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Homeless live in camps in woods throughout county


Four homeless men and three homeless women banded together and formed a camp in a wooded area of Vero two months ago. They set up a kitchen, shower, bathroom and several sleeping tents. They share the labor of hauling five-gallon water jugs to the camp, and take turns watching over the tents while others are at work or training.

The seven are part of a growing homeless population in Indian River County that numbered at least 800 last year, and includes hundreds of children and along with many working people whose wages do not cover the cost of housing.

The seven living in the camp were counted in the annual homeless census recently carried out by the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council as part of the process whereby the TCHSC qualifies for state and federal aid.

Counting the homeless is a tough job because they are literally a moving target, living in camps scattered throughout Indian River County that break up and reform all the time. Some people without homes prefer living on the street, sleeping close to a 24-hour business such as a 7-11, so they can dart inside if someone targets them. Others like to live in groups in wooded areas you can't see from any road. Others live in their cars.

“The homeless are always under-reported because they run and hide,” said TCHSC Executive Director Louise Hubbard, one of the speakers at a forum on homelessness held last week at Grand Harbor. “They’re afraid of getting reported for trespassing, or losing their children.”

A poster publicizing the Grand Harbor Community Outreach forum invited people to “come and learn about this tragedy in our midst” – a tragedy with which Hubbard is all too familiar.

Over a period of 16 years, she’s built up the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council and made it the federally recognized service provider and coordinator of homeless services in Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties, raising $27 million in federal, state and private money in the process.

“HUD literally could not find us on the map when I started,” she said.

The number of homeless people is one of the variables that determines the amount of government funding provided to TCHSC to address the problem.  Decreasing the number of homeless will garner more federal funding, but result in less state funding, Hubbard said. “You’re damned if you do or don’t.”

The federal formula averages income in the area, potentially masking the growing divide between those who can afford housing and those who can’t.  

Among the seven homeless people staying at the ad hoc camp visited by Vero Beach 32963, there is one couple, Jennifer and her boyfriend, who live together in “the palace,” the largest tent, while the others live alone in smaller tents with tarps strung over them to protect belongings from the rain.

Jennifer, 40, said she has finished the first six weeks of a 12-week public food manager certification program offered by The Source, a “Christian-centered” outreach center which has provided food and other services to the homeless since 1995. Although her certification is not done, she is “already looking for a job in food service.”

The Source gives out tents and bicycles, and outfitted the seven-person camp, but Executive Director Robin Diaz, another speaker at the forum, said the loose alliances don’t tend to last for long.

“They get moved so many times,” Diaz said. “Their tents get slashed. We don’t know who’s doing it.”

Besides The Source and the services it provides, homeless people in Indian River County can turn to The Hope for Families Center, which has 22 bedrooms and can take up to 88 people, and the Samaritan Center, which has 26 beds and can take up to 35 people. Both organizations serve mostly women with children and families, not single men or women.

In addition, Camp Haven, which is not an emergency shelter, takes in a small number of single men after conducting a careful selection process.

But all of the homeless housing in Indian River County combined can handle only about 130 people, leaving most to fend for themselves on the streets.

Anna, one of the seven residents of the small tent camp, is an older woman who’s lived in Vero Beach for 39 years. She became homeless a year ago when her $741 monthly disability check was no longer sufficient to cover housing and health expenses. She has heart and back problems and leukemia.

Jennifer found an $800-a-month house and she and her boyfriend discussed pooling their resources with Anna to rent it, “but they want $2,600 up front.”

Even with three people combining their money, building up that kind of reserve on less-than-subsistence income explains why Jennifer and Anna have been homeless for more than a year, and not for the first time.

“The average disability check is $700 and change,” Hubbard said. “Many years ago that was enough to pay rent, utilities and food. Now it might last two weeks. Vero Electric is $200 a month in the winter.”

“Most people think the homeless are lazy or druggies, but 85 percent are the working poor,” Hubbard said. “They earn about $8 an hour. Two years ago the average two-bedroom was $840 a month . . . and the rents are higher now.

“A growing number are being left behind in this high-tech age. We’ve automated so many jobs,” Hubbard said. “You go online to bank, not to a teller. There’s no one in the toll-booth. You scan your own groceries.”

“There is not enough broom-pushing or dish-washing to employ them,” said Chris Desizlets, a case manager at The Source. “Maybe we need to recognize there is a certain percentage of the population we need to house.”