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Home, ever so humble, is wherever they can find it

The abandoned house that was Mildew Manor is demolished.

When a group of homeless people moved into the partly burned building last winter, they furnished the leaky rooms with old mattresses, discarded pictures and a stained sofa. They set up a fireplace, and a table for their battery-operated television.

In a burst of self-depreciating humor, they gave the place a name.

Now all that remains is a pile of broken concrete block and lumber, topped with scraps of green tar paper. The owner had worried he would be sued if the homeless people got hurt there. So he ordered them rousted and had the building knocked down.

But the people have not gone away. They continue to seek shelter in the fields bordering Port Richey's shopping plazas, in swamps and behind supermarkets. And they continue to lose their makeshift homes almost as soon as they pitch tents.

"We're getting pushed around so much," Charlotte McCoach said.

"It's getting pretty old," Tony Mize said. "We don't bother nobody."

More than a year after writing about their brief homestead, the Times revisited three of the former inhabitants of Mildew Manor. Life has become harder for the three, not just because they lack a permanent place to stay. One, Mize, has developed epilepsy and lung disease, conditions that are made worse by his heavy drinking and smoking.

A year later, the group is angling to find a place to live. If Mize gets disability money, he figures to get a cheap room, or perhaps a mobile home, and take the others in with him.

They turned down a shelter's offer of beds because they did not like the shelter's strict regulations and alcohol ban. They say they did not choose to be homeless, but then they list the advantages.

"We don't pay bills," McCoach said. "We don't have to go to bed at 10, have dinner at 10, none of that. It doesn't bother me none."

But at other times, only their camaraderie gets them through it.

"Sometimes I get depressed," Mize said. "But as long as I'm with her (Charlotte), I'm doing okay. I don't like living like this, by myself. Thom (McCoach) would go off the deep end if he were out by himself.

"The main thing is figuring out what to do the next day."

Will work for food

Mize and Charlotte McCoach sat on the grass at the entrance to Embassy Crossing Shopping Center. They were wearing tank tops, shorts and sunglasses, and they had deep tans. From a distance they looked like tourists.

Up close, though, one could see the weathering effects of the sun on their skin and the grime that accumulates when there is no regular shower available. Their clothes held the smells of wood smoke and old sweat.

Mize was "running the sign" _ standing along the rows of waiting cars, letting the occupants know that he will work for food. A few blocks down U.S. 19, Thom McCoach, Charlotte's estranged husband, was doing the same.

As he waits alongside the plaza entrance, Mize will accept the money anyone offers. Many days, he'll get $10 to $15 from people, money that's spent for beer, cigarettes, food and batteries. That's less money than a year ago, and Mize figures it's because people are used to seeing them. But Mize said he won't ask people for money.

He said he last had a job a couple of weeks ago: ripping old insulation out of a mobile home for $10 an hour. But the seizures he recently has started to have make it difficult to do much.

He says some people make unreasonable offers of work when they roll down their car windows to address him, pitches like: "Mow 5 acres and I'll get you a pizza."

Charlotte said many people still remember them from last year's newspaper stories. Some give them money or food. Others are less kind.

After last year's stories, some readers called the Times to complain about people they believed would rather drink than work.

"We get five or six "get-a-jobs' a day from people," Mize said. "One guy tried to run me over once."

Living in tents

For several months, the homeless people had a roof over their heads. At least twice, people they met took them into their homes in exchange for work.

For one host, Mize said, "I worked _ I built a patio; I cleaned things up." But the strain of sharing quarters eventually forced them back out both times.

Charlotte said she spent several weeks in jail after she violated her probation for striking a police officer.

"It was all right," she said. "The food was good. Everyone leaves there fattened up."

These days Mize, Charlotte and Thom are living in three tents set up in a clearing not far from U.S. 19 in west Pasco. Even though Charlotte and Thom no longer consider themselves a couple, they remain friends.

Police officers already have stopped by the site to tell them they are on state land, and they'll have to move on soon.

One of the toughest times during the past year was the March 13 storm. The heavy winds pummeled them all night.

But their big tent, which at the time was pitched in a grove behind a Kash n' Karry, was on relatively high ground. And they consider themselves lucky they avoided the flooding that forced many from their homes on the coast.

"At least we had a place to sleep that night," Charlotte said.

