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Christmas in Tent City

A sense of the season infuses a homeless camp, where beer flows, democracy thrives, hugs abound.

By LANCE ROTHSTEIN
Published December 28, 2003

Homeless for the holidays
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[Times photo: Lance A. Rothstein]

On Christmas morning, a small group waits in the woods.

Mother Mary, the Sheriff, the Mayor, Fred Flintstone, Mister Ed, Papa Smurf and the whole family gather around a small, plastic table to survey the feast before them. Under a frayed tarp mended with duct tape, they join hands and recite the Lord's Prayer before digging into the turkey, ham and pie.

This is no eggnog-induced dream or a Cartoon Network Christmas special. This is real life in a Pasco County homeless camp, where almost everyone has a nickname, and where an overwhelming sense of family can conquer the despair of being homeless for the holidays.

In a vacant patch of woods near a major intersection, there is a place called Tent City. Fifteen or more people have set up campsites here with all their possessions. Most people would label them homeless. Their collective reply is, "We're not homeless, we just don't have houses."

They consider one another real family, and just like real relatives all over the world, they experience the happiness as well as the tension and conflict of being together at Christmas.

"This is what Christmas is supposed to be about," Mary says. "It's not about monetary value or what you buy in a store. It's about what's right here in your heart. You can't buy what you have here."

* * *

Like most other days here, Christmas Eve begins at 6:30 a.m. with an attempt to find jobs. Several people from the camp huddle at the front door of a temporary labor pool office that offers daily work for minimum wage. Among them is Gary, the Sheriff, waiting to see whether there will be any today.

Work is sporadic through the holidays, but you never know when a prospective employer will pull up looking for cheap labor. They have waited long enough though, and by 8 a.m. decide to trek back to the camp.

Gary opens a can of Busch beer and joins Fred Flintstone, whose real name is Kevin, and Chuck around a table near the middle of the camp. A fire pit has been dug and carefully enclosed in part of a steel drum. This provides some warmth and a light smoke that mingles with the haze from cigarettes.

This is the place where decisions are made. Some nicknames are just for fun, but the positions of sheriff and mayor of the camp are deliberated and voted on at the table. They take their titles very seriously.

"There is a government out here," Kevin says. "We have rules, and we all vote on whatever the issue may be. Just like in Washington, D.C."

Twelve or more tents are arranged around a meandering trail. In the center are the table and fire, which are separated from the tents by a low, corrugated plastic wall. Everyone has his own personal space, but most come to the center of camp sometime during the day to join a card game or share food and drink.

"The first rule when you come back here," Chuck says, "is you don't go in anyone's tent unless you're invited, out of respect for each other."

Chuck grabs a red T-shirt from a clothesline near the center and announces, "It's time for some shirt ball."

He ties the shirt in knots and dips it into a bucket of water. Gary picks up a large ax handle and walks with Kevin a few yards down the trail.

Shirt ball is the camp's version of stick ball. After Kevin makes some nonsensical catcher's signals, Chuck hurls the soaked wad of fabric toward Gary, who gets a piece of it before it flops into the leaves.

"Foul ball!" shouts Kevin.

After one hit, and some very wild pitches, Gary strikes out. The next batter steps up.

Milwaukee's Best beer isn't the best drink to improve pitching accuracy, and after the first batter is hit with the dripping wet shirt, the game is abandoned.

* * *

Back at the table, a quiet settles in as more beer is consumed. But the silence is quickly broken by the sound of a barking dog. Buster Ruff is a German shepherd-chow mix that functions as the camp's alarm system. Three men have entered the camp carrying plastic bags. The barking subsides as Buster recognizes Dave and his two friends, and the dog returns to grooming himself in front of Old Chuck's tent. (There are two Chucks in this camp: "Chuck" and "Old Chuck.")

Dave doesn't live in the camp, but he has a car. This is much more important than it seems at first glance. Having a car allows Dave the luxury of taking his friends to go buy more beer. It also gives him the freedom of living miles away from where he works, a freedom that people living in the camp don't have. That is why the camp sits so close to the temporary labor office and couldn't exist somewhere else.

"I'd love to have a 40 hour-a-week job." says Old Chuck, who has lived in this camp for two years. He is in his 50s but looks much older. "I don't care if it is minimum wage, but with no transportation it makes it extremely hard to even get anywhere for me."

* * *

Back at the center of camp, Dave and his friends help Chuck gather beer cans for recycling. At a rate of six or more cases a day, that adds up to a lot of cans.

Dave has been splitting his time between staying at friends' homes and sleeping in his car since he lost his "lady" to crack cocaine.

"We were living out there in Zephyrhills. I had a job and everything," Dave says."Then we went down to Tampa, and my girl took my money from me to get crack. I had $400 when we went down there," he says searching his pockets and pulling out a crumpled bill. "Now all I have is this dollar. My landlord kicked me out because I couldn't pay the rent."

