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The sheltering sky

Six years ago, Brenda Kay Blackburn came here and found the perfect place to make her home. Her paradise was eight acres of unspoiled wooded land right in the heart of town.

"I like this place better than any of the other places I ever lived," Blackburn said.

She and her dog Baby settled there without ever talking to a real estate agent, without one visit from the Welcome Wagon, without a single postcard or solicitation from an area business.

Blackburn avoided everything that is common to most new residents in the suburbs. But then, her lifestyle is anything but suburban.

She digs her food out of restaurant garbage bins along N Dale Mabry Highway. She showers with a cold water hose at night behind the Frosty Food Mart on Gunn Highway. She cooks over an open fire on the ground and sleeps in a homemade tent.

Every day thousands of cars roll within 50 yards of her makeshift home, sandwiched between Dale Mabry Highway, Gunn Highway and Linebaugh Avenue. But few could imagine that the dense canopy of trees are her roof.

For six years no one suspected, and Blackburn did everything she could to make sure no one ever would. To avoid attracting firefighters, she never cooked at night. Even on the coldest nights, she bundled up with rags to guard the secrecy of her home.

Despite all her precautions, Blackburn was discovered recently when property owners came to inspect the land for development. Now Hillsborough County Sheriff's officials say she must leave the premises by the end of today.

"I offered to help her in any way I could as far as putting her in contact with the Salvation Army and other places that could help her," said Deputy Dale Russell. "But she didn't want that. She asked me to help her find another wooded area where she could live."

For all its severity and hardship, living in the woods does provide Blackburn with the freedom and autonomy she prefers.

She says if she were to move to a shelter, she couldn't take Baby, her dog, or Boy, her cat. She would have to live by someone else's rules, go to job interviews and, after a while, pay rent.

"I've always lived in the woods. I don't know what work I'd do because I don't have any skills," she said. "My reading ain't that good at all."

An early riser

The cars on Linebaugh Avenue are so close to Blackburn's camp that her voice is all but drowned out by engines and horns. She has been up since 5 a.m. smoking cigarettes in the dark, waiting patiently for the sun to appear before she starts a fire to boil water for coffee on a refrigerator rack supported by two concrete blocks.

Now that she has fed her cat and dog, she will go out checking garbage bins to find lunch or any other items that she can use. Years ago she found a radio; the other day she found some wine glasses. She uses the glasses to drink the Mickey's and Schlitz Malt Liquor beers she buys at the Frosty Food Mart.

The owner there has been nice to her over the years. He lets her bathe behind the store at night and will give her up to $4 credit for bread, bologna and canned meat when she runs out of food stamps.

Blackburn said she makes $40 a week cleaning a house _ enough to buy the things she can't get with food stamps, like dog food, beer and Bugler rolling tobacco. Sometimes, when she's out of tobacco and money, she'll look for discarded cigarette butts on the ground and smoke them.

Even as the midday sun beams fiercely on the asphalt roads around her, it is shady and cool in the camp. Her bare feet have turned black from the coal-colored dirt that smears her tank top, her shorts, and even her face, which has a flash of color from the gold earring in her nose.

"I don't like living like this," she said. "It could be better, but I can't do anything. It takes money to get somewhere."

Abandoned as a teen

At 33, Blackburn has no children and has never been married. She was born and raised in Tampa and would have been in the graduating class of 1981 at Hillsborough High School, had she not dropped out in the 10th grade.

Her mother, Mary Lou Blackburn, died from diabetes when Blackburn was 16. Her father, Lowery Blackburn, died of cancer when Blackburn was 18. Her parents were married for 26 years and provided a stable home for Blackburn and her sister in a house in Sulphur Springs at 22nd and Seward streets, near Van Buren Middle School.

Blackburn said that when her father became ill, he remarried, then died shortly afterwards. As Blackburn tells it, the woman immediately sold their house for about $30,000, gave $200 to Blackburn and $500 to Blackburn's sister, and told them they were on their own.

Her sister married, but Blackburn had nowhere to go.

"I became homeless when my dad died," Blackburn said. "That $200 didn't go nowhere." Her stepmother, she said, "didn't care about us. She was just there to get the money when the house was sold."

For years Blackburn hung around Fletcher Avenue, Busch Boulevard and Hillsborough Avenue. But she said she never liked those places because of the people.

"A lot of those people are stealing, messing around, and drinking, getting in trouble and causing trouble," she said.

"If you've got a bunch of people hanging around drinking, starting fires and raising hell, then the cops come around. I ain't trying to cause no problems and I don't want any."

Although she has been homeless for the past 15 years, there have been many nights when she has slept with a roof over her head and eaten good hot meals.

Those occasions have usually been at the Hillsborough County jail.

Records show Blackburn was arrested nine times between 1984 and 1994 on charges that include battery, petit theft and drugs.

But Blackburn said those days are behind her now. She insists she doesn't even panhandle anymore, as homeless people are known to do in some parts of the city.

"Panhandling," she said, "That's not my cup of tea."

A mistrust for institutions

Metropolitan Ministries, the nonprofit organization that operates one of Tampa's biggest shelters, estimates there are 1,900 homeless people in the county on any given day, most of them living within city limits.

It is very unusual to find homeless people living in the suburbs, said agency spokeswoman Michelle Fox, especially a woman living alone. Normally the homeless will congregate in the city because that is where most of the shelters, soup kitchens and other services are located. They will usually find at least one other person they can trust for safety reasons, she said.

Although there are a number of shelters available, Fox said she has seen many cases like Blackburn's: homeless people who have a general mistrust for institutions and structure.

"Sometimes people would actually prefer to sleep outside rather than inside our shelter," Fox said. "So we have a park outside with benches and an overhead shelter in case it rains, and we provide blankets."

The owners of the land that Blackburn has been ordered to vacate declined to be interviewed by The Times. Blackburn said they told her the property is about to be developed for mini-warehouses.

By this weekend, workers expect to begin clearing the land to start construction, according to sheriff's deputy Russell.

"It's hard to live like this. It really is," Blackburn said. "I can survive. But when people tell me I've got to move from here and move from there, it makes things even harder.

"I don't know where I'll go. There's not any place you can be as far as I know. You just have to try to find some place and hope they don't find you again."

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