Welcome to the jungle

In a small patch of woods in east Orlando there is a group of people who make their homes the best they can, in tents, lean-tos and huts. The people who live here -- homeless and mostly jobless -- are among the hundreds of "squatters" staking out vacant plots of land in and around Orlando, trying to get by with little help from the system.

Rob and Sally, a married couple who asked that their last names not be published, have lived on this particular piece of land -- near the intersection of State Road 50 and State Road 408 -- since March of last year. Their makeshift home, in the middle of a thick oak forest, has a blue pop-up tent for a bedroom and a living area constructed from a tarp and a table found in the garbage at a nearby Winn-Dixie. Small tables, a nightstand topped by a large metal tub for washing dishes, and a small gas oven make up their adjacent kitchen.

Rob and Sally aren't your stereotypical homeless; they are well-scrubbed, sober, intelligent, socially engaged citizens living in the woods out of necessity. It wasn't always so for them. They've lived in apartments and mobile homes all over Central Florida. The couple has been married for 30 years, and they have four grown children and two grandchildren -- some of whom do not even know they are homeless. They don't ask for help from their kids because they don't want to be a burden.

"We raised our children, and now they are supporting families of their own," says Sally. "We get by the best we can on our own."

Sally, now in her mid-40s, lost the lower half of her left leg in a motorcycle accident when she was 16. She's used a prosthesis for 30 years, but it's old and chafes the bottom of her leg, making it difficult for her to work, or even walk. She used to clean elevators downtown. Now she's waiting for a Social Security disability application to be processed.

Rob, a thin man in his mid-40s whose muscles show through his shirt and whose baseball cap seems permanently affixed to his skull, worked construction contract jobs. Until recently they lived in Bithlo, where Rob found steady work. As a bonus, his employer let the couple stay in a mobile home owned by the company.

When the company went bankrupt, Rob tried to find work in Orlando. Without a car (he bikes to work), his efforts were in vain -- and so the spiral began.

The couple, already living paycheck to paycheck, found hope in a generous landowner who let them move into a trailer on his land behind the Albertsons on the corner of Colonial Drive and Alafaya Trail. They lived there for two years, until the land was sold to build a high-rise medical center.

"One morning we woke up and looked out the windows and there were bulldozers," says Sally. They called the police, who said it was up to the demolition crew to determine their fate. The bulldozer operator gave them one hour to get out.

"We left with fifty cents to our name," she says. "One hour -- and you live there for two years. There was no way."

The bulldozers demolished the trailer, ensuring that Rob and Sally could not return that night to collect the rest of their belongings.

Down to $1.20, the couple split a hamburger for dinner at Burger King. Luckily, a random act of kindness by a stranger after dinner brought the gift of a tent. Rob and Sally set up camp on a vacant tract of land owned by the county, and have lived there since early 2003.

Meet Frank

The patchy forest is home to many other squatters, whose accommodations range from tattered pup tents to fairly sophisticated one-room huts.

One of these huts is home to Frank, a 56-year-old Vietnam veteran who wouldn't give his last name. Frank has an American flag flying proudly near a front door fashioned of spare lumber. His home, constructed of sheet metal and plywood, is supported by tall pine trees in its corners, and has two windows.

Like the rest of the squatters, Frank gets by using what he can find. He fishes from the creek that runs behind his camp, and he made a crossbow out of spare wood and a bungee cord. He runs a small black-and-white television (found in a trash container) off a car battery, and he built a trailer for hauling food and supplies out of two broken bicycles.

Frank moved from Lakeland to these woods three years ago. He and his wife had separated four years earlier, and when he got to Orlando he couldn't afford rent or a mortgage.

"I had to be free a little while," he says. "They try to take your every dime in the world, businesses. If everyone lived in the woods and saved their paycheck every month, it would put the millionaires out of business."

Frank works full-time on roofing contract jobs, and sends his Veterans Affairs benefit checks to his five grown children, who live in Lakeland.

"I want them to have the life I never had," he says.

His children wish he would return to Lakeland and move into a house instead of sending them his check, he says. But Frank isn't going anywhere.

"Vietnam fucked my brain up. I'm getting my mind together. The things I saw overseas, they blew it up. I had to get away from it -- at least in a small way -- get away from all society puts you through in a day. Everyone is trying to take your last dime and there ain't no land that is free in this world.

