Sleepless In St. Augustine
This story originally ran in the Sunday, April 20th issue of the St. Augustine Record. It was nominated for and won a 2008 SPJ Mark of Excellence Award for online feature reporting.
Sleepless In St. Augustine
Homelessness in the Nation’s Oldest City
It is hours before sunrise on Wednesday morning and I am awakened by two raccoons crawling on me.
I rip my sleeping bag off my shivering body only to have a wild possum standing up, arms outstretched, teeth snarled, screaming like a banshee. I bolt out of my makeshift bed underneath the 312 bridge and scream as though the heavens above needed to hear my cries. I am cold. I am alone. I am terrified. I am in over my head.
While fellow classmates were drinking their afternoons away on the beach during Flagler College’s spring break, I was taking a week-long vacation to answer a question: What’s it like to be homeless in St. Augustine? So, I went homeless for four days and nights.
St. Augustine has shelters to protect those without homes. We’re a popular vacation spot, home to a multitude of tourists from which homeless can surely beg for enough money to eat and maybe get a cheap motel every once in a while. And it’s a warm, coastal city and it doesn’t seem to get too terribly cold here either. How bad could it truly get?
I learned it can be bad. I learned it can break a person’s heart. I learned there’s so much more we could be doing if only we tried.
My excursion started on a Monday evening. I had arranged to meet my host, Shamus, 41, at a gas station near his “home” underneath the 312 bridge.
Shamus is the epitome of what it means to be homeless in St. Augustine, a city he’s called home for the last four years. He’s a bald man with crooked teeth and a sunny disposition.
He, like many in St. Augustine’s homeless community, is a worldly man. He’s lived in or traveled to 36 states and 15 countries.
He loves jumping into stories from his youth, something most homeless in St. Augustine are ready to do at a moment’s notice. He grew up in Pennsylvania, playing timpani drums in orchestras during high school. “I was invited to play in the Philadelphia Philharmonic for a summer,” he mentions as casually and wistfully as if he were describing the weather.
And like many in St. Augustine’s homeless community, he suffers from some sort of mental illness.
Shamus has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. According to the New York Times, paranoid schizophrenia most commonly manifests itself in auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions or disorganized speech and thought.
“Something I just can’t stand is when the people in this town just don’t understand you,” Shamus said as we got down to his makeshift camp under the 312 bridge and started setting up my bed for my first night’s sleep. “People yell ‘Hey, go get a job! Make something of yourself!’ They don’t know about me. It’s hard. It’s hard for me.”
In a recent survey of 100 students and 25 small-business owners in St. Johns County, over 35 percent said they believed that the homeless chose their condition, one student saying that “If they weren’t so lazy, maybe they could get a job and get out of where they are.”
“People think I’m just lazy,” Shamus said. “I yell back, ‘I’m not lazy! I’m not lazy!’ They don’t get it. They just don’t get it. People think I chose this. People think, ‘He must choose this life.'”
As I arrived at the gas station, Shamus said the first thing we should do is eat some dinner.
“Where to,” I asked, trying to keep up on the beach cruiser I had brought for the week.
“I’m in the mood for chicken. Let’s go to KFC,” Shamus said with a grin creeping its way onto his face.
As we arrived at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, Shamus lifted the lid of the dumpster and jumped in.
“You chose a good night to start,” Shamus exclaimed.
“I’m not eating open containers of meat out of a dumpster,” I said.
“Then you’re going hungry,” he said.
“Can’t we go to a shelter downtown,” I inquired.
“Hell, no,” he said with a laugh. “There’s only room for a few of us there at night and they don’t open up to more unless it gets down to really cold temperatures.”
“Is there only one shelter in this whole town,” I asked worriedly.
“Yup,” he said. “We need more shelters, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you want to eat, you’re going dumpster diving.”
“I’ll have some potatoes,” I conceded.
As we make our way to the camp, the temperature is near-freezing with the wind chill taking it well into the twenties. Shamus has another bit of wisdom to impart upon me.
“Take off one of your shirts,” he said. “You’re going to sweat too much. You can’t sweat too much when it’s this cold.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to sweat too much,” I asked, incredulous.
“You sweat too much in freezing cold and the sweat will freeze,” Shamus explained. “I had a friend come out to camp a few months ago and almost die because he bundled up too tight. He woke up in a layer of frozen sweat. He nearly died from hypothermia.”
I went to sleep with one less shirt on.
“The one thing I can tell you from living in this city for 30 years is that there’s far too many decent men and women who are homeless and not enough shelters to help get them out of the vicious cycle that is homelessness,” said St. Augustine resident and artist Gary Lee. “I try and volunteer at St. Francis [House] to show city leaders that the community cares and that we’d be willing to support another few shelters.”
According to a 2007 survey by the Department of Children and Families and the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, there were an estimated 1,238 homeless in St. Johns County. Couple that with the fact that St. Augustine has only one true shelter for the homeless in the St. Francis House and you’ve got a lot of men and women braving the streets homeless, hungry and tired.
“There’s really not a lot of relief for them,” Phil King, case manager of the St. Francis House, said. “We’re the only game in town and we have to serve thousands of people a year and with only a couple of full-time staff, it can get truly overwhelming.”
“I was lucky enough to get a job as a server at a restaurant and that’s real fortunate for someone like me, without a home, to get,” Jason, 31, said. “But at St. Francis [House] I can’t get a shower until at least 1:30 p.m. What if I have a shift that starts at 11? I need to smell good, but I need to get to my job. Do I show up smelling bad, or do I not show up smelling good? There’s enough honest, hard-working people just struggling to survive that we can have another shelter or two.”
