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Living without obligation or comfort
By SHARON TUBBS
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000
CLEARWATER -- A breeze whispers off the water as John Bradley leans back on his elbows at the crest of Coachman Park's grassy bluff. The palm trees and hot-pink penta flowers stand before him.
In the distance, a boat glides across Clearwater Harbor. Behind him, people with book bags and places to go stride through the doors of Clearwater's Main Library. Bradley, better known as Little John, is more familiar with the bluff than most. He considers this prized patch of greenery his living room, the benches his recliners, the scenery his TV.
He hasn't paid much attention as the bluff has emerged as a central issue in Clearwater politics. City leaders want to lease a portion of the bluff and tear down and move the library. If a majority of voters agree in a referendum next month, in will come big business, shoppers and moviegoers.
When they arrive, Little John most likely will be here. Yanni is gone, but the Godfather, T-Bone, Calhoun, Hopper, Doc and Little Judy are still around.
They sneak a wash and a shave in the library's restrooms, then find day labor or trade junk. By afternoon, it's back to the bluff and the building on Osceola Avenue, Clearwater's most concentrated haven for the homeless.
Little John has a library card and has checked out Don Pendleton's The Executioner. An oak tree's canopy is his shade in the 90-degree heat. His creased skin is deeply tanned, his knuckles and elbows scabbed. With bent, arthritic fingers, he turns the pages.
And like the joggers or the hand-holding couples watching the sun lie down, Little John, too, becomes part of the scene.
It was Yanni, Little John and two men from Washington, D.C., on the bluff that night, May 19. They were gabbing when the D.C. boys started talking crazy, Little John remembers.
They were saying stuff like, "How do you feel when you die? No friends, no family."
Little John insists he has plenty of friends. He's hanging out in Clearwater for a couple of months until his "main road dog," T-Bone, gets back from a trip to New York. They'll hop on a freight train as it stammers along the tracks through downtown Clearwater. From there, they'll hop trains to Louisiana, through Texas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. They'll pick up six more road dogs along the way, Little John says.
This is all he knows. Little John says he's been on and off the streets since 1959. At 57, he sleeps "anywhere I lay my head." He gets up at 4:30 a.m., rides his red three-wheeler around the city streets and picks up aluminum and copper scraps. By 8 or so, he's at the scrap yard trading the day's collectibles for $15 to $25.
"Then I go over to the gas station," Little John says. "I get me a pack of smokes and a quart of beer. Then I hide in the bushes and drink it."
He says he has suffered several strokes and seen the inside of county jail and state prison. County records confirm about a dozen alcohol-related charges. Yet, life is good, Little John says. "I don't run with people with houses. I'm safe out here. Everybody knows me. Everybody in the 'hood knows me."
So he wasn't into the discussion of dying alone. "How are you going to feel when you die?" Little John shot back at the guys from D.C.
That next morning, Little John couldn't find any good junk, so he didn't go out to trade. About 6 a.m., Yanni passed by and asked what was up. "I'm just kickin' back," Little John told him.
Yanni was tired, said he was going to lie down by the bushes.
About 4 that afternoon, three neighborhood boys tried to rouse him. He didn't move. Library workers called police.
Yanni died near the library's front door May 20 with only a glass window and bushes shielding his body from the workers and patrons inside.
He had so many aliases, Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said, it took a week to find out who he really was: Jonathan Arsenis, 47, from Massachusetts.
Police contacted kin. "We were told by family that he had been a longtime alcoholic," Shelor said. The medical examiner's office has not determined the cause of death.
A couple of weeks later, library director John Szabo got a long-distance call from one of Yanni's loved ones. She was wondering if a bench on the bluff could be dedicated to his memory, as that's where Yanni spent his last days.
Szabo referred her to another city department.
"Given all the changes here," Szabo said later -- meaning the hoopla over downtown redevelopment -- he doubts such a memorial would be appropriate.
Police Chief Sid Klein helped organize the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, or CHIP, in 1998. The program requires people to register, carry special cards and submit to certain rules to get a free meal at the area soup kitchen.
