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For homeless boy, to dream is to fly far, far from uncertainty below

CLEARWATER — Robert Utley and his mother pedal their bikes up the sidewalk toward the library. The temperature is in the 40s, but Robert doesn't feel cold. He doesn't feel much of anything.

Inside, Robert sits in front of his battered computer and signs on to an airplane chat group. His mother waits nearby while he looks at photos of the largest plane ever built and the most expensive plane.

He imagines himself flying them one day. Up there, he could get away from down here.

Lines of text march down his screen, the chatter of aviation buffs in New York City, Australia and Amsterdam. Their posts are continual and predictable, unlike so much in his life.

Robert sits there, watching.

"These," he says, "are my friends."

Robert is 15. He is one of eight children born to Cyntthia Sterba and the last one living with her. They're not what you imagine when you hear about the homeless, but that's what they are.

They had a home once, on an Air Force base in Kansas, with one of Cyntthia's husbands. But a string of abusive relationships, lost jobs and bad luck has cast them adrift. You could blame Cyntthia for some of it or none of it, but you can't blame Robert for any of it.

He has trailed his mother through four states, sleeping in guest rooms, on sofas, in motel rooms, and on sidewalks.

Cyntthia, 44, brought him here six months ago, hoping to get a job. But so far she has found only volunteer work at a church. The government gives her $588 a month in cash and food stamps.

Pinellas County has 313 beds for families, and for a while Robert and his mother occupied two of them. After that, they slept on the sidewalk in front of a soup kitchen, behind a stage in downtown Clearwater, and in the alcove of a church, where the wind whipped down the brick tunnel so hard it made Cyntthia cry.

The last few nights, they've been staying at a shelter for single people. On cold days like this, they go to the library.

"Do your schoolwork," Cyntthia tells Robert now, heading out for a smoke.

"I will," he says, not looking up.

He pulls up the Florida Virtual School Web site, begins a language arts assignment.

What's your favorite book?

He types: Probably "Holes." I don't really know.

I don't really know. That's his credo. He left Largo Middle School in December because it was too hard to get to school after sleeping in a shelter. But he doesn't have much to say about it. Emotionally, he's where no aviator wants to be: autopilot.

"I'm not scared, I'm not excited, I'm not bored. I'm just there," he says. "Whatever happens, happens."

He admits to only one strong feeling: embarrassment. It's embarrassing, checking into a shelter. When his mother got a shopping cart for their things, he made her get rid of it.

He comes to another question on his assignment.

How many books and magazines do you have at your house?

He pauses, then types:

I have about 5 magazines about aviation at my house.

• • •

That evening, Robert pulls his hood up over his head, stuffs his hands in his pockets. He's standing outside First United Methodist Church, darkness descending, temperature dropping. "It's enough to make you wish you were in the Caribbean," his mother says.

"Florida is the sunshine state," Robert says. His voice comes out monotone, no excitement, no sadness, just there.

The shelter manager shows up, lets them in. Robert's mother sets out the mattress pads and blankets.

"I don't know about you, Robert, but this is all she wrote," Cyntthia says, flopping down.

Robert takes a seat in front of his computer screen, his face wedged in the crook of his hand, watching the scroll of voices.

His favorite movie is The Terminal, about an immigrant who lives at the airport. Robert wishes he could live at the airport. He loves taking pictures of the airplanes and posting them online. He has it all mapped out, where he'll go to aviation school, the college loans he will use. It's the only thing he knows for sure.

Outside, the wind bellows against the windows. His mother turns in her bed. Robert keeps his vigil on people he has never met, talking about things he has never seen.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.

Suggest an Encounter

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at or (727) 892-2924.

For homeless boy, to dream is to fly far, far from uncertainty below 03/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 10:02am]
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