By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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"Shit, I'll wear anything."
Those are the words — uttered by a man named Patches — that start it all.
He's lean and muscular and speaks with a strong Cuban accent. The ex-con is standing in what we'll call the Unofficial Subtropical Skid Row (USSR) — the bombed-out blocks, strewn with groggy homeless people, a few hundred feet west of the Miami Heat's American Airlines Arena.
He wears mesh shorts, a green bandanna folded over his dead left eye (hence the nickname), and a red Pizza Hut hat. A twig dangles from his teeth. Patches somehow makes it all look more bad-ass than bedraggled.
The basketball jersey New Times give him completes the motif. It's a number 23 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey — wine and gold in color, never worn, and with a $59.99 price tag only recently removed. Patches throws it on his bare torso and struts across the filthy pavement like it's a catwalk. A buddy, slouching against a chainlink fence, enviously eyes him.
On this weekday afternoon in September, Patches is the sole test subject. The study's conclusion: The homeless don't mind wearing out-of-date sports gear even if it comes with a little baggage. This might not seem like an epiphany — unless you're a Miami homeless advocate.
Two months earlier, northeast Ohio had become a Chernobyl of burning LeBron James jerseys. That's when the basketball demigod had hyped a national television special in order to dump his native region for Miami. One Cleveland man was inspired to salvage his town's jerseys — and all other LeBron-themed clothing — by collecting and shipping them to the Magic City for distribution to the local homeless. Within a month of James's joining the Heat, Chris Jungjohann (pronounced young john), founder of the project he called "Break Up With LeBron," had collected more than 400 jerseys and other items through a website and boxes he set up at restaurants.
It was simple brilliance, doomed for the buzz saw of South Florida bureaucracy.
The Miami Coalition for the Homeless, as well as several other agencies, had rejected Jungjohann's stuff. "It's on hold right now," the coalition's policy director, Rita Clark, had told us. "There's a lot of politics around this." She added that Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado privately disapproved of the project — which his spokesperson denies.
"The general consensus was that it was an attempt to mock the homeless population," Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book explains. "The reaction was a tense, but pleasant, 'No, thanks.'"
Our suspicion is that local homeless people once again wouldn't mind giving their self-proclaimed advocates an impassioned, but pleasant, slash to the tires.
The weather and weirdness of Miami would make it a natural Shangri-la for drifters if it weren't for the professional buzzkills. Last year, the Homeless Trust attempted to make it illegal to give beggars your leftovers without first taking a class on the subject. Then there are the trust's suddenly ubiquitous coin meters. Decorated by millionaire artist Romero Britto, the expensive meters are designed to encourage samaritans to donate to the trust rather than directly to panhandlers.
As with the jersey ban, there's a common theme here: Nobody ever asks the Steel Reserve-quaffing set what it wants. Hence Patches.
Wearing a grin and 60 bucks in mesh, the buff street dweller lounges against a fence as we drive away. Shit, we think. We're going to have to do this ourselves.
The faces are pasty. The smiles are genuine. The clothing is sensible. The boobs are real.
This is a strange, exotic place, but we're not here as tourists. We have an empty red duffel bag — $14 from Kmart — and we're looking to fill it with northeast Ohio's jerseys. A month before our de facto deadline — the Heat's regular-season home opener on October 29 — we have exactly no jerseys and the same number of prospects.
Chris Jungjohann, with his ominously unphonetic name, has become a villain. In the weeks since we gave away that first jersey, he has been frustratingly noncommittal about whether he'll allow us to distribute his goods. "I'm still waiting to hear for sure" from Miami's homeless agencies, he explains in an endlessly affable tone. He won't fathom that he's been stiffed with a garage full of semiworthless sports gear.
Jungjohann owns a marketing company, and he made collecting a ton of LeBron crap look awfully easy. For starters, he had timing on his side. When people throw their exes' stuff onto the street, they tend to do it in the hours, not weeks, after a breakup.
One of the first Clevelanders to torch a LeBron James jersey July 8 — the night LeBron stammered to the world he was taking his talents to South Beach — was an unnamed luminary at a Mahoning Valley Scrappers minor-league game. The pyro-innovator "avoided arrest," a newspaper noted the next day, probably because the Scrappers liked the idea. They announced a promotional night featuring a "LeBronfire." Fans bringing his jersey to be torched would receive a free ticket. The Double-A Akron Aeros ran a similar promotion, shipping off their jerseys with missionaries to be distributed in far-flung places.