church every Saturday for a meal and a shower, getting his mail. He was breaking one of his rules about hanging out where other homeless people gather. Lucky thing.
He met Hillsborough Deputy Steven L. Donaldson. One day, Donaldson took him to a tiny yellow house. It was owned by someone who had donated it for homeless people. Rob could stay there for $50 a week if he helped fix it up.
That same day, the deputy got Rashford a job, too. It was at Mobile Auto Glass Repair in Oldsmar, about 4 miles or an hour-and-a-half walk to the yellow house. The owner of the company had teamed up with the deputy to hire the homeless.
His job paid minimum wage. The downside was he had to hold a sign advertising the auto glass company on the side of the road — something he had sworn he would never do as a homeless man.
He had a job and a roof. Why then did he still feel homeless?
Day 127: I did not like it at all the first few days. I was embarrassed. I felt like everyone was looking down on me. Making fun of me. Saying to themselves "this guy is not worth much" But ... I've gotten use to it, and I see some pluses here to. This is a great opportunity to get the ball rolling ... I still consider myself homeless. Even if I did not, I've been in this game long enough to know that just (as) fast (as) I got off the streets, I can land right back on them.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.