For the next two days, Shamus wanted to have me talk to people he thought could give me more insight into life on the St. Augustine streets. We biked over to the bridge at the intersection of U.S. 1 and King Street. As we hopped over the metal guard railing and walked down the rocks, I was introduced to a half-dozen people who slept under a bridge no higher than two feet.
“When it rains, it floods,” Kimmy, 32, said. “We have to get our stuff on out of here or we’ll get washed by this here garbage water.”
“They’ve made it so that we’re like cockroaches. You can’t sleep on the bay front. You can’t even sleep on the grass. When the sun goes down, we hide away like little animals,” a man known as Dragon, 35, said. “The city’s made it so that you can’t sleep anywhere. You can’t sleep in the gazebo. We have to sleep where we piss. We lay our head down in our own filth. What else do you do when you can’t find something to shield the wind at night?” And if we have to go all the way to the woods out by [state road] 207, then you have to deal with the drug addicts and the drunks and the violence. They will stab you; they’ll beat up women. It’s scary. I am scared almost every day of my life.”
There has been a progression of laws set forth by the city over the last three years specifically aimed at running the homeless out of town. No surprise as St. Augustine mayor Joe Boles was quoted in the Oct. 9 issue of Folio Weekly as calling the homeless “scary and creepy” and urging those at a city commissioners meeting “to be compassionate, but [not] be crippled by that compassion.”
Nearly two years ago, St. Augustine made it illegal to sleep in the gazebo in the plaza downtown. Less than a year ago, the city outlawed sleeping in the square downtown between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. Just recently, a city law has made it illegal for the homeless to sleep anywhere at any time out in the open.
And because of the ordinances, the homeless in town are forced to set up camp miles from potential job opportunities.
“I had a job for a week or two, manual labor type stuff, but I had to set up camp miles from where my job was,” Dragon said. “I couldn’t make the trip every morning. They fired me. I’m sure if we could camp closer to town or if there were some sort of mass transportation in this town, I could have kept my job for a little bit longer. I might have even gotten off the streets and into some crappy housing.”
Many say the laws put in place are doing nothing more than making it harder for the homeless population to crawl out of the life they are so desperately living.
When I arrived back at camp, I easily fell asleep from a long day of biking around the city.
Not 30 minutes later, I was startled awake by a crash just inside camp. Raccoons and possums were fighting just feet away, screaming and hissing loudly, gnashing their teeth, clawing ferociously at one another. More raccoons joined the fight and a host of possums sprinted out of the nearby brush. In all, a dozen wild, potentially-rabid animals fought all over the camp as I attempted to defend myself with whatever blankets I had nearby.
After a half hour of fighting, the sun had gone down and it was completely dark save the moonlight on the rising tide just outside of camp. A shadowy figure made its way down the rocks and into camp.
“Shamus,” I called out.
“Shamus!” I exclaimed.
The figure cocked its head and stared at me intently. He formed his crooked mouth into a smile, muttered to himself about demons, devils and pitchforks and walked slowly back up the rocks.
It was at that moment that I knew that homeless people did not choose this life. I was so scared. I was so alone. Just two days in and I knew I would never choose this. No one would choose this fear. No one would choose this vulnerability. No one would choose this isolation.
The ignorance of St. Augustine’s residents and business owners is mind-blowing. There is no help from those in charge. No shelters, no government-backed food drives. How can our local leaders see what’s going on around us and choose indifference? How can you truly think someone would choose this if there was another option available?
In the morning, I made my way downtown and to St. George Street, the busiest street in St. Augustine and therefore, the best chance to ask for some money and maybe buy some food and water. This was my first time panhandling without Shamus’ help.
As I made my way to a busy corner where I could park my bike and sit down, a woman was talking on her cell phone and ran directly into me.
“Sorry,” I said reflexively, not meaning it.
“Hey, you watch out for me! You hear me, boy?” she exclaimed.
I could feel all of their eyes on me. Children pointed and giggled, men whispered to their wives, I heard one woman say into another’s ear, “They’re infesting this town.”
Dragon was right. They are treated like cockroaches.
I had to get away. I had to ride my bike out of there. I went a mile down the road, sweating in the midday heat. I looked frantically for a water fountain or a public restroom to wash my face of the dirt and grime I had accumulated the previous days. But I couldn’t find a single public bathroom. Or water fountain.
“The only public restroom open 24 hours a day is the one at the Marina by the bay front,” Flagler College senior Amy-Rose Simpson, 21, said. Simpson recently completed a dissertation on homelessness in St. Augustine for her degree in sociology at Flagler. “And water fountains are scarce as well. In a touristy city, you’d think there’d be more, but there’s not.”
According to the 2004 census, St. Augustine has a population just over 12,000. With thousands of tourists coming every week, and the only public restrooms in historic downtown closing at 5 p.m. daily, you would think that there’d be more than one public restroom open all night. But there’s not.
“That’s an injustice not just to the homeless, but to all residents,” Simpson said.
“Sometimes the best, and most practical thing you can do for these men and women is to carry a few extra dollars with you wherever you go,” said Garrett Thomson, a St. Augustine resident who hands out sandwiches, fruit and potato chips to homeless people twice a week, said. “I think we’re all one or two bad things away from being homeless. I’d want someone to do this for me if my parents died or my job went under, or a host of other terrible things happened.”
“You’re the first person to ever want to come out to my camp if even for a few days,” Shamus said on the fourth night, holding back tears. “Don’t leave. Not yet.”
And just as Shamus started to cry, so did I. They were tears I never thought I’d shed. A part of me wanted to stay. A part of me wanted to look after Shamus forever.
“You’re the first person in a long time to show us any love,” he said.
Hopefully I’m not the last.