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Vagabond Cove

Several months ago, the architectural highlight of the homeless encampment on Watson Island was a room with a porch, constructed four feet off the ground among the limbs of a tree on the shore of Biscayne Bay. The dwelling was a clever little house wrought from an assortment of salvaged construction materials and boat parts. It's gone now; the people who live on Watson Island today say it's been weeks since they've seen the man who built it. Some recall that the place burned down. They say the occupant torched it himself. Fires in homeless camps aren't uncommon. Electricity is practically never available, and fire is also employed sometimes as a threat or a tool of revenge.

In any case, that house is gone. And so is Vince, a.k.a. the mayor of Watson Island, the philosopher-musician with a drug problem. But the waterfront settlement, the subject of media attention in past months, including a February New Times story, has entered a golden age in architecture. Just offshore, for example, tugging timidly at its moorings, is a contraption that looks like a cross between a raft and a treehouse, with a brightly striped parachute for a roof. Its creator, Wilson Chichester, says he'll soon put the whole thing on pontoons and take it out on the bay for what he terms "marine research."

Down the shore a few hundred feet to the west is a marvel of one-room homey comfort: a surprisingly spacious, elevated structure with a front porch and screens and shutters on three sides to take advantage of the breeze off the bay. Inside, an unsteady dressing-table mirror glints crazily out on the rest of the camp. Neatly arranged on the carpet-covered floor are dressers, tables, and a comfortable black vinyl swivel chair -- all, according to the homeowner, courtesy of South Dade salvage yards. Two TV sets, one full-size, the other mini, are occasionally plugged into a generator. Among a stack of books on a built-in shelf are a Bible and a thick do-it-yourself text. Out front, in the sand facing the shimmering green water, sits one of those horses-on-springs that kids like to bounce on. Two little girls live in the big house, as a matter of fact, along with their father and varying numbers of other people as circumstances dictate. All around,beneath the island's tall Australian pines, and virtually in the high-priced shadows cast by the more prosaic domiciles along the Venetian Causeway, other ambitious residences -- complete with walls, roofs, and solid wooden or particle-board doors -- have been going up in recent weeks. The tents are still here, too, more of them than ever, as are the haphazard quasi-tent combinations of plywood, scrap lumber, and plastic sheeting. And several cars and campers. As of July 12, according to Livia Garcia, director of homeless programs for the City of Miami, about 80 people were living on the island, in 46 dwellings. The landfill-like pile of refuse that had been mounting for at least a month at the edge of the camp was removed by the city not long ago, though the lack of any sort of sanitation facilities remains an inconvenience. The uncut brush at the foot of the MacArthur Causeway and the bay itself serve as bathrooms.

Island life is thriving. A few months ago Miami's parks department became concerned, specifically about the apparently burgeoning crowd of people living in vehicles parked on the camp's outskirts, and announced that those who weren't really homeless would have to leave. From the looks of it, almost everyone was indeed homeless; the population continued to climb. "Now we're getting more and more people out here. I guess they threw them out from under the bridges," figures Patrick Cole, a soft-spoken man with strawberry-blond hair and a mustache who says he came to Miami looking for work after Hurricane Andrew and wound up on Watson Island last September. He is sitting near his green pup tent, reading a paperback spy novel called The KGB Candidate. A tin plate of black beans and rice brought last night by a church group is uneaten and crawling with flies. Cole is skeptical about talk he's been hearing that the city plans to move the Watson Island camp and relandscape the area. "You hear a lot of things," he remarks, petting a stray cat he says has adopted him.

That's the trouble: too many rumors, sighs Livia Garcia. "We're not kicking anybody out of anywhere," she says. As for the camp being closed and relandscaped, city and county authorities say they'd love to do that. It can only happen, though, after they have enough places to put the people who are living there. And that won't even be a remote possibility until next year, assuming the county's ambitious new homeless project can begin. On July 27, as this story went to press, Dade County commissioners were scheduled to vote on the plan, which includes a one-cent restaurant tax (on establishments grossing at least $400,000 per year) to help fund it.  

A county task force developed the plan in response to a ruling last November by U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins, who ordered the City of Miami to establish two "safe zones" for homeless people, in Bicentennial Park and in the so-called mud flats under I-395. While Miami's attorneys appealed the order, Dade County took the lead in crafting a homeless program. Homelessness is a countywide problem, points out Sergio Gonzalez, an aide to commissioner Alex Penelas, chairman of the commission's housing and homeless committee, and besides, only the county has the taxing authority to fund a long-term plan. The proposed program is projected to cost between six and ten million dollars annually, the total depending largely on revenues from the restaurant tax. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that the City of Miami doesn't have to set up the safe zones while its appeal is under consideration, but officials hope that implementing the new program will avoid the safe-zone issue entirely. Besides immediate resettlement, the plan includes treatment for drug and/or alcohol abuse, and help in securing transportation, work, public assistance, even low-cost permanent housing. Notwithstanding its proponents' optimism, though, the project will not be able to address the needs of the county's entire homeless population.

