April 14, 2017
Gil Smart: As homeless scatter, eulogizing a ‘nobody’ March 1, 2017
Gil Smart: As homeless scatter, eulogizing a ‘nobody’
I interviewed Cottle in late January, as Martin County Sheriff’s deputies were preparing to clear the homeless from the woods along Commerce Avenue and behind the Stuart Walmart. He was emaciated and filthy yet retained an obvious flicker of pride. He’d been in those woods for nearly two decades, he said. Now, like many of the longtime “residents,” he had nowhere to go and no way to get there.
But he had benefactors: Karen Hopping, of the group Tent City Helpers, and her husband, John, brought him food and ultimately helped him move. When he died, she grieved.
“My life was enriched more than I can say by knowing him,” Hopping wrote on her Facebook page.
Karen and her husband have taken in Cottle’s son.
For the rest of the people who were chased out of the woods, life grinds on.
As they seek new places to camp, many are getting cited for trespassing. Some have moved multiple times.
“They are running out of places,” said Hopping, who helped several others move. “And mentally, they are unraveling.”
Christine Weiss, spokesperson for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies haven’t noticed a big uptick in trespassing complaints. But problems have cropped up, notably at the old Cowboy’s Restaurant off U.S. 1 on the south side of Stuart, where several homeless people have set up camp.
“The facility is being vandalized and the litter and surrounding area is terrible,” Weiss wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, Tent City Helpers, one of several local groups that ministers to the homeless, started a petition on the website change.org, asking Martin County and Stuart city officials to create “emergency and transitional housing for families, men, and women within walking distance of public transportation.” The petition also wants officials “to establish more affordable housing options in order to decrease the number of homeless within our community.”
As of this writing, the petition has only 76 signatures.
The needle doesn’t appear to be moving.
When I wrote about meeting Daddy, I got some interesting feedback. People said I was being too credulous; I didn’t dig around to determine whether Cottle was telling the truth.
He told me, and I wrote, that he and his wife had started two businesses that did well (I used the term “thriving”), until they — and he — got derailed by his wife’s enormously expensive breast cancer diagnosis.
Bill Merce, of Stuart, wrote to say he couldn’t figure out how Cottle “could have built two ‘thriving’ businesses but failed to have business savvy sufficient to save them” when his wife died.
J.K. Joyce, of Stuart, also took issue. Cottle, he wrote, “started ‘two thriving businesses.’ What exactly would those businesses be?”
And the answer is, I don’t know. So I looked.
A Lexis-Nexis search turned up a record of one business called “The Herb Shop,” where Cottle was listed as the owner. There’s no indication where or when that was, and how well it did is impossible to say.
He did declare bankruptcy in 1993, according to info turned up by the search. This is in keeping with what Cottle told me about his wife’s diagnosis with and her ultimate death from breast cancer, which he said buried him beneath medical bills.
Indeed, the records turned up evidence he was married, to a Louise Megahey Cottle, now deceased.
He lived in Alabama, as he’d said, then apparently moved to North Carolina before landing in Florida. And here’s something curious: Cottle has a criminal record in both North Carolina and Florida. According to the search, he had been arrested at least 12 times in Martin County; charges ran the gamut from trespassing and disorderly conduct to assault and aggravated battery. Several charges were dropped, but he was found guilty on others and did spend some time in jail.
Cottle was arrested five times in North Carolina, though the records didn’t indicate what for. But there were no records of arrests in Alabama — indicating, perhaps, that the turning point in his life occurred in Alabama. As he had described.
In our own archives, I found Cottle had been a witness in the “Salerno Strangler” trial in 2006. He’d been a friend of Jacqueline Clark Bradley, one of three women killed by Eugene McWatters. Bradley, like Cottle, was homeless.
Cottle was no saint. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of what he told me of his life was true.
To Hopping, it didn’t matter.
“All I know is that he was a kind man who I grew to love and care for very much,” she said.
But the veracity of his backstory did seem to matter to some who knew of him only through what I wrote. As if they needed it to be untrue — there but for the grace of God, maybe. The insinuation was that of course Cottle lied, because he was homeless. A screw-up. A nobody.
Well, people screw up. The question is whether that diminishes their worth as human beings.
Some must feel that way. But when Daddy died, others grieved a nobody.
Because they felt, whatever was in his past, he was somebody.
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.