Now all he wants is to be with his lady for Christmas. He can't seem to find her and spends his time wiping away tears between swigs of beer and supportive hugs.

About 10 a.m. Gary decides to do some laundry, so he gets his mesh bag from his tent and asks whether anyone needs anything washed. Gary has had some work through the labor pool lately and has a little pay in his pocket. Chuck and some others add a few pieces of their clothing to Gary's bag.

"That's the way we are around here." Chuck says. "I don't have any money right now. He has a little cash so he's helping me out by doing some laundry." Gary borrows some detergent and is off across the street to the coin laundry. After putting in the medium-sized load, Gary cruises over to the local bar to kill time before transferring the load to the dryer.

After two vodka drinks, he settles his bill, and the bartender brings out a sweat shirt that Gary had left there on a previous night.

"We've got some other stuff back here in lost and found," the bartender says. "It's been here so long, I know no one's coming back for it. You want to take a look?"

Gary walks behind the bar to check it out and picks a few items that his campmates might need.

After putting the laundry in the dryer, Gary makes his way toward a local thrift shop. He stops at the open window of a red pickup truck in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant and asks the two people inside whether they can spare any money. They scrounge the car for a moment and hand him some change before he walks to the thrift shop.

"Fill a bag - $1.00" a sign on a clothing rack says. Gary picks out some things he thinks the others might need and carries his bag back to the camp.

* * *

This is not a camp of loners; three couples also live here.

One is Mary and Kenny, who have been together four years. Inside their tent hang family photos, poems, a cross and some drawings by Kenny. They were unofficially married Dec. 21 in a camp ceremony presided over by Gary in which they jumped a broom.

"We didn't do it in front of the government," Mary says. "We did it in front of our friends and our family (referring to the camp members) and God. We got married, and they were all here to witness it. And to us, that's the best marriage we could have ever asked for."

Mary, who says she is a certified nursing assistant, often cares for the camp members. About noon, a man named Jimmy walks up from his tent. He is wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt; a bulky bandage hugs his right hand. Jimmy fell while carrying firewood to the camp and has nasty cuts on his face in addition to the injured thumb.

Mary removes the bandage and cleans the small wound on his swollen thumb, then re-dresses it.

Nearby at the table, a game of spades is in progress. Beer is running low, so someone shouts "Frisco Circle." Chuck throws his baseball cap on the table. Everyone stands up and searches his pockets for money to toss in the hat. They scrounge up about $17. Chuck takes the cash to the nearest convenience store and returns with cigarettes, two 12-packs of beer and a bottle of Grape Mad Dog for Gary.

The game of spades is in full swing with Steve, the Mayor, keeping score. A call comes out from the trail into the camp. "Got some food here!"

Several people hurry out to help carry it in. A man who says he is a private investigator from Tampa has brought seven pizzas and about $100 worth of food.

"As long as I can get food for myself," says the man, "I'll get food for you guys." He says that the guys there helped him out three weeks ago, and he won't forget that. He doesn't elaborate, but everyone in the camp benefits from the gift.

After a late lunch, the card game starts up again but is interrupted by shouting from across the camp. Gary is arguing with Greg, who calls himself the Deputy, about some incident that took place earlier at a bar. Insults fly, followed by a shoving match, broken up tentatively by another man who has come to the camp with Greg. After more accusations and alcohol-influenced arguments, the group leaves together for a meal and agrees to a truce in honor of Christmas.

* * *

Small fires dot the camp now, and look like fireflies through the trees. A small, well-contained blaze burns in the front of Mister Ed's tent. He stokes the embers intermittently as he smokes a cigarette. Several yards away at the center of camp, a group of about 10 surrounds the table and joins hands. They take turns saying a prayer and talking about what they are thankful for. Mary and Kenny are among them.

"Lord, thank you for the blessings you have bestowed upon us." Mary says. "Thank you for the love of our family gathered here before you on Christmas Eve."

After a few more additions, they end with an "Amen."

"Now somebody bring me a beer!" Chuck says.

About 6:30 p.m., Mary gives a shopping list to Chuck and his girlfriend. They empty three shopping carts from around the camp and take them back to a nearby Publix.

"These shopping carts cost like $100 apiece," Chuck's girlfriend says to him. "It's not right for us to keep them in the camp."

At the store, Chuck wanders the aisles, gathering the items on Mary's list. Butter, gravy mix, milk, Miracle Whip, bacon bits. "Bacon bits?" questions Chuck aloud. "I ain't buying no bacon bits." Instead, he picks up some bananas and a can of creamed corn before presenting a gift certificate to the cashier. He joins his girlfriend outside the store, and they walk back to the camp.

When he empties the contents onto the table by the fire, Mary questions his purchases. "Bananas?" she asks. "Everyone needs their daily dose of potassium," Chuck replies.

"Corn? You've already got two cans of corn here," she says.

"I really, really like corn!" he says with an air of finality.

Later, a group of nine heads to the bar across the street. Mary and Kenny, Chuck and Gary, and their girlfriends, Papa Smurf, Jimmy, and Steve, all cross seven lanes of traffic in the dark to their favorite watering hole. They order three pitchers of beer, and push tables together near the dance floor. There is drinking and dancing, drinking and billiard games, drinking and playing air guitar on the karaoke stage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then a round of kamikaze shooters and a toast: "Happy Birthday, Jesus."

After some serious slow dancing and not-so-serious break dancing, some of the group head back to the camp for some sleep. Papa Smurf and Jimmy can barely stay on the sidewalk as they stumble toward the highway. Two of the women, who are not even half as drunk, escort them gingerly across the street and to their tents, where they promptly fall asleep.

* * *

As night turns to early morning, most of the others make it back to Tent City. A battery-powered radio has played through the night in the center of camp. As the sun rises on Christmas morning, the Rolling Stones announce, You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find ... You get what you need.

By 9 a.m., Gary and Greg are hugging near the fire.

"I'm sorry, brother, about our fight last night," Greg says.

"No need to apologize," Gary replies. "We were drunk. Merry Christmas, Brother."

Others meander toward the center of camp as the morning progresses. Hugs and Christmas greetings are exchanged. Kevin sits silent and alone at his tent in the chilly morning air. The inevitable game of spades begins with a Christmas soundtrack provided by the radio. The pop and hiss of beer cans opening mingles with the crackling of the fire to accompany the music.

Everyone is anticipating the arrival of Kathy and Juan Sanchez, a Port Richey couple who help out the people in the camp whenever they can. They have promised to bring a Christmas feast. Word of this has spread throughout the homeless community, and others come to the camp in hopes of a hot meal. By the time the Sanchezes arrive with the food at 11:30, nearly 20 hungry people are waiting.

The Sanchezes, who are close friends with Old Chuck, bring the meal to his tent. Juan has brought his parents, who help carry the food.

Juan's mother passes out rosary beads donated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in New Port Richey. Now the whole group join hands under the sagging tarp in front of Old Chuck's tent. Even Buster the dog is in the circle. They recite the Lord's Prayer and exchange hugs and handshakes before the meal is uncovered. And what a meal it is: hams donated by people from the labor pool office, turkey, potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw, Mary's deviled eggs, Spanish rice (Kevin's favorite), Hungarian stuffed cabbage, sweet potatoes. To top it all off, apple and pumpkin pies, all homemade.

* * *

With bellies filling up and booze kicking in, a misunderstanding leads to a fight between Chuck and Greg.

"What would Christmas be without a good family fight," someone says.

Gary, the Sheriff, breaks the two up and sends Chuck back to his tent.

"It's Christmas, guys." he yells at the top of his lungs. "Let's put this argument off until later."

The people slowly disperse to their tents as Chuck stews by the fire. He just can't let it go, and he approaches Greg to make his point. Greg only seems to antagonize Chuck more by ignoring him. A shouting match erupts.

Finally, the Sheriff has had enough. "All right, you idiots." Gary exclaims. "If you can't settle this on your own, we'll have to take it to the boxing ring." The three traipse down a path about 20 yards from the main camp.

Two pairs of thick yellow gloves lie in the center of a clearing surrounded by saw palmetto bushes. Gary stands between Chuck and Greg, who continue hurling insults.

"Okay, you've got two minutes to talk this out before we do this." But Chuck will make no concessions. He is so dead set on a brawl he won't even put on the gloves for safety's sake. Greg agrees that the gloves are off now.

Gary checks the time on his watch and gives them the starting signal. There is no kicking or wrestling. This is pure street boxing. It is an even match, and it is brutal. Gary breaks them up several times for a breather and to check for injuries. Chuck gets a slash from a palmetto after falling from a punch. Blood drips from his right arm. After five minutes of fists and fury, the two are winded. Gary breaks them up a fourth time and asks whether that's enough.

"Come on, I love you brother," prompts Greg.

"Okay," Chuck finally agrees."That's enough."

Covered in blood, sweat and tears, the two men embrace.

Gary joins them in a group hug before they clean up Chuck's arm and make their way back to the center of camp.

Folks are gathered near the fire listening to Christmas music and indulging in second helpings.

Beers are opened and will be consumed. Card games will be started. More hugs will be exchanged. Life goes on in Tent City. In the morning they'll be standing outside the temporary labor pool office hoping for work and working for hope.

[Last modified December 28, 2003, 01:01:07]


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