Inside homeless camps: The people who live there and their stories | News
ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. -- Beatings, a murder and other incidents at homeless camps have made headlines in the last year on the First Coast.
But homeless camps themselves are somewhat elusive.
Homeless camps are scattered around St. Johns County, although no one really knows how many there are.
St. Johns County itself is a place where the tourists outnumber the residents.
In the midst of the wealth, there they are ... the homeless.
They're on the street corners, by historic structures, and some are tucked away beyond the lavish landmarks in St. Augustine.
One of them is Charlie Nathan.
He's 47 years old, and he's from Jacksonville.
He lives in one of the secretive homeless camps in St. Johns County.
He pointed to a tent in the woods, "Even though it's just a tent, you have some place to sleep."
Nathan has been homeless for three years. "It's been kind of off and on."
He let us see his camp in the woods.
"I got a cot, sleeping bag, and blankets."
The camp expands for acres under the trees. It's full of tents and tarps, and other people
"So it's kind of like our own small group," Nathan pointed around. "We don't let a bunch of drunks and idiots hang out here with us."
There's a table with cooking materials. They get food at food banks and with "food stamps. Some people here get food stamps," Nathan explained.
Wild animals are an issue, but in the camp, but "we've got a crazy dog around here that takes care of that."
Humans might be the biggest danger in homeless camps.
In the distance, someone yelled out to Nathan.
Stress and other stimulants such as alcohol can spur violence.
"People have been killed out here," Nathan said. "Beaten up. Last year, a lady was raped out here, from what I heard. Yeah, it does get dangerous."
Nathan and others here get work with labor pools, but he says he doesn't have enough money to get out of this hidden community yet.
It's a place he fell into when his life came untied years ago.
"My wife passed away, and everything went downhill from there. Of course, being an alcoholic, it kind of got full blown," Nathan said.
Most homeless camps are out of sight, and the homeless don't want to be found out.
That's because the camps are on private property. Essentially, the homeless are trespassing.
Wil Jackson lives in the woods in a separate part of the county. He's there with his common law wife, Karen Tryon.
One of his biggest fears is "being chased out from one place and having to go find another."
Jackson is a Navy veteran.
He and Tryon have lived in homeless camps for years.
"I'd just like to be left alone for one thing. I mean, we don't cause no problems. Our camp isn't dirty. We pick it up. We take out the trash," Tryon said.
Tryon and Jackson live off food stamps and from recycling aluminum cans. But they don't panhandle.
Jackson shook his head, "I can't stand to beg nobody for nothing."
Unlike most homeless, the couple chooses to be homeless.
"Because I love it out here. I don't have to worry about anything, paying rent or lights. Nobody bothers me," Tryon said.
In downtown St. Augustine, Mary Ann Cooke is also homeless, but she's not in the woods.
She stays and works at the St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in downtown St. Augustine.
But first she hit rock bottom.
"I used both liquor and pills equally. So you can imagine," Cooke's voice trails off and the shelter's director finishes the sentence, "She was a mess!"
Rene Morris directs the St. Francis House, the only emergency homeless shelter in St. Johns County.
CLICK HERE FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE ST. FRANCIS HOUSE
"It's very disheartening," Morris stated.
According to last year's St. Johns County's homeless census, there were more than 1,300 homeless people in a county where the only homeless shelter can house 60 people.
"That is horrible math on who I can help and who I cannot help," Morris said.
So that's why some believe homeless camps have sprouted up, and pathways into the woods have formed. People simply have to go somewhere.
When looking at resolving the causes of homelessness, such as mental health issues, addiction problems and the economy, St. Johns County stands out in some ways.
"There is no detox center here," Morris said. There was one but it dried up years ago.
She also said there's no addiction rehabilitation facility.
Additionally, there is no housing authority with hardly any government subsidized housing, according to David Hoak, the Director of Home Again St. Johns.
"That leaves possibly more people un-housed and out on the street than might be in other communities," Hoak said.
Home Again St. Johns is a group tackling homelessness in St. Johns County.
CLICK HERE FOR INFORMATION ABOUT HOME AGAIN ST. JOHNS
His group's goal is to create a bigger homeless emergency shelter on State Road 207 in St. Augustine where agencies can also help get the homeless into homes.
"I'm not saying tax money needs to be the solution," Hoak said. "I think there are foundations and contributions in this community that can bring those monies to bear for those facilities."
He says it's to St. Johns County's advantage because the local economy is driven by tourism.
And he said popular tourist locales in St. Augustine have been identified as the wrong places for the homeless to be.
So for now, that leaves the streets and the woods, but Nathan doesn't complain. He's the man who let us see his camp in the woods.
"I'm not going to whine and cry because I'm homeless. It's not everybody's fault that I live out here in these woods. It's my own doing," Nathan acknowledged.
But he does want people to know, "We're no different than anybody else."
He looked down.
Nathan has flaws, and dreams, and the path he chose just led him into a hidden camp in the woods. It's a place he's trying to leave.
Of course, homeless can be found in every county on the First Coast.
There are agencies near you which work to help to help the homeless. Click here for more information.
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