Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories appearing in the coming weeks chronicling the homelessness plight in Hernando County.
Gary Pruitt could see the fire from his construction office trailer.
It was dark and the glow permeated from the middle of the dead-end road in East St. Louis leading past the Casino Queen gambling boat toward the facility his construction crew was working on at the time.
“There were two guys going around killing homeless people. They killed this guy and burned him right there in the road,” Pruitt said. “The police actually used my Caterpillar to sift through the ashes for body parts.”
In better times, Pruitt got to work a lot closer to home. He’s a union concrete worker. If it’s made of concrete he can build it. There was once enough work to support a union contractor in his home town. But now he’ll be living in Hernando County the next seven months, and his wife and kids won’t be.
“You have to travel where the work is…”
Pruitt traveled south on Interstate 75, which runs from Miami through Hernando County and up past Muskegon, Mich., where Kimberly DaCosta was born. She lives at the Pasco-Hernando border now but for how much longer she doesn’t know. She knows the highway like the back of her hand.
Her actual hand has been injured for some time.
“There’s no muscle left,” she says as she holds it next to her other, healthy hand. “The nerve damage is severe.”
There’s enough muscle in it to hold the cardboard sign with which she confronts the blue Corvette that pulled off the interstate and stopped at the red light. Clarinc Sexton points at them from under the overpass.
“Corvettes don’t give anything,” he said.
This is DaCosta’s big brother in the street, and that is his baby-sister, which wouldn’t mean as much if she wasn’t dying, but she is dying. The Corvette roared around the turn, leaving nothing but an echo under the bridge.
“I’m homeless,” DaCosta said, turning her palms up and showing her nails; there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual about them. “But I don’t have to look homeless.”
She explains how a woman recently gave her a bottle of nail polish, “I got my nails done. I felt like such a girl again.”
It costs her more not to have her nails done than to have them done, she says, not in terms of money but something the other 209 homeless in Hernando understand, if not the woman who gave her the polish.
“I still maintain my pride,” DaCosta said. “And this cop pulls up to me and says, ‘Oh, you can afford to have your nails done?’”
And she said she told the officer, “These are my nails.
“You’re not allowed to feel like a human anymore.”
County-by-county homeless data submitted between 2005 and 2011 — an epoch distinctly marred with economic disappointment — shows homelessness has decreased statewide by 26,614, and by 261 in Hernando County.
Barbara Wheeler, executive director of the Mid-Florida Homeless Coalition, who almost single-handedly serves Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties for the coalition, says Hernando’s homeless count is merely a reflection of the maximum-capacity in shelters, not the actual homeless population.
“I tend to believe there’s more, but you can’t count people you can’t find,” Wheeler said. “I do think we’re undercounting the people in Hernando County, and I can say I think the same thing is going to happen this year.”
Beds at the Dawn Center, Jericho Roads Ministries Inc., and New Beginnings Youth Shelter are maxed-out, Wheeler said, and are turning people away constantly. Making matters worse, a lack of Department of Housing and Urban Development funding has them hanging in the balance.
“This year, when we applied, the federal government told us all the projects are in renewal status, meaning their grant year expired,” Wheeler said. “There wasn’t even enough money to pay for the projects up for renewal much less new projects, so even if Hernando County stepped up and said, ‘We want to start these projects,’ the likelihood that it would even be funded is unlikely.”
What the county is seeing is more of a job crisis, Wheeler said, but many mortgage companies are still looking at homes to close on.
“The crisis isn’t over,” Wheeler said. “If you can’t find a job you’re going to do what you have to do to survive — I can’t put it any more plainly than that — human beings will do what they need to do to survive.”
Tamara Williams and Brian Hernandez realized in 2004 what their parents meant by the American Dream.
Up until they got the Duval County business tax receipt for “Raptor Pressure Washing” and solidified contracts with 28 restaurants, the concept was abstract as the $109,000 house on Flagler Estates Boulevard in Hastings: a strategic hub with ready access to five cities they serviced, and easily attainable with a strong credit score.
