Scenes from Williams Park: 'I've had to grow up hard and fast'

ST. PETERSBURG

Kymberly Hill-William stood shivering near a bench in Williams Park just before dawn one brisk morning last week. Barely strong enough to stand, she leaned over a shopping cart containing all her worldly possessions. Her head was hung low, her eyes glazed over. Her face was blank, emotionless.

The 50-year-old epileptic said she gave birth to her first son when was 15. "Ever since then, I've had to grow up hard and fast, and I never stopped getting old," she said, exhausted from spending a cold night sleeping outside City Hall.

Minutes later Hill-William's arms locked up, her legs began convulsing, and she fell to the ground, moaning. A friend, Charles Roach Jr., 53, could only look on powerlessly as she lost control of her body and lay stiff as a board.

A passer-by had dialed 911 on a cell phone. When her seizure had finally passed, Hill-William staggered to her feet with Roach's help and hobbled away just as the paramedics arrived. The EMTs walked halfheartedly to the center of the park, watched the woman scramble away from them, and headed back toward their ambulance.

"I didn't want to go to the hospital," she later said. "I couldn't afford what they would bill me, they wouldn't do anything for me and they'd make me walk all the way back to the park. What's the point?"

This is typical of the homeless people who spend their days in Williams Park, said William "Pop" Shumate. "We all owe a couple of thousand dollars in medical bills that we'll never be able to pay off," he said. "I owe about $30,000."

When the paramedics arrived to pick up Hill-William, Shumate was the first to shoo them away, knowing she wouldn't want to go to the hospital. The white-haired, white-bearded 60-year-old is known for looking after those in the park and is respected in St. Petersburg's homeless community.

"Everybody considers me their father because I usually handle their problems," he said. Pop is well known for fixing bicycles, a chief mode of transportation for the homeless.

Hill-William said she has to spend what little money she has on antiseizure medication, Dilantin, which costs her about $120 a month.

At times she couldn't afford the pills and had to skip some 12-hour doses or miss weeks at a time.

Shumate pointed to a man who was recovering from knee surgery that left him on the streets in insurmountable debt.

Another man, Emmet Larry, was severely beaten during the civil war in his homeland of Liberia and has to undergo periodic intestinal surgeries.

Larry, who said his wife was decapitated by rebel forces and whose daughter died from cholera, has not had contact with his surviving family for more than four years.

"Sometimes people see me crying out in the park. They know it's because I'm thinking of my country," he said.

Shumate pointed out others who suffer from mental ailments they can't afford to treat so they turn to substance abuse, he said.

"People are put into situations where their memories are so horrifying that they need to use drugs or booze to ease the pain," he said. "That's how the whole vicious cycle starts."

Shumate, a Vietnam War veteran, said he graduated from the University of South Florida.

Many educated people, he said, have been left homeless because of personal problems or the sagging economy.

"Everyone is one paycheck away from being on the streets. Everyone. So if you're one paycheck away from being on the streets, what makes you different from me?"

Scenes from Williams Park: 'I've had to grow up hard and fast' 11/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 1:35pm]

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