"Besides," he says, "anybody that can live off the land is one hell of a dude."

An elaborate Christian altar featuring candles and angel figurines decorates Frank's "lawn." He often waxes prophetic, preaching to his guests about the miracles faith has performed in his life.

"I'm a lot more blessed than most people," he says. "I don't get shuffled out of a shelter at six in the morning. I got food and I got friends. I'm doing all right out here."

Sally is a jovial woman with skin leathered by the sun. She's not so enamored of life in the woods.

For instance, security is an issue. Homeless drifters -- not part of the camp community -- often walk through the woods and pillage when the regular residents aren't around.

When thieves first hit the area, Frank bought small rubber snakes and placed them around his door. Rob and Sally bought a small lock to prevent theft from their tent; raccoons got in instead. The local wildlife -- wild hogs and the occasional wolf -- are a constant nuisance.

"It's free game out here," says Rob. Now the couple hides their food in locked trunks and plastic tubs.

In the woods, your walls are frustratingly thin. The background noise of State Road 50 -- about 300 yards from the campsite -- makes a peaceful night's sleep difficult. Rattling mufflers, car horns and semitrailer trucks drone on; after hours, the discord is maddening.

"The only time you can count on sleep is between three and six in the morning," says Rob.

Then there's the fickle Florida weather. Rob and Sally have elevated their mattress on milk crates and a piece of plywood to stay dry during rainstorms. They move their tent out of the shade and to higher ground during the rainy season. Summer also brings mosquitoes.

"Lord have mercy, them skeeters are so bad," says Sally, who still shows a few scars on her arms from last summer's battles with flying insects.

Then there's the heat. "You work up a sweat just lying down," says Sally. "You have to wash 10 times more."

They walk to a gas station to fill up five-gallon buckets with water from a spigot in the back to wash.

"There's no reason to not be clean," says Sally.

She dreams of a hot bath. Rob recently brought her a gift that merely reminded her of what she couldn't have.

"He gave me this bubble bath -- some rose and some lavender," says Sally. "I asked him, 'How do you expect me to fit inside that bucket?'"

Making do

The daily hassles of life in the woods do not compare to the social obstacles that the couple faces.

"The hardest part about being homeless is the stereotype," says Rob. Over the summer, he caught impetigo and managed to save $100 to pay for a doctor visit from a few days of temporary labor. He went to East Family Care Center, which charges patients on a sliding scale based on their income.

The couple filled out the necessary paperwork. Everything was fine until office staffers noticed that they didn't have an address. Rob and Sally were told they needed an address to be seen.

"We waited for two and a half hours, and then they came out and told us they couldn't see us," says Sally. "They wouldn't have known we were homeless if we hadn't put it on the form."

Their other option -- the free Health Care Center for the Homeless on Parramore Avenue downtown -- is a poor solution.

"You have to be there by 7 a.m. or you're not going to be seen," says Sally. "You can see the line at the entrance trailing down the street some days. Even if you get there around seven, you might not get in."

Lack of available healthcare drives many homeless people into hospital emergency rooms. Savvy patients have learned to get there via ambulance to avoid being refused care. When they can't pay, Orange County picks up the tab, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $7 million each year.

Rob regularly applies for temporary work at a nearby day labor agency, but with the increased demand for such employment during the winter months comes as an influx of transients, making it difficult to find even temp labor jobs.

Even when Rob can get a job, he can't work his way out of his situation.

"When you're making $40 a day at Labor Ready, you can't save anything," he says. According to local low-income housing statistics compiled by the city, at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, a worker would need an average of 122 hours of labor a week to afford a low-tier rental unit in the area. (Department of Housing and Urban Development standards dictate that 30 percent or less of income be spent on housing costs; statistics are based on rental of a two-bedroom apartment.)

When the temp market is saturated, Rob waits in front of hardware stores in the area with a sign advertising his handyman services: "Good Hand: Need Work." On a good day, both he and Sally find local homeowners who pay them cash for odd jobs.

"The trick to being homeless is to not look homeless," says Rob. It's a game that the couple has mastered -- to meet them outside a store, one would not guess that they live in the woods. Rob keeps himself cleanshaven, and Sally's curly blonde hair is always neatly combed.