March 13 was Charlotte's 48th birthday. It was on her 47th birthday that the group finally left Mildew Manor, after the Port Richey police told them they had to move on.

"Damn. When am I going to have a good birthday?" she said.

Trip to the free clinic

That night, Mize and Charlotte McCoach traveled to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services building on Little Road. A free clinic operates there once a week.

Mize first went there after he began to experience seizures. Charlotte and Thom say they have gotten used to restraining Mize when his arms and legs begin to flail, sometimes in the middle of the night.

"Charlotte can get me out of them. She knows how to talk to me, and I recognize the sound of her voice. Some of these seizures I have, I don't know who I am."

Mize said, after the people at the clinic tested him, they told him he had epilepsy.

He is in the process of obtaining Dilantin, a drug that suppresses seizures. The state will pay for the drug. But the coordinating nurse at the clinic once again warned Mize that his drinking was making his condition worse. And if he kept drinking, it would make the Dilantin less effective.

"We do what we can for Tony, but he has to do for himself," said Vee Dayton, a registered nurse who volunteers at the clinic and who met with Mize.

"You don't have to be nuns or angels," she said to Mize. "You have to cut down on the drinking. You can join AA, like we already talked about. It's making your condition worse."

"I know it's not so bright. But I'm cutting down," Mize replied. He was looking down at the floor.

She asked him how many beers he had had that day.

About 12, he said. Dayton walked away, unable to conceal her frustration.

"I don't expect him to live very long if he keeps up like this," she said.

Outside the clinic, Mize disagreed. He said that doctors who examined him three years ago for growths in his lungs gave him only two months to live, and he proved them wrong.

"I'm too darn ornery," said Mize, who turned 39 in May.

Mize remains sensitive about his drinking. When a photographer tried to take his picture sipping a beer recently, he lowered the can.

Mize also said he has reduced his smoking slightly, from three packs of harsh generic cigarettes a day to 2{ packs. He said he has emphysema.

Charlotte said that if Mize died, she would be lost.

"He's my baby. When they made him, they broke the mold."

Nevertheless, Tony and Charlotte have talked about how he would like to be buried, without any clothes on.

"I was born naked and I want to be buried naked," he said.

He also has thought about what will happen to Charlotte, whom he frequently talks about in a protective way.

"She has a couple of kids around here, but they don't do nothing for her. If worst comes to worst she could get help from one of them."

Difficult to escape

One evening last week, Mize made a stunning admission: He owns property in Texas.

It came during a conversation about food stamps. Mize said he's not eligible because he owns property in Texas, 9 acres of land.

Nine acres?

It's not much, he added, just some scrub land with some cactus and a trailer on it, in Brownwood, in the hot heart of the state. He bought it years ago for $500 an acre.

"My sister's watching it for me. I'm thinking of giving it to her."

After his wife and child were killed in an automobile accident in Texas in 1982, he left the state and never wanted to go back.

"I don't want nothing to do with that land," he said.

Mize said his slide to homelessness was gradual and difficult to reverse. For a time, he worked with carnivals. It became second nature to pitch a tent with the other workers in the woods near a carnival site, and sleep out there.

Mize met Charlotte and Thom about the time they were being evicted from a trailer park in Port Richey.

Although they say they don't want to be homeless, they say there are difficulties in escaping. Charlotte said it's hard to get an apartment unless you have almost $1,000, once you count in the deposits and everything.

And Mize said it's hard to find work. You can go to the local labor pool office at 5:30 in the morning, to get in line for day work. But he said there's no guarantee of getting anything.

"We're okay here'

The homeless people have taken a number of steps to make their latest camp feel more like home.

They have spread rugs on the dirt between the tents. There is a small barbecue and a furniture cabinet with food inside. The door is lashed shut against animals. There is a bathroom mirror hung from a tree. There is a Coke bottle containing two silk roses, black and purple, that Mize gave to Charlotte.

Pauline Kmieciak gave Mize a new portable television. It runs through a dozen D batteries in about four hours.

"We're going to watch a movie tonight," Mize said Thursday, consulting a TV guide that lay in the dirt. "Wild Horses with Kenny Rogers."

Despite their efforts to fix up the campsite, it can't compare to Mildew Manor.

"It was more comfortable," Mize said. "We were more happy there. That was a rough house for us to leave. But we're okay here."

"We're going to watch TV tonight," Charlotte said.

"We haven't watched TV in a week," Mize said.