How to Become Homeless
Allen Smith's home of eight years is a pop-up trailer that no longer pops -- and hasn't for a long time. It's the kind of contraption you drag behind the family station wagon on trips to Yellowstone or Disney World.
Allen Smith cannot even stand in the trailer. There is no plumbing or electricity, but it's his home. He's happy here. The trailer is marooned in the side yard of a house on NE 18th Street in Pompano Beach. It occupies the space where a swimming pool once stood.
The roof of Smith's white, aluminum home is propped up by a three-by-three wooden beam. His security system consists of a bungee cord that pulls the door closed. Two miniature U.S. flags adorn the trailer, faded by the elements to only a memory of red, white, and blue.
The drabness of the trailer is broken only by a fluorescent orange notice affixed to the front, informing Smith that the code-enforcement division of Broward County demands that he vacate the property. Therefore it is moving day for Smith. Except he has nowhere to move to. Allen Smith is in the process of becoming homeless -- and he won't be taking his trailer along on this trip into residential uncertainty.
In preparation the onetime beautician and two-time divorcé is moving his life's possessions from the trailer to the sidewalk, a distance of about 20 yards. Plastic chairs, a rusty hickory smoker, oil paintings, two oriental rugs, a hibachi grill, flowerpots, a sample ballot for the 1996 Broward County election, a ceramic bunny.
"I'm 56 goddamned years old," Smith says, "and this is all I have left in my entire life. All of my possessions are in this yard."
He wears a black tank top, jeans, and cracked cowboy boots. Smith's face is hidden behind a bushy, nicotine-stained moustache and a beard that is a mixture of brown and gray. His hair is pulled back into a ponytail, held in place by a thin yellow and brown rope. A small, long-faded tattoo is visible on his left arm.
Smith hopes to haul his belongings to a storage facility and buy some time, but he doesn't have the money. The Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks that he receives from the government will not arrive until the beginning of October, still a few days away. Smith suffers from chronic heart problems and arthritis. He says that he's been hospitalized 37 times in the last 13 years. His ability to cope is also hampered by a drinking habit that is financially, if not physically, crippling.
As the sky darkens outside, so does Smith's mood. After a visit from the police warning him to get off the property or else, he walks to the Mobil station a few blocks away, purchases a six-pack of beer, drinks half of it, and proceeds to take an ax to his furniture. Neighbors look on as he hacks away, but nobody says a word.
"Do people usually say anything to somebody with a beard, long hair, and a beer can in his hand, chopping up furniture with a double-bitted ax?" Smith asks rhetorically.
Allen Smith has lived either in or beside the house on NE 18th Street off and on for the last 25 years. It belonged to his best friend, Wayne Reagon, who died five years ago. Reagon's wife passed on six months later, and the house has been occupied by their daughter ever since. Smith claims that the elder Reagons promised him a place to live for the rest of his life. But he has no proof and no one to bear witness.
"I feel sorry for him," says the daughter, who did not want her name used. "But he was drunk all the time." She notes that her family would have faced fines for the code violations if Smith did not vacate the property.
Smith has little but sympathy on his side. Under Broward County laws, a person cannot live in a trailer without running water or electricity, as Smith did for eight years.
"There's not really a legal defense," says Susan Glancy, director of the homeless legal-rights project at Legal Aid Service of Broward County. "I can't believe he made it that long, to be real honest."
Smith, naturally, sees things differently: "This is how people get homeless," he says. "I've fought and I've fought and I've fought. I'm an honest man, I'm not a thief. I'm just a guy who started having heart attacks, and I'm shit out of luck."
Rooms at the Knight's Inn in Pompano Beach rent for $48.62 a night. Not the best place to shack up if your monthly income is $500. But after sleeping in a friend's warehouse for a few nights, Allen Smith chooses the Knight's Inn as his new home. His pockets are momentarily flush with federal disability dollars.
Smith has pizza delivered to his hotel room. He watches cable television. In the daytime he goes out to bars and drinks beer. He pisses in the shiny porcelain toilet instead of on a bush or at a gas station. He bathes. "I've been taking showers for a couple of years in a back yard with a goddamned hose," Smith says.
But the minivacation is only a momentary denial of reality. As the funds dwindle, he calls up Glancy and spins out his tale of woe for an hour to a sympathetic, if exasperated, ear. "He was drunk as a skunk when he called me," Glancy recalls. "He just wanted to tell me his sad story."
Smith says that holing up in the hotel was a precaution against his own baser instincts. He was afraid that on the street his anger and resentment would get the best of him and he would turn violent.
When his money runs out, Smith ends up at the Salvation Army. It used to be the flophouse of last resort -- with a standing invitation extended to all down on their luck -- but not anymore. As part of Broward County's "continuum of care" for the homeless, the Salvation Army is attempting to transform itself from an emergency shelter into a place where people make permanent improvements to their lives.
Capt. Ken Luyk, the Salvation Army's Broward County area commander, says that his group now generally limits emergency stays for people like Smith to two or three days. Most of the beds in the facility are reserved for "transitional housing" programs, in which participants are required to work or participate in job training -- activities Smith says he cannot do because of his health.
Smith does not particularly want to change his life anyway. He was perfectly happy in his dingy trailer, cooking on his hibachi, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, reading books, and drinking beer.
He has been at the Salvation Army for five days now, and he has not had a drink the entire time. Each day he leaves at 7 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m., uncertain if he will be allowed to stay another night. Smith has spent this particular day taking public transportation back and forth to his doctor in Deerfield Beach and is worn out. He holds his chest and has problems breathing.
A new friend of Smith's, Jan, has been thrown out of the Salvation Army -- purportedly for cursing at one of the staff members. Jan, a voluble British woman who says she got stuck in Fort Lauderdale six months ago when someone stole her return ticket, denies that she said any such thing.
Smith is working the phone at Tallent Liquors on Broward Boulevard, attempting to find the two of them a place to stay. He calls the homeless hotline, 954-524-BEDS, set up by the Broward Coalition For the Homeless. The phone rings and rings before changing over to a busy signal.
While Smith futilely attempts to get someone on the phone, a homeless couple, sunbaked and drunk, walk by on the sidewalk. They have just been turned away from the Salvation Army. "Go back on heroin," the woman advises her partner. "Then they can't smell it."
Smith dials First Call For Help, another hotline number, and gets phone numbers for three possible places to stay. One organization takes only men, the second is an answering service, and the third is 954-524-BEDS. He tries the BEDS number again, only to hear the ubiquitous, unanswered ringing.
Emptying his jeans pocket, Smith holds out a handful of change. "That's it," he says. "There's 82 cents there." He then blows a piece of fuzz off his hand. "And lint."
Jan decides to camp out behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Broward Boulevard with another homeless guy who has a tent. Smith returns to the Salvation Army. They let him in for a sixth night.
The next day he is in better spirits. He's sitting in Cooley's Landing in Fort Lauderdale reading Mario Puzo's The Last Don and hoping to get into the Homeless Assistance Center on Sunrise Boulevard. Smith's T-shirt reads "Hotel Alcatraz," which promises "complimentary meals and drinks," and "scenic bay vistas." This is a joke he can appreciate.
"When you get to the end of your rope, you can either swing like Tarzan and move to another tree or you can make a noose and hang yourself," Smith says. "I chose to move to another tree."
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:
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