THE TREE PEOPLE 


;

;Van Lankin lies in bed and wonders what he'll do tomorrow. Maybe he'll go to the pool. Maybe try to get into the clinic. Something. He's got to think of something to keep from going crazy. There really isn't much to do when you're homeless. But at least he's got a roof over his head, right? Right. And elbow room and no one to hassle him while he sleeps. Life isn't all bad.;

Lankin lives behind a Publix (we're not going to say which one) in Orlando. Thick woods butt up against the back of the grocery store where neatly trimmed hedges line the border. Find the left-most opening in the bushes and take a step through the looking glass. Welcome home.;;

;Neither Lankin — a lean, dark-skinned 58-year-old — nor Bonnie Polivka — a shorter, pale-as-milk 47-year-old who Lankin lives with — are homeless in the traditional sense. They don't sleep in a cardboard box downtown, and they don't live in a shelter. Theirs is a Florida version of homelessness, made possible by a warm climate and urban sprawl that leaves patches of wooded areas standing between housing developments and strip malls. According to the Homeless Outreach Partnership Effort, an Orlando group that provides health care and social services to people living in the woods, there are some 150 camps in Orange County, some with one person in them and others that are home to 20 people. In 2002, the county pressured private property owners to get rid of the campers by fining them up to $250 a day. But that push has largely died down.;

;Van and Bonnie have room to stretch their legs, so to speak. Together, they've set up a "house" in this clearing 50 meters into the woods. There's a shelter, a bed, a grill and a kitchen table and chairs. Still, with the trash scattered about, with the dirty clothes hanging over tree limbs, there's no mistaking this assemblage for a camping trip. ;

;"It ain't nothing to brag about," says Polivka. "But it's home.";

;;Don't fence them in;

;These woods are home to many homeless. It's an attractive alternative to a crowded shelter where, as Lankin sees it, days are so regimented you might as well be in jail. ;

;Before moving here, Polivka camped out in another nearby woods among many others. Residing just in this small piece of land behind Publix, there's an 80-year-old-plus veteran — Lankin refers to him as Old Man — a couple of guys squatting on the edge and one man who just moved in. Old Man has been here for only a couple of months but lived in nearby woods for more than 10 years. He had a lot of neighbors among the trees in that decade.;

;Here, there is no discernable sense of community; only the "code of the woods," a sort of Golden Rule for tree-dwelling homeless. "Everyone stays away from your stuff, and you stay away from theirs," Lankin says.;

;Walking down the winding path back to the clearing is like falling down the rabbit hole and ending up in a parallel world. You can hear the rest of society buzzing along outside — the rumble of delivery trucks from the grocery store, the whir of traffic out on the road, the bang of hammers from the high-priced condos being built a beer can's throw away. But in this natural refuge, Lankin and Polivka are eating discarded food, sleeping on dirty mattresses and swatting mosquitoes in 90-degree heat.;

;"Why live in the woods?" Lankin asks one day. "Because you don't have to deal with everyone out there.";

;You smell Lankin and Polivka's clearing before you see it; 20 meters out you get a whiff of garbage. At camp the odor is reminiscent of a bag of potatoes left in a car trunk all summer. ;

;A quick tour of the clearing reveals why the place smells. Hundreds of beer cans — Icehouse, Natural Light and Bud Light are the preferred brands — litter the ground like fallen leaves. A pile of trial-size Pantene Pro-V shampoo bottles lies in one spot, another pile of double-D batteries (for the radio) lies elsewhere. Rusted bike frames in various states of disrepair sit unused. One of the 13 cats that roam the camp is pissing next to a warped plastic chair. Milk cartons, pieces of paper, old books, torn-up shoes, bologna wrappers, egg cartons, milk crates, piles of cat food, rain-soaked shirts, ketchup-stained plates, half-eaten Ho Hos are all strewn about. ;

