CLEARWATER — This is what Todd Yoder knew about homeless people: They are mentally ill, dope fiends, drunks. Then in February, Yoder found himself without work, and he has since learned much more:
It takes about 20 clusters of oysters from Clearwater's Stevenson Creek to make a meal.
Palm tree fibers make decent kindling, but don't leave any hot coals.
Libraries provide sanctuary for desperate men.
Seagulls read minds.
And a once-in-a-lifetime recession can rip away more than a man's paycheck and his home.
"I no longer knew what purpose I served being alive," Yoder said, "other than that it was a habit."
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Yoder, 43, hails from rural Arkansas and calls himself a redneck and a country boy.
Contrary to type, he is well spoken and has a taste for philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is a recent read, a tough one, Yoder admits.
Yoder signed with the Army as a plumber and pipe fitter after high school. When the Army saw his intelligence test scores, it trained him to be an air traffic controller.
He served in Panama and Germany, where his 21-year-old son lives with an ex-wife. During Desert Storm, he spent three months in Iraq, driving across the sands to deploy radio beacons for aircraft.
While doing demolition training in Germany, a premature explosion tore loose his left ear drum. He now has 90 percent hearing loss in that ear; his right ear is better, but also damaged.
Yoder can hold one-on-one conversations, but any background noise creates for him an incoherent jumble of sound.
When he left the military in 1992, Yoder focused on the skilled trades. Outside of an office setting, his hearing wasn't as much of a problem. Plus, he could work independently, which fit his sense of being a loner.
He built boats, did plumbing and spent several years installing telecommunications equipment, until the dot-com bust. He then turned to home building and remodeling.
When Arkansas' housing boom collapsed, he hopped a bus to Florida. Friends had said there was work. He arrived in November and got a $750-a-month apartment on Madeira Beach.
Yoder did three condo remodeling jobs in Dunedin before work dried up. Not wanting to go into debt, he left his apartment and rented a room at the Flamingo Hotel in Clearwater for a week while frantically searching for a job.
None materialized, nor, he said, did the payment from his last remodeling gig.
It was mid February and cold when Yoder found himself without a roof.
"I felt ashamed," he said. "It makes you feel shameful that you weren't able to keep your s--- together."
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Yoder's original thoughts about homeless people have an element of truth. Some are mentally ill and substance abusers.
But an economy that has people talking about the Great Depression has produced more and more Todd Yoders, people on the margin who find themselves out on the streets when work gets difficult to find.
"It's just a very sad time in our country," said Cliff Smith, assistant director of Pinellas County's health and human services department.
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Until this winter, Yoder knew nothing about homeless shelters or soup kitchens, which he associated with black and white photos from the 1930s.
He sought out a secluded bank on Stevenson Creek behind the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club, where he used the remains of an old tree house to build a shelter.
The first night, he slept on a bed of palm fronds. He'd come to use their thick bases as a primary fuel source for cooking.
Knowing that vagrants and strangers are seen as threats, he avoided houses while going to and from his camp, skirting along the creek bank to get to Edgewater Drive.
"It was the first time in my life that I didn't have any options," he said. "So I started operating in survival mode."
Under the palm trees, mangroves and oaks, he worked the creek bank, digging in the muck at low tide for oysters and clams.
"I guess I wasn't your normal homeless guy, because I was eating oysters on the half shell and steamed clams."
From a screen door, he fashioned a net he used to trap fish that he'd lure into the shallows with oysters.
One afternoon, seagulls visited the bank. A hot meal, Yoder thought. The birds appeared to sense the hunter in him, and flew off.
"The minute it crossed my mind, 'Hey, roasted bird.' It was like they were psychic."
He now viewed homelessness from a different perspective, which he put into a poem.
The man who was king
Huddled in the cold
Watching the cars go by
Not bothering a glance his way
A funny fate
For the man who would be king
At his belly
At his mind
• • •
Though prone to dark spells, Yoder said he's never been treated for depression. By the creek, he became consumed by thoughts of suicide.
The choice was between hanging himself from a tree or jumping from the Sunshine Skyway.
"I was just very despondent," he said. "I felt utterly defeated."
He battled on, going on foot from business to business, looking for work.
To keep presentable and fight the growing stench of his body, Yoder took sink baths at nearby Edgewater Park's public restroom.
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The Clearwater Public Library saved him.
There, he found a clean bathroom, shelter and Internet service that allowed him to communicate with potential employers, his son and his parents.
He told his family he was doing fine.
"That's just basic pride, and shame," he said. "You don't want to admit to the people you care about the most that you've completely screwed the pooch."
From the Clearwater library and the one in Dunedin, he would get books to distract him and give him an edge. Today, he almost chuckles as he describes reading a book on how to interview for a job — while picking leaves and twigs from his beard.
He also found other homeless people, who told him about programs that could help. Yoder discovered Clearwater's Homeless Emergency Project on the library's Internet.
On March 14, after a month on the creek bank, the project's shelter took him in.
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The Department of Veterans Affairs is paying for Yoder's bed at the Homeless Emergency Project through June 16, then he'll need to find other housing.
Social workers at the project are helping him develop an immediate survival plan.
Yoder himself is setting longer-term goals. He hopes to become eligible for VA disability compensation due to his hearing, which worsens with time.
Yoder can't use his back to make a living forever. Compensation from the VA could allow him to enroll at. St. Petersburg College to study sign language interpretation.
He sees it as a job he can do as he gets older, and as a way to help himself as his hearing goes.
In his journey through the world of the homeless, Yoder has been amazed by how many people he's met who are just like him, skilled, blue-collar and suddenly destitute.
Not mentally unhinged.
"They are people," he said, "who have run out of resources."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] or 727-445-4166.