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Owner tries to remove homeless camp in Hudson woods many called home for years

HUDSON

The man they call Barcode Jerry — as he has a bar code of his birthday tattooed on the middle of his forehead — brought out a tray of shish kebabs to the fire pit — marinated chicken with onions and vivid red and green peppers. The governor of the camp was already there, as no fires are left unattended. It's one of the rules, as well as no fighting and no drugs, although beer and cigarettes are okay. Spaces are kept clean, cans are recycled, neighbors are respected. Rule breakers can, and have, been banished.

"This is not your typical homeless camp," the governor said.

• • •

Keith Westervelt is the current governor, voted on by at least three "ayes" in their regular Saturday meetings, which are held in the main tent, the one they call their community center. There have been other leaders before him, going back more than a decade on this patch of forest off U.S. 19 in Hudson. They also have a sergeant at arms, a secretary and treasurer. Minutes are taken, as well as collections.

As of Tuesday morning, they had $32.75 in their treasury and spent it on the kebabs and some sausages, chips, potato salad, macaroni salad and beer.

"It's a going-away party," said Melinda Petley, who has lived here off and on for years. She is the governor's girlfriend. They met here at the camp.

The man who owns this land is Seymour Haftel. He is 78 and lives in Sarasota. According to a report from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Haftel has owned these 60 acres since 1954. Plans for a subdivision failed and he is trying to sell the property.

He wants the homeless camp out. Deputies came to investigate last week and talked with the group and told them they needed to leave. They weren't being kicked out, but it was coming. Haftel — who could not be reached for this story — has to provide documentation of ownership and then, after all the paperwork is done, it's up to him when the area is cleared, said Kevin Doll, the Sheriff's Office spokesman.

"If the property owner says 'I want them out,' we have to act right then and there," Doll said.

The visit by authorities serves as their notice, Doll said.

"They are not tenants," he said.

• • •

There are usually between eight and 12 people living in the camp at one time. Many who have gotten back on their feet — steady jobs, their own apartment — come back to visit. Most came here at the lowest times in their lives. Alone, desperate, some struggling with addictions, all wanting a fresh start. And then they find this place, a little commune in the woods, and these people become their family.

"We are not bums. We pull together," said William Koval, 55, who has lived here since November. He was married in the community center a few weeks ago by the governor in a spiritual ceremony. They exchanged rings. The governor read from the Bible. Koval and his wife met while selling newspapers on U.S. 19. He sold the St. Petersburg Times. She sold the Tampa Tribune. It was love.

"We're all good people," he said Tuesday afternoon, next to a cooler of Natural Ice beer on the carpet where they married.

"We're just trying to survive."

• • •

The governor and others living there said Haftel gave them permission to live on the land years ago. They take pride in how well they take care of it. The camp is 50 paces from the end of Big Bend Road and the parking lot of a post office. But by the time you take a few steps off the pavement and on the dirt path, someone will shout "hello" and ask what you are doing. The group says they stop cars that try to sneak back there to do God-knows-what — drugs, sex.

"If we weren't here," said a man named Al, "there would be dead bodies hidden in the woods."

The camp is covered by several huge tarps with tents underneath. The fire pit is made of cinder block and metal. The toilet is shielded and private, with an actual toilet seat over a dirt hole.

"Not all homeless people should be stereotyped," the governor said. In this camp, there is no begging. Some people hold signs on roadways that say "Need work" and "God bless." They take donations. But the governor, who said he was a Marine in the Vietnam War, gets angry at anyone hinting they beg for money.

"This is a work camp," he said. They clean lawns, do labor work, all with the goal of leaving.

"We all want good jobs. We all want out of here," he said. "But we also want a safe place to lay our head while we find work."

They don't want to leave the camp. But they said they will comply with the law. They hope to find someone who would donate their land for them to start over again, this oasis in the woods, this ever-changing family.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com.

Owner tries to remove homeless camp in Hudson woods many called home for years 04/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 10:19pm]

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