Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Homeless, living in tents, but life goes on

Most mornings, if she feels like going, Jasmine leaves her tent in the woods to catch a bus for school. She leaves her mom and several other homeless people and walks past a store on U.S. 19 that sells sex toys and adult movies.

Jasmine is 17 and has long blond hair streaked with pink and orange. She says she wants to be a cosmetologist. A barber shop next to the sex shop has been giving her some opportunities to learn. It's better than school, she says, where her behavior often gets her kicked out. She has been through Fivay, Hudson, Weeki Wachee and St. Pete high schools, she says, finally landing at the last-chance voluntary alternative school in New Port Richey.

The other day, Jasmine says, a homeless man named "Scrappy'' set her tent on fire because she wouldn't have sex with him. That wasn't part of the early official report of the fire that burned a few acres. But "Mafioso John,'' also known as "Pops,'' says it's common knowledge among the 25 or so homeless people who live in tents in this territory.

"We're watching,'' he says while sipping a beer near the charred camp, just north of State Road 52. "Justice out here is swift. I'm not saying I know anything, but something could happen to the guy who burned down that tent.''

Pops, 57, has lived in these woods about four years. It's hard, he says, especially if he runs out of medication he gets from the Harbor mental health center. He worries that so many new people keep showing up. Hundreds live in the woods, he says, in pockets all along the coast. He seems to be a leader and is trim and clean-cut, partly because he has a son nearby who lets him stay there sometimes. "Not all homeless people look like homeless people,'' Pops says. "You walk 5 miles a day and you'll be in good shape, too.''

The day after the fire, he went before a judge who fined him $400 for trespassing at Walmart after he had been warned to stay away. This marked his second conviction for the same offense. "I didn't pay the first fine and won't be paying this one,'' he says. "I don't have $400.''

Others from this camp have been in the same situation. "They took me to jail in Land O'Lakes and then released me,'' says a man named Keith. "It took me eight hours to walk back.''

"Tennessee Jim'' is familiar with that 15-mile hike. Last month he got popped for violating the new county law that prohibits begging at intersections. He says he was just holding up a sign that said, "Homeless. God Bless.'' But this earned him a third trip to the jail — and a long walk home.

"They let you go at 3 in the morning,'' he says, "but at least they let you go.''

These "campers'' could not have been more friendly and polite as we talked for a few hours, although they clearly held back personal history and other information — like last names. They agreed alcohol and mental illness are real culprits in swelling their ranks, but not drugs. "We don't tolerate them,'' Pops says. "They lead to thievery, and we don't tolerate that either.''

They don't go to shelters, even when it gets cold. Too many rules. They worry about three of their mates with ill health. "They're dying,'' Pops says.

A slight, shy 47-year-old man named James says he lived in a trailer in Hudson until he refused to pay rent because it was full of mold. He got evicted in October and had nowhere to go.

"I was afraid to come here,'' he says. "But these people took me in. I don't plan to stay here forever, but they have been very good to me.''

They gravitate to the nearby ACTS (Abundant Communities to Share) building. A sign on the front says, "Enlist in the Army of the Lord.'' Another tells campers when they have mail, usually $200 in food stamps that come every month. After the fire destroyed all of Jasmine's clothes, ACTS replaced them for free.

Some find day jobs. Jasmine's mother works construction, "and she's really good,'' Pops says.

Jasmine says they expect soon to be able to move.

Meanwhile, things were pretty much back to normal by the end of the week. Jasmine worried about the guy who torched her tent, but also saved some mock vitriol for the firefighters who dug the trenches to control the flames.

Says Jasmine: "They bulldozed my toilet.''

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