;If you can ignore the trash, it's not a bad setup, as homeless situations go. Lankin and Polivka's shelter is a giant tarp draped over a pole wedged between two trees. It's about 8 feet high, allowing even lanky Lankin to stand up in the middle. The bed — a mattress on milk crates — rests cozily at the back of the 20-foot-deep space, covered in a dusty, checkered comforter and topped with two pillows, one without a pillowcase. The floor, although layered with a few mats, is strewn with leaves and dirt; there is no way to close off the sleeping quarters. A broom and a bottle of ant-killer in the corner of the tent seem like comically futile attempts to keep nature out.;

;The kitchen table is a green plastic circle propped up on Pepsi crates. There are a few seating possibilities: a white plastic lawn chair, a chair frame made of PVC piping covered with a pad, and a rocking chair whose front legs are so short it almost tips into the dirt on the forward arc. On the table are plastic cups with the remains of orange juice or chocolate milk or water, some loose change scattered about and cigarette butts.;

;Midafternoon heat isn't diminished by the cover of trees; if anything, it's trapped by the canopy, creating a sauna. ;

;;The smell test;

;When Henry David Thoreau journeyed off into the woods he wrote that "most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." But Thoreau knew he could turn back to those luxuries at any time. He had a life to return to and connected friends to help him out. (He was squatting on Ralph Waldo Emerson's land, after all.) Thoreau's wilderness was only miles from his parents' Concord house, and his sister purportedly brought him food every week. It was a grand experiment that resulted in great literature, but his time amongst the trees was a catered, open-ended trip he could end at any time. ;

;When Lankin and Polivka turned to the woods, they had no such luxuries. It's not accurate to say they are hapless victims. Parts of their life stories don't pass the smell test, and they aren't entirely on the level about their backgrounds. (Lankin, for example, says he's never stolen, but he was convicted of grand theft in 1998 for breaking into a computer store.) Still, life in this open air is no getaway.;

;Polivka grew up in upstate New York. Her mother beat her from the time she was little, sometimes with her hand, sometimes with a broom handle. When Polivka turned 17, she left. She flew through three marriages, the last one in New York, but never bothered to divorce the last husband. When a boyfriend came into an inheritance, the pair blew it on a few weeks in the Virgin Islands, followed by a few weeks in Puerto Rico. "I thought we should be saving some of it, but he never did," she says.;

;Near the end of the vacation, they decided to settle down somewhere. They tacked a map of the United States on the back of a hotel door in Puerto Rico and threw a dart. It landed on Orlando. ;

;For three years they worked at a Save-A-Lot store and lived in the Stoneridge apartments on Oak Ridge Road. But when the inheritance dwindled and they both lost their jobs for one reason or another, options were few. Polivka had some friends who lived in the wild. Why shouldn't she?;

;Lankin grew up with 10 siblings in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood on the shore of Lake Michigan. His father owned apartment complexes in the area. At age 17, he had a '57 Chevy and a '65 Impala. Some days, he and his friends would spend the night rolling joints, then hop in his ride and roll up and down State Street smoking, laughing and nearly crashing.;

;"I guess everyone has to have some time in their life that was real good," he says. "You look back and say, ‘Yeah, that was the best time of my life.'";

;He dreamed of being an architect, but only made it through six months of art school before dropping out. He took a job doing hotel reconstruction, and in 1992 when the company he was working for said they had a job in Orlando, he came down. ;

;"That's one of my biggest downfalls was to move down here," he says.;

;When the work ran out, Lankin picked up a garbage-hauling gig that earned him $400 a week. For 12 hours a day he jumped off a truck, dumped a trash can into the back and hopped back on. It was the best job he ever had. It was the good times.;

;But he married a gold digger, he says, and suffered a hernia that put him out of work. Things never seemed to pick up after that. He was begging for change one day about two years ago when Polikva walked by and spotted him. Did he want to come live with her in the woods?;

;;Tricks of the trade;

