Home Is Where You Build It

You might say the tent city residents of Watson Island are a little rough around the edges, but they sure aren't homeless

Morning on Watson Island. Commuters cruise along the MacArthur Causeway, just across the Intracoastal from downtown Miami. The turquoise water of Biscayne Bay ripples up on a narrow, rocky strip of sand on the north side of the island. Cleared of clouds by a brisk wind, the sky is still tinged with lavender. In a shady spot just west of the now-forlorn Japanese Gardens, smoke is rising through the feathery foliage of tall Australian pines. An old wood-hulled speedboat and two battered dinghies floating just offshore. Several hundred yards to the east, the wind plays hypnotic percussion with the masts and riggings of the sailboats docked at the Miami Yacht Club. Windows in the highrise condo across the bay are beginning to catch glints of sun.

The smoke is emanating from behind a charred wheelbarrow body turned on its side in front of Vince's house. Seated on a plastic crate, Vince is frying eggs and warming flour tortillas over a fire. As houses go in this town of about 25 residents, Vince's could be considered typical: a variation on a tent, constructed of colored plastic sheets draped over wooden stakes and roofed with scraps of plywood and particle board. Legally and literally, of course, this isn't a town. No indoor plumbing or wiring, no planning and zoning. Just a tiny parcel of land, one of scores of camps of all sizes and styles set up by homeless people in Dade County.

Vince doesn't look authoritative -- soiled dark blue guayabera, gray polyester pants, jogging shoes, thick black hair jutting in all directions and a freshly stitched gash on his forehead -- but a lot of his neighbors, not entirely in jest, call him the mayor of Watson Island. It's not just because he's been here longer than almost anyone else (more than a year) and can tell you the history of the island. It's because he's calm, and people listen to him. You could say he has quiet authority.

But lately Vince also has a problem. It seems to be a case of miscommunication, but not the kind that leads to divorce and angst in the suburbs. This problem could kill him. Last week he offended a couple of drug dealers, so they came back the next night, set fire to a tent, and swung a lead pipe into his face. "Obviously they want me to leave," Vince says with a voice that never seems to rise. "But I'm just not going to."

As Vince gathers twigs from an uprooted pine -- a legacy of Hurricane Andrew -- and rekindles his fire, Herman walks up holding two Bud longnecks, one of which he presents to Vince. "Regalo del capitan," says Herman Nival, an ebullient Dominican whose black hair and moustache spurt in short, erratic ringlets from his head. "A gift from the Captain."

And there's Captain Ivan, trudging through the sand in rubber sandals and blue coveralls with the legs rolled up but still wet. Ivan Charles Canterbury Fox, also called Foxy. He'll be 70 next year. It's his 51-year-old boat anchored out in the bay, Grizelda painted in gold script on the snubnose stern. The captain is carrying two barnacle-covered floodlights he salvaged from a wrecked boat. He has towed other valuable items to the camp -- boat windows and ladders, even a big red hull -- all of which have been built into houses. In turn, the men on Watson Island have helped Foxy navigate land matters such as food-stamp and social-security offices. He says he's anchored Grizelda here off and on for the past four years. Onboard there's a small shower and a .45 caliber pistol, and he can row out in a flash when there's trouble onshore.

Like the night Vince got hit. Foxy says when he saw Vince was injured, he began to call for help on his boat radio. But no one on shore wanted the police coming into the camp, so Foxy got directions to the VA hospital; Vince is a Vietnam vet. The police have always harassed the people here, they say, although relations have been better since November, when U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins ordered the City of Miami to stop confiscating homeless people's property and to establish "safe zones" where they can live like human beings.

"I've been coming through here 40 years," Foxy muses, rubbing a fine white beard growth. "Then I anchored here and I ran into all kinds of help. We made a family out of this deal. Of course, then they'll get unhappy with me every once in a while and I'll go away." He grins and chortles. Under the crooked brim of a mashed camouflage cap, the whites of the captain's algae-colored eyes are permanently shot with red.

"El vive a lo Fu Manchu," comments Herman, nodding enthusiastically. This strange untranslatable expression, to live "a lo Fu Manchu," is what the men of Watson Island do, Herman explains. (At present, only one woman is said to live at the camp, with her two children. Sometimes, such as right after Hurricane Andrew, entire families move in, according to Vince, but the place is clearly a man's world.)

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