They signed on the line and for $401.72 a month the house and 1.25 acres in Hastings would be theirs in seven years provided the economy could work like they did. And in anticipation of that decade a Ford F-150 seemed fitting for their growing business.
“We lost everything in 2009,” Williams said. “The economy slowed down and we lost all our contacts, because nobody was going out to eat.”
They got behind on their mortgage, and buyers got in line.
“We owned the house,” Hernandez said. “We were behind three months mortgage, and we didn’t want the (bank) to get the house for free, so we sold it to pay off our loan so our credit would not go down. They foreclosed on it in a week.”
They moved everything in the truck and went west to start over.
“We were hit at the Florida/Georgia border on the Florida side; we were hit twice,” Hernandez said; now he had a hospital bill and two slipped discs pinching his sciatic nerve and needling-pains shooting down his leg. “We lost everything in the truck.”
Without a house and with the woman he loves, he asks, “Why me?”
“He asks me why I’m still with him,” Williams said.
Hernandez sighed and looked away, “I promised her I’d never let her go hungry.”
Last year he lost 100 pounds.
Over the past five years, 750,000 households in Florida have lost their homes to mortgage foreclosures ordered by the state courts, according to a 2012 report by the Florida Council on Homelessness, the result being loss of housing: living in the street, shelters, old motels or cramped quarters with friends or family.
“Much like the Great Depression, because of a widespread and long-term economic crisis, homelessness has engulfed a broad cross-section of residents,” the report shows. “This includes formerly middle-class families and their children, who are often facing these unanticipated circumstances for the first time.”
DaCosta and others describe their beginnings in the middle class. She holds a bachelor’s degree. in psychology from the University of Michigan, and wants to be clear about her alma mater: she’s an Ann Arbor Wolverine not an East Lansing Spartan.
“I had three children by the age of 21, and I still graduated, and I still did it, and I worked my ass off to do it.”
Her passion has always been cooking, she said. She specialized as a chef in Italian and Cajun food for the last 25 years, and put in long hours giving every atom of her being to raise her children right. She has two daughters — one a medical assistant and the other a store manager — and a son on the school board. When DaCosta lost her job she started drinking. That was five years ago.
“I’m dying,” she says. “Cirrhosis of the liver is a sentence to die.”
And her incentive to put it down now is bleak, however uninspiring that might seem to someone in better conditions fighting the same enemy. But in the woods she shares with cockroaches, mosquitoes, and flies, she knows what she has and doesn’t have, and calls herself blessed.
“If you’re not drunk out here, it’s hard to fall asleep,” she said. “I’ve never worked this hard in my life.”
In 2009 the Hearth Act tasked the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to develop alternatives to laws that “prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, resting or lying in public spaces when there are no suitable alternatives.”
A 2012 report by the council shows the U.S. has seen the proliferation of local measures to criminalize “acts of living” laws, and alternatives to criminalization policies have been shown to adequately balance the needs of community residents and those experiencing homelessness.
“Police action to move or arrest people experiencing homelessness is rarely effective because those who sleep unsheltered on the streets are often chronically homeless with no access to housing and have underlying mental health issues and other disabilities,” the report states.
The criminalization of homelessness by city, town and county officials, and the subsequent jailing and arrests that follow it, constitute a drain on an already overburdened penal system, leaving homeless men and women in worse condition while working counter to lasting solutions to homelessness by aggravating its core causes. But in many cities police can only disperse or arrest, and individuals arrested or fined for “acts of living” crimes now have a criminal record barring work, assistance and housing.
“They put you in jail until you get out,” Terry Nutter said, who has been homeless 33 years. “They don’t want you out.”
There are three “laws” Nutter and others in his camp are mainly concerned with. They are rules nearly identical to those expressed by other homeless men and women in other regions of the country: never put your hand on a woman, never put your hand on a child and never put your hand on the elderly.
“If you put your hand on a kid,” Nutter said. “I’m going to hurt you.”