Because the restaurant tax isn't expected to generate enough money for the project until late this year, the county also hopes to initiate a one-million-dollar short-term homeless relocation program in about a month, according to Andy Menendez, Dade's director of homeless programs. Menendez adds that while the search continues for permanent shelter for the homeless, there will be no change in the present countywide policy of neither kicking people out of encampments nor encouraging them to stay by providing amenities such as toilets or running water. (The county did allow installation of portable toilets under I-395 several months ago, says Menendez, because sanitary conditions there were "unconscionable.")

For the time being, at least, residents of Watson Island are pretty much on their own, and they generally like it that way. "We tend to pull together," says Brian Smith, a man with a bushy black beard who is helping his neighbor Agnes repair one wall of the shack she shares with her husband. Like many people who were interviewed for this story, Agnes, who says she is 34, doesn't want her last name or her husband's name published. The showpiece of her house is its elaborately paneled wooden door. "It's peaceful here," she says, explaining that she moved to Watson Island three weeks ago from the homeless camp at Bicentennial Park, where some 100 people are living. She is skinny as a pipecleaner, in jeans and flowered tank top, with a chartreuse Newport cigarette cap perched like a neon bubble on her head. "There was too much trouble over there. But here people mind their own business. You can leave your door open and you won't come back and find everything missing." Next to the house, blankets and towels hang drying on a clothesline strung between two trees.

The "trouble" in Bicentennial Park usually stems from drugs, in one form or another, Agnes and her neighbors agree. Drugs A stealing or prostituting to buy them, violence related to their sale and use A cause problems on Watson Island, too, although few residents admit to being mixed up in that pervasive facet of urban homelessness. Neither do they express concern about their physical vulnerability, their exposure to human and heavenly violence, the illusive nature of the privacy they seek behind plywood or plastic walls. The unease of living in the open is only an undercurrent here. Instead, residents praise the tranquility, the stunning view of the bay and downtown Miami, the good fishing, and the plentiful bounty -- most get by on food stamps, the meals regularly carted in by local church groups, and visits to Camillus House; those whose talents run to panhandling find a fair source of income in the captive motorists who accumulate every time the MacArthur Causeway's drawbridge goes up.

A few yards from Agnes's home, two black-haired girls attached to bright plastic toy inner tubes splash in the bay's shallow water. Six-year-old Sylvia and four-year-old Angel live in the big house with the toy horse in front. Inside, their father, Mike (he tells some people his name is Tony), reclines on a sleeping bag trading small talk with a ruddy-faced woman named Michele and her boyfriend, Luis. Michele recently moved to Miami from Chicago, she says, to see the sea. She baby-sits sometimes, or helps the Captain A Capt. Ivan Charles Canterbury Fox, a skipper from Bermuda who periodically anchors his old speedboat offshore and who runs an informal business transporting other boats from place to place.  

Mike, whose coarse gray hair reaches halfway down his back, says he and a friend built the house about a month ago. He had been living in a Miami Beach apartment until he lost his job as a sheet metal worker. About three weeks ago he brought his girls, who are out of school for the summer and love the water, to Watson Island. He says he's been separated for more than a year from his wife, that she's in Tennessee with two more of their children. He's had trouble getting a job; like almost every other laborer in the camp, he says his tools have been stolen, lessening his attractiveness to employers. He does have transportation, an old Toyota parked beside the house, and he picks up some money shooting pool on South Beach.

All the Watson Islanders say their main problem is finding steady work. "Once you're down, they want to keep you down," Mike complains. But then he looks around, takes a deep breath of the hot sea breeze blowing through his house, and smiles. The sounds drift in: his girls squealing playfully, Agnes sawing through a piece of plywood. "The only thing here is you don't have electricity," he muses. "But as far as a place to live, it's not bad."

Mike says he takes showers at a friend's apartment in Miami Beach. Most of his neighbors spend two dollars to use the shower at Marty Tritt's bait shop on the other side of the causeway. They can wash clothes in coin-operated washing machines there, too, and they can buy beer. A low-key, goodhearted sort, Tritt seems to have more patience for the down-and-out than other business owners in the area, though he doesn't buy their hard-luck stories and he won't tolerate troublemakers.

Tritt has owned the bait shop (a funky place crammed with everything from fishing lures to plastic dolls, famous for scenes in Miami Vice) for fifteen years. He says homeless people have been regulars at his store that long, "even before bumming was popular." He isn't impressed with the latest homeless population surge on the island. They come and go with the weather and natural disasters like Andrew, he says, but in the end there's little variation.

"It's really funny," echoes Barbara Kiers, who works at Tritt's shop. "They always come back, like a magnetic field. There's a tremendous appeal in that vagabond lifestyle."

"What's new," Tritt puts in, "is they really shouldn't permit them to put up those shacks."

Back at the encampment, Wilson Chichester is carting back a few bags to his raft/house with the striped parachute roof. Chichester describes himself as a signpainter and a musician -- and a distant relative of the legendary Sir Francis Chichester, who in 1966 singlehandedly sailed the yacht Gipsy Moth IV around the world. In the same tradition, this Chichester is excited about the prospect of launching his own vessel, though a bit vague about the research project he has in mind. He trudges through the sand and soil dressed in cutoff camouflage pants and a camouflage shirt with the sleeves ripped out. His woolly black and white beard is long and wild. "I feel like Robinson Crusoe," he pronounces solemnly. "It's a dream I've had all my life. I got the idea from Huck Finn.


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