;Lankin and Polivka are not married, and they don't plan on getting married. They're good together, however, and they both know how to cadge a living in the encampment. They get free coffee at Publix in the morning. (Most employees there know about them. One clerk at the customer service counter says, "They're real nice. Never cause us any trouble.") They shower at a nearby friend's apartment. If he's not there, they wash their hair in a 7-Eleven bathroom. They wash their clothes at a nearby coin-operated laundry, but they only wash them; the clothes can air-dry in the woods for free.;

;Lankin has a friend who works at a grocery store across the street who gives him day-old meat, and Publix throws out a lot of perfectly good food only a few days beyond its expiration date, he says. When it's hot, they sit on the bus or go for a swim at a nearby apartment building's pool. When it's raining they stay inside the shelter.;

;Lankin has the moves down. When the sprinkles start, he flips over the chairs so the seats don't get too wet. He covers the grill. He swoops up any lone shoes and dips into the tent. One day it pours for 45 minutes. Polivka lies on the bed reading The Invisible Man and Lankin lies next to her, munching from a can of mixed nuts and pulling on a cigarette. Every once in a while, he holds it out over the floor and flicks it. Sometimes the ashes fall on the floor, sometimes in the shoes Polivka was just wearing. He does nothing about it. A leak appears in the canvas above and drips onto their bed. Lankin stands up and wedges a big piece of cardboard between one of the poles and the tarp. This is about as glamorous as it gets.;

;"Ain't much we can ever do," he says. "If I'm not working, I could go crazy out here pent up in this tent with absolutely nothing to do. At least in the heat, I can catch a bus. Right now, I'm stuck, and there ain't nowhere I can go or nothing I can do.";

;Sounds like strong motivation to find work. Lankin has, in fact, been working for a hotel-restoration company, but he was recently laid off, which is probably why he was arrested for panhandling on May 5. Since moving here in 1992, Lankin's been arrested eight times for panhandling, each time spending a couple of days in jail. He wants another construction job, but most companies want to see some identification. His papers were destroyed, he explains, when a previous camp 50 feet away burned a few weeks ago. Right now, he's hoping to make enough money from doing odd jobs to get his ID back.;

;So why not work at McDonald's? At least it's steady, right?;

;"I don't feel that I have to work at McDonald's," Lankin says. ;

;Polivka answers the question of her employment prospects with a shrug. Maybe when she gets a new ID she'll get a job, she says.;

;It's not hard to see them living out here for another two years.;

;In the swelter of summer you're more likely to find the couple at home late in the afternoon. They often spend the day riding the bus; $3 gets you an air-conditioned seat for the whole day. They'll also stop by the Colonial Promenade 6 movie theaters, where 75 cents gets you in on Tuesdays. (On a recent Tuesday they caught a showing of Firewall with Harrison Ford.)

;;Later in the afternoon Polivka sits in a lawn chair back at home and reads. She's still on The Invisible Man. Other days it's Stephen King, and still others it's Dean Koontz — she's read almost all of his books.;

;Lankin sits down at the table for a chat. The once-cluttered tabletop has been cleared. The cigarette butts are gone and the loose change has been collected in a now-clean cup, which sits in a row with the rest of the cups on the edge of the table. Underneath, shoes that were scattered in the tent are neatly lined up, pair by tattered pair. The clothes drying on the branches have been taken down, folded and placed in a milk crate sitting just inside the tent.;

;The scene feels domestic. Laundry done. A woman doing her thing, a man doing his, both waiting out the hours until it's time to crawl into bed.;

;"Sometimes it's all right," Lankin says. "When we've been to the movies, been out and about, and we get to come back here it's relaxing. But in the end, it's not like walking in a real door, flicking on the TV and sitting in the AC. Nothing beats that."; jcarlson@orlandoweekly.com

Tags: ,

More by James Carlson

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Calendar

© 2017 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation