Dave the Keeper sat cross-legged in front of the Flagler County Public Library, smoking a cigar as a cold drizzle fell from the white sky. He wore all black: sweat pants, hoodie, sneakers, backpack. It was a time of transition: He was about to vacate his tent home of the past decade in the woods to comply with a county order.
It was late morning on Tuesday, March 5, two days before the homeless camp, which had swelled to as many as 39 people in recent weeks, was to be broken up.
Then two other homeless people walked their bicycles up the sidewalk.
“What’s wrong today, Jennifer?” Dave asked.
She was in tears. “Two days?” she said in disbelief. “Put me in a room or hotel — this is ridiculous.”
“I know, not easy,” Dave said.
“We don’t have any hard conversations, and now’s the time. It’s a situation that needs attention by people who are not afraid to address it.”
Denise Calderwood, homeless advocate
“I start work at 2 o’clock, I got kids,” she said. “Instead, I got —”
She stopped and started again: “All they’re going to cause is prostitution out here. They’re ridiculous. I’m not going out there. I’ll get arrested and have somewhere to go.”
Jennifer and her friend walked away.
“Out there” meant Russell Landing, a 20-acre Boy Scout camp in a remote area of Flagler County, 22 miles southwest of the library. (The county will not be rounding up homeless in other areas; the focus is on the library site only.)
Dave’s impression of the solution was not a good one: “You basically might as well kiss all your stuff goodbye. … It seems more like it’ll be a concentration camp. ‘Let’s horde us all in one spot, and that way we can keep an eye on them.’ There’s not stores around or anything. And at that point in time, what do you eat? How do you get what you need? Me — I’m not going.”
What’s happening this week
The debris and camping sites at Flagler County’s 19-acre library property are in violation of city of Palm Coast code, and the county has until mid March to resolve the problem before the city would formally issue a citation.
Janet Nickels, Human Services program manager for Flagler County, posted about 15 signs at the library and the trailheads that lead to the homeless camp, notifying the homeless on March 2 that the homeless are responsible for packing up their tents and other belongings. The county will provide transportation to Russell Landing on Thursday, March 7. Everyone had to be out of the camp by Friday, March 8. Some have already made the trip, according to homeless advocate Denise Calderwood, a volunteer with Family Matters of Flagler.
Russell Landing is the largest campground the county has to offer, and it has restrooms, a shower and a common building with electricity.
The county has agreed to give a couple and a young man rides to Volusia County and Jacksonville, respectively. Others who end up at Russell Landing can ride the county bus on a regular schedule — 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — to a central location in Bunnell. Those with doctor appointments or employment can arrange for extra rides. The county will also provide transportation to a grocery store each day. Pets will be allowed, following the same leash laws as others at county parks.
“We’re trying to make sure that everybody is in a better situation,” county Public Information Officer Julie Murphy said.
It’s unclear what will happen if some of the homeless don’t get the word in time that the transportation is available.
“You trust that word of mouth is going to get you somewhere,” Murphy said. “If you don’t have an address, don’t have a phone number, don’t have an email (to reach them), all you can do is the best you can.”
Another question is what to do if they refuse to comply. The county still intends to clear the brush using machines as a part of a scheduled fire mitigation project on the property.
Calderwood knows all the homeless by name. She said one woman is about to get out of the hospital and now needs to use a walker at minimum; a wheelchair is recommended. Not happening in the woods, though.
She hopes the Russell Landing solution is a temporary one. She echoed Dave’s concerns about difficulty in finding food. Partially in jest, she even asked one fisherman to teach the homeless how to fish, and the fisherman was frustrated to learn that the homeless would be coming to the area because it would end up full of trash. And he might have a point: There isn’t a dumpster, according to Calderwood. Moreover, how will the residents in Bunnell feel when their city becomes a daily drop-off location for a busload of homeless people?
“We don’t have any hard conversations, and now’s the time,” Calderwood said on the phone, as she stepped out of a meeting of county officials, homeless people and other stakeholders on March 5. “It’s a situation that needs attention by people who are not afraid to address it.”
'Then I miss the woods'
Dave was the first to live behind the library, as far as he remembers. Calderwood calls him “the mayor.” He’s the one who gives newcomers a kind of orientation, warning them about spiders and snakes.
“I’ve been bitten by black widows seven times,” he said. “But there’s a home remedy for it: Drink a quart of apple cider vinegar. It flushes your system. You smell like a salad for five days, but hey, it’s cheaper than going to the hospital.”
(Editor’s Note: Multiple websites advise against drinking apple cider vinegar without diluting it.)
As Dave was smoking another cigar, Jennifer and the other homeless man she had been walking with returned. This time, Jennifer was laughing. They both picked fruit from a tree in front of the library, took a bite and walked away, suddenly in better spirits.
Dave said he can understand why staff is nervous about other homeless people begging in front of the library. He said doesn’t actively panhandle; he just sits on his curb, without any kind of cardboard sign, and people still give him money, often about $40 per day, which keeps him supplied with food, beer and cigars.
Dave is an unusual case, according to Calderwood. He’s in the small minority of homeless called “chronic.” It’s a chosen lifestyle.
When asked why he doesn’t try to find a house to live in, rather than living in a tent, Dave at first he said he isn’t healthy enough to get a job, can’t get the resources he needs. But then he admitted that even if he had the money — even if he were able to rent a room and have access to a shower, a bathroom, a kitchen, a bed — he wouldn’t do it. In fact, he has lived with people for two or three weeks at a time in the past.
“And then I miss the woods,” he said.