A Sort of Sanctuary

No Robin Hood in these woods. Just big hearts, tough times, plenty of soul, and keep the Ice Light comin'

Plenty of stout fellows and fair maidens have passed through Sherwood Forest, bedding down for a night or two in the pines. A few dozen call it home. Smack in the center of overpopulated, ultradeveloped Broward County, the one-acre tract of trees and bushes is a perfect place to hide in plain sight.

But there'll be no roasting of wild boars here, no hearty mead parties or elaborate schemes to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham. These merry men are a band of underemployed homeless people, a few of them nursing serious illnesses, their lives dedicated to getting food, smokes, and drink (not necessarily in that order).

As most South Floridians cluster around dinner tables and Christmas trees, exchanging presents and good cheer, this loose-knit group goes about its desperate rounds of scrounging up a spare pack of cheap cigarettes or a couple of cans of warm beer.

Working man: With a shovel, Paul earns an honest day's wage.
Colby Katz
Working man: With a shovel, Paul earns an honest day's wage.
Hurricanes and critters can't disturb the safety of this highway-ramp refuge.
Hurricanes and critters can't disturb the safety of this highway-ramp refuge.

The bucolic homeless camp has been up and running for two decades, denizens say. Through various permutations of bad luck, chronic alcoholism, job loss, divorce, mental illness, and fallings-out with relatives, the population is fluid yet remarkably similar from year to year. It's like watching the same endless reel of film with slightly different characters, scattered on the floor of this big cathedral of trees.

As with anything in life, though, things aren't as good as they used to be. At least, that's what the old-timers say.

"At one time, there was about 15 camps out here," says Billy D, remembering the golden Reagan years, when he first moved in. "Folks had TVs and lights, running 'em off of car batteries. We had a transformer to convert DC to AC. Even had a basketball hoop set up."

Sherwood Forest belongs to the City of Fort Lauderdale, which considers it "surplus property." The land abuts the city's precious well fields and pump stations west of Interstate 95. So the woods remain empty, untouched. With water issues looming in the future, Regional Planning Specialist Carl Shallenberger says, "We're not sure what we're going to do with it."

Like its namesake in Jolly Olde England, Sherwood Forest's communal structure provides a loose, occasionally effective safety net for the rumpled homeless people who stumble in. With assistance from a few benefactors and handouts from local businesses, folks get by. There's even a certain measure of pride that few street-corner panhandlers can claim. Living in the woods allows them a vestige of self-sufficiency and more privacy than a public shelter.

Bert and Billy D are quintessential Sherwood veterans. The tarpaulin-domed retreat they occupy is maintained by Bert, who, by the force of personality and the influence of his paychecks, has become the camp captain. Healthy and ready by 6:30 each morning to work with a yard-service firm or help out a buddy who owns a pest-control service, he usually brings the most cash into the camp. He's the toughest and fastest too. While the other residents abandoned the woods during this summer's hurricane onslaught for friends' homes or city shelters, Bert remained, even as a few trees were toppled. He and the campsite were battered but survived.

Under the gray plastic ceiling, Bert's big mattress sits a good foot off the forest floor, thanks to plastic crates pinched from a nearby Winn-Dixie. A sturdy three-man tent with a zipper and flysheet takes up one corner, while a plastic cooler, upside-down buckets, rickety lawn chairs, and a rusty Weber grill occupy the other. For close to 30 years, both men have spent time in these woods, temporarily finding purchase in the real world, always returning when times get tough. During that span, the Australian pines have grown taller and thicker than ever -- just a mile from the green fairways of the Fort Lauderdale Golf Club and the surrounding well-to-do neighborhoods in pleasant old Plantation.

Billy D disappears for months, sometimes years, at a stretch. But when he returned in early November after an absence, he was happy to find his old pal Bert. "When I seen him," Bert recalls, "I said, 'Man, I'm glad to see you're back -- but not back here. '"

Billy's impressed at this show of emotion, testifying, "Bert, you're the only person in this whole wide world who I can trust. And that's for real." He looks ready to choke up. "I was stayin' with a buddy down on 441," he allows. "But I'm stayin' here now."

Bert's latest forest stint has lasted three months. "Three months at a time is the most I've been out here," he says.

Bert, 45, grew up in Miami and attended high school in Hialeah, then ended up in the neighborhoods around Davie Boulevard and Highway 441. A string of low-paying blue-collar jobs kept him barely solvent, until drinking and crack-smoking derailed his dreams of owning his own business. Just a few months back, Bert was doing OK for himself, living with a girlfriend in west Fort Lauderdale.

"But she wanted to try to own me,'" he growls. "She bought me everything I needed -- a 52-inch riding mower, a nice backpack, everything brand-new." One night, Bert felt like heading down the street to JT's Lounge, a West Davie dive, to meet a buddy and knock back a beer or 12.

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