Austin “Daddy” Cottle, 62, sprawled on a stained white couch — no cushions — in the woods near the Stuart Wal-Mart last week.
These were his new digs. He had moved from a previous camp the week before, and by the time you read this, he probably will be gone from this new spot, too. It’s too close to the road, and Daddy, like all homeless people, is vulnerable.
Daddy said he left the coal fields of West Virginia for Alabama, where he met his second wife. They started two thriving businesses. Then his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in 1991. The medical bills, he said, amounted to more than $1 million. He lost the businesses, his house, his vehicles and he came to Florida. He has been living in the woods around the Wal-Mart, he estimated, for about 23 years.
But maybe not for much longer.
Daddy and his adult son are among the homeless being displaced because the owner of several wooded parcels along the Commerce Avenue corridor reportedly wants to sell, as I reported last week. These woods served as Martin County’s de facto homeless shelter; there are few other options for the people who camped out here.
Nonetheless, some have moved on.
Karen Hopping of the group Tent City Helpers, which aids the homeless, helped 21 people the week before the Martin County Sheriff’s Office put up signs telling the homeless to leave. Last week, she helped 11.
“I know of two that packed up and moved on,” she said. But of the others, “have they moved, are they scared? I don’t know for sure.”
Last week’s column on the pending evictions generated a lot of response, particularly on social media. Happily, the comments weren’t as vitriolic as I feared. Most seemed to get that homelessness is an extraordinarily complex problem and there’s no magic bullet.
But I spent the past week asking people who work with the homeless what could be done to at least begin to address Martin County’s growing problem.
Bob Durst of Can We Help Stuart, which aids the homeless, told me the most pressing need, by far, is for an emergency shelter.
Homeless people couldn’t stay there indefinitely. But it would be a huge help for those who are evicted from long-time campsites, or those who are sick.
Durst told me — and this is insane — Can We Help has worked with homeless people who have had surgery, then had no other option than to go back into the woods.
Let’s come to a full stop for a moment and think about this.
You have a surgical procedure done, then you go home to the comfort of your house.
Other people stumble back into the woods to recuperate in their tents amidst the elements.
Martin County is an extremely wealthy community. But this is like something out of the Third World.
Durst said given the varied reasons for homelessness, it’s impossible to craft a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some people are always going to choose “the woods” as their lifestyle.
But “we have more than enough land owned by the county that could be made available for safe camp sites, sanitary facilities, small houses or any other mix and match sets of alternatives,” said Durst, who also sits on the county’s Affordable Housing Committee.
On Facebook last week, several online commenters mentioned the nascent “tiny houses” movement. In places like Seattle, Portland and Austin, Texas, among other cities, government and private donors provide the homeless with minuscule houses — think 250 square feet — that are insulated, heated and structurally sound.
Innovative ideas like this are needed here, Durst said.
“The old approaches aren’t working,” Durst said. “So it’s probably about time for us to think about and to create other solutions.”
But Anita Cocoves, Martin County’s Health and Human Services manager, pointed out there’s considerable help available to the homeless right now. But there are few takers.
“Some folks, we’re able to find housing for them, and they’re willing,” she said. “But frankly, some really don’t have any interest. You can offer (help) to them, but you can’t make them take it.”
Cocoves said some transitional housing is available. Her office gets federal grant money that can be used to pay the first month’s rent, security deposit and sometimes a portion of ongoing rent.
“We’ve got about 58 people scattered all over Martin County” who get county help to pay rent, she said.
But more apartments are needed, and the county rental market is so tight “even if you can find (an apartment), rent is really high,” Cocoves said.
I asked Daddy: If there was a place you could go, would you go there? He gave an enthusiastic yes.
He struck me as proud, despite it all. And it’s that human dignity people like Hopping see, and want everyone else to see, too.
What do the homeless in Martin County need? For the community at large to “admit these people are there,” Hopping said. “They’re mothers, they’re fathers, brothers or sisters. They’re just like you and me.
“We are all one tragedy away from being in these woods.”
Gil Smart is a columnist for Treasure Coast Newspapers and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 772-223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.