Get caught with an open bottle of beer, sleeping on a park bench at night or getting rowdy with an officer, and the CHIP card is revoked, at least for a while. That means no free food. Klein says that although churches that feed the homeless have good intentions, he has asked several to do so under the CHIP program. Most of the churches have complied.
The CHIP program strives to use food as an incentive to abide by the city's rules.
"It needs to be a coordinated, integrated approach," Klein said.
He hopes residents vote for redevelopment. It could mean more money for police protection in the area where the homeless population appears to be growing. Last year, the CHIP program served 1,700 but turned many more away, Klein said.
"If they're going to do redevelopment, it would be logical to ensure that it is a safe place for people to come," Klein said.
He acknowledged, however, that downtown isn't any more crime-ridden than other parts of the city.
"But, certainly, in the public's perspective, if we're going to entice people to come down there, (homelessness) is not a pretty sight," Klein said.
True enough, said Szabo, who routinely gets complaints from patrons who want the homeless gone. The issue is unique among North Pinellas libraries, he said. "Not every library, for example, has people sleeping in their bushes, public drunkenness."
The code of conduct spells out that sleeping and using restrooms for washing clothes or bathing is prohibited. Also: "Patrons shall maintain bodily hygiene that is not so offensive as to constitute a nuisance to other persons."
On occasion, a homeless person has been kicked out of the library for violating the hygiene and bathing codes, among others, Szabo said.
Some patrons said homeless people sitting on benches or outside the entrance scare them. They walk briskly past the homeless, whose often rumpled appearance and worn book bags make them stand out. One woman said she wouldn't come to the area after dark.
Howard Liverance feels sorry for the homeless.
"It's a shame," he said, pausing on his way into the library, where he comes at least twice a week. He sees the homeless people seated on benches or inside every time he visits. He has waved but never spoken to any of them beyond a simple greeting.
"They need hope," he said.
Where Jeremiah Thibodeau and Ketrenia Maggard will lay their heads tonight is a well-guarded secret. The shelters are full. If they tell where the alternative spot is, they said, police will come and shoo them away or charge them with trespassing.
"Don't make us look bad," Thibodeau tells a Times reporter.
"There's a big difference between street people and homeless people," he continues. "Street people choose that way of life. Homeless people just have some left curves thrown at them."
Maggard says she was found to have stomach and lung cancer about four years ago in Kentucky. "I just came down here, down to Clearwater, and plan on dying here," she said.
Thibodeau says it's not that he doesn't want to work. He came here 16 years ago from Virginia looking for work. On and off, he said, he has worked for temporary agencies and on construction jobs that lasted three or four months, paying minimum wage.
"But when that was over," he said, "the job was over."
He hasn't worked anywhere in about two weeks, Thibodeau says. He was play wrestling with some guys and broke a rib. He hasn't been to a doctor, but Thibodeau doesn't need a Ph.D. to know what's wrong: "I've had my rib broken I can't count how many times."
Maggard says she has not been to a doctor either -- too much of a hassle without an ID card. Sometimes, she says, she feels like her lungs are so full she can't breathe. And she can't lie flat on her back, which is why she guards the soiled pillow by her side.
Thibodeau and Maggard sit on a bench on the bluff as the sun sets and the evening turns cool. Her stringy blonde hair is hidden beneath a camouflage Army cap. A similar hat keeps his gray curls out of sight. They rest most of the day beneath a palm tree, "staying in the shade," Thibodeau says. Both wear donated jeans with T-shirts, gym shoes and socks.
Their CHIP cards have been taken for sleeping behind a business and drinking in public, for which Maggard has done jail time. So they can't go to the soup kitchen.
But they got a few slices of bread and some muffins from the Salvation Army this morning. "You have to eat a little bit at a time, so you don't starve to death," Maggard says.
She found an empty 1-liter plastic bottle in the library's trash can, rinsed it out, filled it with water from the fountain. She sips on it as Thibodeau flips through issues of Popular Mechanics, Reader's Digest and Psychology Today.
At sundown, they walk a winding path to a bench closer to the front of the library where about 10 others have gathered. Some have stretched out on benches. Others are shooting the breeze.
Little John is perched on his bike now, telling the group of his supposed connections with an Italian Mafia family in his native New Jersey.
They said they had hoped for more in life. For now, the bluff will have to do.
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