For some people, home is in the heart. For some, like Naples resident Christopher Beardslee, 48, home is in the woods. At least it was for all of the past several months until Beardslee, a skilled handyman/carpenter, finally got a job and now sleeps in a real bed in the room he rents at a house in south Naples.
A house with only minimal rules, and no shame, he says. Beardslee can come and go as he pleases; there is no curfew. He can have a cold beer or two after a hard day’s work. And, he says, he can do it all without the shame he felt society caused him to feel as a homeless person.
“I don’t want my new employer to know I was homeless because then he’ll think I steal or something. People look at you and treat you differently when they know. I never even told my daughters,” he says. He asked to not be photographed.
Other men, women and even children and infants living in the woods in Collier County are not as fortunate as Beardslee. Or so it would seem. In what appears to be an under-studied, underserved and misunderstood population, a growing number of homeless people defy societal rules and diagnostics, and even if unwittingly, choose to live in the woods, retaining some sense of autonomy, instead of the alternatives. The reasons for this feral living vary, but seem to reflect a desire to be true to one’s own sense of self.
“I am lucky,” Beardslee said during a hike deep into the heart of one of the many camps off U.S. 41 in south Naples he used to call home. Under a mockery of the late evening sky, hidden but for a few peeks between the thick trees and plastic blue tarps strung up with ropes and used as shelter from the elements, a man who says his name is Al is sitting in his makeshift outdoor kitchen. Al is 66 years old with a career of 30 years as a commercial electrician under his belt. Al’s situation proves that luck like Beardslee’s is relative. Al says he consciously chooses to live in these woods. The question is, why?
“I don’t want help,” says Al, sitting just a few feet away from his small flower garden decorated with a tiny solar lamp that illumes to life as dusk falls, and hungry mosquitoes begin to whir in the air.
Indeed, the divorced Vietnam veteran with a full head of hair, has been living in the woods for about two and a half years, and appears quite comfortable in his well-adapted self-made camp, despite being among the Florida bears, snakes, panthers and biting insects. A 6-foot palm stump serves as a place to hang his clothes to dry, and pots and pans hang orderly on a line. In an unusual irony defying wilderness living, Al’s old battery powered radio drones on low volume, as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” floats through the humid air.
And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forest will echo with laughter
“I don’t like the rules at St. Matthew’s House,” says Al, as Beardslee hands him a cold beer he brought into the woods. Al lucidly admits that his alcoholism is what may have contributed to his homelessness, as well as the economy, and coherently says he prefers to drink beer than subject himself to the rigid curfew and nightly breathalyzer tests administered to all residents at St. Matthew’s.
“I could get out of the woods,” he says, “if I was willing to be controlled by other people. I really don’t want or need that.” He is steady, and drags on his cigarette.
The choice does not come without profound explanations, as well as costs. “I have lost my faith,” continues Al, his face reflecting a deep inner sadness of a man whose life has come down to living in a tent in the woods of this popular resort town, where less than 10 miles away, Fifth Avenue South is alit with soon to be uncorked bottles of red wine, buttery escargot and pasta du jour, preparing for thousands of patrons of high end consumerism, many of whom have never spoken to a homeless person, but may have passed one pushing a grocery cart full of their life belongings down U.S. 41.
“I get depressed and lonely,” continues Al, “so I just get up and go somewhere. Today I rode the bus three times just to be in the air conditioning.”
According to Lisa Ellison, the director of development for the past five years for the faith-based St. Matthew’s House, “We are dealing with a chronic issue. Some people come here with various problems, get stabilized and move out, and then they quit taking their meds or start drinking again, and end up homeless again. It’s an issue that sometimes they didn’t acquire what I acquired from my mom. At some point, for many of these people, the maturation process was stopped, mostly due to some type of childhood trauma. We’re addressing these types of problems at Justin’s Place. “
Justin’s Place is a donated facility in East Naples with 16 beds available for graduates of the three-month recovery program offered at St. Matthew’s. According to Ellison, Justin’s Place boasts a 90 percent success rate in transitioning its residents to an independent life, in its brief existence of about 1 year and three months.
Still, lost faith like Al’s seems to be a common thread here, echoing among many of the homeless population.
“I have learned to hate love,” says Robin Daniels, 55, who has been homeless on and off for about seven years, living in various woods around Naples, and was recently joined again by her 36-year-old son David Leroy Daniels. Mother and son made progress recently through the Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County, and were put up in a hotel to wait for enough funding so they could get their own apartment. Just days later, they were back in the woods.
Robin Daniels says she has never been able to read and simply got passed over in high school, making it only to the 10th grade, and currently is appealing a denial for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) subsidy for a physical disability, and her son, who is on medication for mental illness, receives about $625 a month from SSI for schizophrenia, which he has been on since he was a child.
“We went to church on Sunday, and after the service asked the pastor for assistance,” says Daniels. “He gave us $20 and then told us to not spend it on cigarettes and alcohol. We don’t even drink. It made us feel ashamed of ourselves, just the way he talked to us.”
Under her thinning hair, Daniels’ face reflects the stress of homeless life and discord as she turns to listen to her son.
“Homeless people are stereotyped by today’s society,” says David Leroy Daniels through thin lips, sitting on the couch of his mom’s childhood friend, who was allowing them to do their laundry. His foot shakes up and down in a nervous twitch, and he smokes. “Some people are helpful, but even the cops have used a knife to cut through our tent and told us to get out of the woods, or else go to jail. Where are we supposed to go? St. Matt’s said they’re full, and they got bed bugs and head lice.”
His frown reveals his hurt, somewhat hidden by the glasses he wears.
“I don’t hate the human race,” he continues. “I’ve just been hurt so many times by people, sometimes I lose hope.”
Ellison believes the problem is one of accountability. “Something has occurred that stopped them from developing a healthy life. We (at St. Matthew’s House) are trying to help hold them accountable.”
It’s this effort toward accountability that imposes the rules like those at St. Matthew’s that seem to demean, thus punish, people like Al, Robin Daniels and her son, David Leroy. And according to many, the way society tends to view the homeless, disabled and mentally ill only adds to the problems.
Geralyn Poletti, who for 18 years has worked at the David Lawrence Center, serving as director of community and satellite services for the past 6 years, says, “Homelessness can be a component of any of our clients.”
In an effort to address the issue of homelessness, eight years ago the mental health center implemented the program PATH (Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness), working with St. Matthew’s House and the Friendship House in Immokalee, according to Poletti.
“PATH is a proactive outreach and case management system,” she said. “It is a comprehensive link to resources specifically targeting the homeless population. We link clients to community resources, and transport them to places they need to go, such as medical appointments.”
She continues on the sadder side of the chronic condition. “Unfortunately, some clients decline our services because of mental illness, symptoms of paranoia, anxiety or social discomfort,” she said.
One thing is for sure, restoring the lost faith seems to be a universal goal. Says Ellison of St. Matthew’s, “The sad thing is we are a faith-based organization. You don’t just know there is a higher power…You know He cares about you and has a plan for your life.”
Thunder rumbles in the distance as night falls.
“Something always rescues you,” says Al. “Not in a big way, but in a little way.” He points to a wild rabbit darting through the woods.
“What size shoes do you wear?” Beardslee asks his old neighbor in the woods, with a compassionate smile that maybe only a woods-brother could read. A smile without rules, without shame. And Led Zeppelin sings:
There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misleading
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder