Homeless in South Florida: Amidst Feeding Law Furor, Street Life Is Never Simple
Inside a Miami Shores Starbucks, a 34-year-old with tangled hair and a slight limp shakes his head at the green-aproned baristas while he tries to order a simple coffee. "The one with milk. A latte? A macchiato?"
Travis Donald has been homeless around Fort Lauderdale since 2011, though he prefers a more empowering description: "I refer to myself as a street ninja." He swears his lifestyle is preferable to the corporate grind. It's the pitiable Starbucks worker drones who don't know they're being controlled. "If they did, they wouldn't be here," he says. "They'd be out conquering the world."
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In November, Fort Lauderdale made headlines when then-90-year-old Arnold Abbott defied a new city ordinance that restricts the public sharing of food. For decades, downtown business owners had complained that homeless people -- some drug-addicted or mentally ill -- drove away paying customers when they littered, slept, or urinated and defecated in the open. Many refused help. In response, the city this year restricted panhandling and food sharing, outlawed "camping" on city property, and passed a measure that allows cops to seize the belongings of homeless people.
When the crackdown was caught on video, viewers worldwide were outraged at the sight of armed cops guarding boxes of doughnuts and leading Abbott away. Headlines decried the city's "homeless hate laws." Activists launched hunger strikes and called for boycotts. December 1, hackers from Anonymous even took credit for shutting down the city's computer systems.
Donald isn't a typical homeless individual -- he's stone-sober and well-read. That's why I recently reached out to him to ask if he would share his story and his perspective on life on South Florida's streets. His experience illuminates how complex the issue of homelessness can be and the challenge of trying to manage it.
I first met Donald in about 2005, when he worked the front desk at the Zoo Health Club on Fort Lauderdale Beach. He was 24, handsome, and downright friendly. He wore combat boots and read books about quantum physics or witchcraft. His pink-haired, Hello Kitty-wearing girlfriend would sometimes join him as he worked to pay tuition at Miami-Dade College, where he studied to be a mortician. They were in love and idealistic, and I figured they would one day run the world's coolest funeral home. Donald asked for writing assignments from New Times and eventually left the gym to write for Channel 7. Then I lost touch with him.
So it was a shock to reconnect with him on Facebook about four years ago and learn he was living on the beach. When I asked him to write a first-person account, he penned a draft, then hopped a bus to Miami to meet me.
"Who am I, after all?" his story began. "Just another meat bag glued to the surface of this boulder, a dingleberry on the stardust of God's only sun."
Growing up in Lantana, he was bused to school with poor kids. Overweight from "a diet of Coca-Cola, Pop-Tarts, and TV dinners," he was bullied -- a fact confirmed by his mother, Sharon, who lives in Pompano Beach (and asked that her last name not be used).
"No siblings," Donald wrote, "so I dealt with my pain alone. Parents didn't give a shit until I was about 12 and jumped off a school bus emergency exit in traffic because I was told some older kid was waiting for me with a gun because I rudely told his girlfriend to stop picking on me at lunch. 'Take him out of school,' my father said."
The family moved to Broward, and Donald got a "GED at 16, aced it." When he realized, "I'm never going to get laid looking like this," he got fit and "was almost out of childhood alive."
Sharon admits her son had a troubled childhood but says he "never went without -- he had every action figure, every Transformer. He stayed home and played videogames instead of seeking friends."
She offers a few details that Donald did not: "When he turned 18, his father kicked him out, knowing he was not going to get social security benefits" for a dependent anymore. When Donald was 20, his dad committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun.
Donald worked freelance and part-time jobs: food service, handing out fliers at the Swap Shop Circus, the Zoo. "From there," he wrote, "I met countless people and expanded my knowledge into the occult, as I grew older and knew there was more to life than just passing around money backed by bullshit banks."
There were a few "blurry years." Police records show Donald was arrested in 2003 for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He says he had just been pulling a prank with a friend, knocking on strangers' doors at 2 a.m. and flashing a camera in people's faces. He quit Channel 7 after only a few months to spend more time with his needy girlfriend (which he now calls "the stupidest decision I ever made"). He dropped out of school because he couldn't pass algebra, and loan money dried up. His mother says a doctor was no help by prescribing OxyContin after Donald suffered a car crash, though he weaned himself from it.
Then, on June 22, 2011, Donald says, his mother moved with her new husband, and he was not invited. "He lived with me and my [new] husband for 16 years off and on," Sharon says. "He sat on the couch working on his computer, doing nothing around the house, nothing to bring money in. He had to go. I had my mother moving in who was 92, with dementia." She worried about him, but knew he was smart and had friends.
But Donald, now 30, was officially homeless. Fear melted away after a few nights on the street. No one bothered him except cops. His days consisted "of not being arrested for being outside too long. You have to keep moving. Don't live there? Not spending money? Waiting for somebody? Get on or get a gun to the face."
Donald says that he can always manage to find a bathroom and that "there's no excuse" for going outdoors, but he witnessed the mainstream disdain for the homeless: "They can't stand to see people sleep or use the restroom. Like those are the two biggest crimes on the planet. They want to come after you with an ax."
Donald was interested in working, he says, but court records show he was charged in July 2011 with battery and petty theft when, he says, he tried stealing a clean change of clothes at Kmart.
Then, two months later, he was caught sneaking a Mortal Kombat poster out of a Kmart for his girlfriend; when he scuffled with the cop, a charge of felony battery on a law enforcement officer was filed. He was tossed in jail.
"The prosecutor mentioned I had been arrested for disorderly conduct eight years ago. Judge John Hurley says, 'All right, repeat offender, bond for third-degree violent offender -- $5,000, third-degree attempted petit theft -- $5,000, NEXT.' "
He spent several months in jail. He laid "in bed with a sheet over my head, catatonic, didn't care if I lived or died. I spent my time under a blanket, in a cocoon, going over the alchemical components of my occult studies in the fields of music, geometry, number and linguistic associations, kabbalah, and physics."
Ultimately, he says, he pleaded no contest and was released. He decided: "Nobody cares about me, I don't care about anybody, so I'd take the stuff I learned about the occult and shove it in everyone's faces." He spent all of his free time on the internet espousing ideas about conspiracy theories, sex magic, and transhumanism (the idea that people will ultimately merge with technology).
Are these signs of mental illness? His mom doesn't think so. Talking about "that crap" is just "his way of defense," she says.
Either way, escaping homelessness now seemed out of reach. Even without a felony record, Donald says, jobs waiting tables require references, weeks until a first paycheck, a uniform, a car. On minimum wage, he couldn't afford rent, much less utilities and food.
"Once I stopped giving a shit about money, a career, or how my life went, the level of freedom was unbelievable," he says.
Still, despite the bravado, he admits to occasional crippling loneliness: "Sometimes I want to stick my head in a toilet and blow my brains out," he writes. Everyone else on the street is a junkie. Even if he did meet a girl, "it would come down to, 'Where do you want to go and what do you want to do?' And I have nowhere to go and nothing to do."
Today, he receives $200 per month in food stamps and steals snacks from big corporations ("never mom-and-pop stores"). He never panhandles ("What am I going to do with two bucks?"), but occasionally a stranger will hand him a $20.
In the wake of the recent headlines, Fort Lauderdale officials have struggled to advertise the city's services for the homeless, but Donald dismisses them altogether. People at shelters are "stupid and ignorant"; charities require listening to "Jesus all day." Services are spread out, he says, and as an able-bodied male, he's low priority.
According to the Broward County Partnership for the Homeless, on any given night, there are 900 homeless individuals on the street and 239 families on a waiting list for shelter. (Chief Development Officer Mike Long admits that the elderly, sick, and children get priority and that mental health funding is almost nonexistent but says Donald could seek help through the Second Chance Society.)
Donald also avoids Food Not Bombs' feedings in Stranahan Park because of the heavy cop presence and has never partaken of Arnold Abbott's feedings on Fort Lauderdale Beach but thinks "it's great" that Abbott has embarrassed the city.
"Fuck that lawyer," Donald says, referring to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler. "He's so worried about the tourist community -- that nobody wants to see this -- that he thinks it can justify sending a 90-year-old man to jail?"
In his mind, he's focused on fighting the information war. "I help people who are lost, confused in life, victims of secret societies, victims of psychopaths and cults. I have found my True Will to help others, to bestow unconditionally unto people in need when I have nothing myself."
If the right money-making opportunity came along, "I wouldn't be against it," he says. But really, "Why pay rent to live on the planet? Jobs have only been around for 150 years. Anyone who thinks working at McDonald's" -- or Starbucks -- "is normal is very confused."
For me, seeing Donald after so many years brought up some mixed emotions. Like his mom, I think he's too smart to be out there, and I have little tolerance for conspiracy theories.
But I find his attitude fascinating, and I consider him my friend. I think the city's laws are misguided, but I see what those businesspeople mean when they say that some people just don't want help. Maybe street ninjas don't need it.
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