When the work doesn't come, Rob and Sally rely on others' compassion. The couple visits Woodbury Presbyterian Church twice a week, where they receive a bag of nonperishable food items. But they must still scrape together money for milk, eggs and gas for their oven.

Panhandling -- a last resort -- is the only way many squatters stay alive. It helps Rob and Sally inch along.

"I would much rather work than beg," says Rob. "I ain't a thief."

Unpleasant at best, and humiliating and dehumanizing at worst, panhandling -- or "flying signs," as they call it -- provides the bare necessities. One man drove past the couple recently and returned an hour later with a jar full of change, worth over $90. Others offer clothes, food and toiletries.

"We depend on what people can do out of the kindness of their hearts," says Rob.

Many aren't so kind. The couple endures harassment on a regular basis, from small children taunting them, waving dollar bills pulled from their mothers' purses out the car window, to drivers throwing change as hard as they can at the couple. They live near UCF, and college students are the worst.

"They are so rude," says Sally. "They never wanted for nothing, handed everything to them by Mommy and Daddy, and still yell, 'Get a job, motherfucker.' Don't they see we are trying to get work?"

Central Florida laws make begging for change challenging. In downtown Orlando, panhandlers are confined to the infamous "blue boxes," and were once -- under the Glenda Hood administration -- required to hold a panhandling registration card. (That law has since been rescinded).

"`The blue boxes` solve the problems for residents or business owners," says Kelly Caruso, director of the Ripple Effect, a local homeless-outreach organization. "But the city can't ignore the problem of homelessness by playing with the symptoms."

Orlando has been rated the ninth "meanest" city in the nation by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Fines for panhandling can reach $500 and 60 days in jail.

The latter is an option many homeless prefer. Down at the 33rd Street Jail, inmates get food, a bed and medication to ease symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Jail is no option for Rob and Sally.

"Out here, I've got my pillow, I've got my blanket," says Sally. "How could I give that up? I'd rather have my freedom than be locked up."

The system

Orlando nonprofit organizations offer assistance programs for the homeless, who number 8,000 at any given time and over 20,000 in the course of a year. Most services come in the form of overnight shelters, where accommodations are mats on the concrete floor. Participants are shuffled back onto the street at 6 a.m. with no job training, mental-health counseling or substance-abuse intervention.

"These programs are warehousing people to get them off the street," says Caruso. "I don't call that a solution."

Caruso's group provides weekly meals, counseling, clothing and referrals for subsidized professional services to homeless residents. In the past year, without a formal budget, Ripple Effect helped 27 people off the streets -- a considerable achievement for such a small group.

But the root cause of homelessness is inaccessible, unaffordable housing for the poor -- an issue Orlando programs rarely address. The waiting list for public housing is more than two years long, and space in the Central Florida area is limited. The leading provider of low-income housing, the Orlando Housing Authority, closed its Section 8 waiting list in 1999 with over 4,000 people still hoping for their name to be called.

But the climate for Central Florida's homeless may change. Just before her departure, former Mayor Glenda Hood formed the Working Committee on Homelessness to assess and address the needs of the homeless in the region. Comprising members of the business sector, service agencies and city officials, the committee seeks to prevent homelessness by providing affordable, permanent housing.

But local politics may slow the game.

One way to coordinate services is to establish a regional homeless agency in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. But that's already proving problematic. In dispute are issues like who should distribute the $4.6 million in federal housing grants that fund local programs. Meanwhile, the rate of homelessness in Orlando continues to rise. The city estimates that the rate of homelessness in the area has increased by 20 percent since 1999, and is still growing.

Back at camp

In the meantime Rob, Sally and their neighbors may soon be looking for a new place to set up camp. River of Life Assembly Church bought the patch of woods and will begin construction of a sanctuary in a few months.

"We'll deal with it when the time comes," says Sally.

As night falls, a thick fog rolls into the woods and moonlight casts a heavy glow around the shadows. A dying candle gives a dim light to the living area.

"It's scary back here," says Sally. "Especially if Rob is gone at night."

She turns on a small battery-operated television (found behind a gas station) in her tent, and the couple gets ready to settle into bed for a long night of sirens from the highway and strange noises from the forest. Tomorrow will arrive soon, and it will probably be just like yesterday and the day before that -- a scramble for work, food and an attempt to get by.

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