Real Estate

"Magical" Hippie Commune Turns Out to Be Nightmare for Some Tenants

Brandon Hudspeth's tent was cut open and its rain tarp removed at the hippie commune in North Miami he was living in.
Brandon Hudspeth's tent was cut open and its rain tarp removed at the hippie commune in North Miami he was living in. Photo by Brandon Hudspeth
Shawnee's Paradise advertises itself as an idyllic property for wayward spirits and those looking for a peaceful place to stay in North Miami. A 2016 rental agreement for Shawnee's filed in court documents put it this way: "You are not paying a 'landlord,' you are paying a 'caretaker' of the planet."

But some former tenants say the place is anything but paradise — and their rights to stay there largely depended on the whims of the owner.

The roughly 20,000-square-foot lot off of State Road 916 is secluded by large trees that grow around the property, and the only entrance is a chainlink-fence gate that's kept closed with a padlock. Those allowed in are greeted by the sight of a lush garden with tropical plants and fountains dotted along a gravel path.

The property is owned by Cathy Chasser, a 69-year-old self-described radical hippie who walks barefoot when she's not driving her bright purple pickup truck or sleeping in her treehouse cabin. She goes by the name Shawnee.

Chasser is the former owner of Shawnee's Greenthumb Popcorn, a vegan popcorn brand sold at Whole Foods that features an artistic rendition of a younger Chasser aboard her boat, Joshua's Bliss, which she named after her late son. She has since sold her company, which was rebranded as Greenthumb Popcorn.

Chasser has been in the news in the past, known as the "purple-haired grandma" when she battled the county in 2016 over code violations at her commune. The treehouse she lives in was built illegally and is unsafe, according to Miami-Dade County.

Her county code violation cases remain active, and a county spokesperson tells New Times that Chasser must bring her house up to code or demolish it. Chasser says she hopes they leave her alone because she's old.

Tents and tiki huts are set up at the back of the property, where various people down on their luck or fed up with the modern world live and keep occupied with gardening. Chasser says those people are her friends, not tenants, and that they don't pay rent — they simply help her with bills. (Chasser told New Times she no longer prepares rental agreements like the one from 2016 that was filed in court.) Some people currently living there say the same — that they simply help Chasser pay her utilities and assist with the upkeep.

But some former tenants say they were charged rent and viewed Chasser as their landlord. Over the years, the arrangement has led to confusion and feuds between the "caretaker" and her guests.

Brandon Hudspeth lived at Shawnee's from last September until July. He moved into the commune when he fell on hard times after working on the Florida gubernatorial campaign for Andrew Gillum, who eventually lost to Ron DeSantis in 2018.

"I was living in my car for a while. I moved here for the election and got housing from the campaign but couldn't find a place after that," Hudspeth tells New Times. "I started drinking, and I didn't have enough money to pay for a place."

Hudspeth says he heard about Shawnee's through a friend, and Chasser offered him a place to live in a tent on the property for $300 a month.

Amid the pandemic, Hudspeth says, he continued looking for work but fell a few weeks behind on rent. He says Chasser told him that she was evicting him, despite Florida's eviction moratorium.

"She told me I was kicked out. Told me, 'You're evicted,' but she's done that twice before," Hudspeth says.

Chasser counters that Hudspeth was several months late on rent and that he was "mentally abusing" her.

"He was obsessed with hurting me. Obsessed with the idea of taking me down," Chasser tells New Times.

While he was waiting for written notice of his eviction, Hudspeth says, he found the extension cord that powered a fan and lights in his tent was frequently unplugged. He recorded videos of himself having to walk out of his tent to plug in the cord. He says he saw Chasser unplug the cord a number of times, and that it had never happened prior to their conflict.

Citing the pandemic, Hudspeth refused to leave. He says more trouble ensued. Photos he shot show his tent sliced open, his belongings exposed to the South Florida rains. His car tires were slashed. He says the confrontation came to a head when Chasser took his mail.

"I had a large piece of mail coming through — a laptop for work purposes. She admitted that she had taken my package and was taking it [back] to the post office," Hudspeth says.

Chasser tells New Times she took Hudspeth's package, wrote "person does not live here" on the box, but said she'd return it to Hudspeth if agreed to vacate the premises.

Hudspeth says she never gave him his mail back.

When New Times asked Chasser where the package was, she said it got lost.

"No one knows what happened to it," she says. "It's out of my hands."

Taking a person's mail is a federal crime — a fact Hudspeth says he imparted to Chasser.

Hudspeth finally left Shawnee's Paradise at the end of July after he says he was attacked by another tenant. Police told him he should move off of the property.

Hudspeth isn't the only former Shawnee's resident who holds a grudge against the hippie landowner.

Former tenant Brandi Barreto tells New Times she lived at Shawnee's Paradise from May to October of 2017 and paid $450 a month to live under a tiki hut on the property. If she was late with the rent by a few days, Barreto says, Chasser would threaten to cut off her electricity.

In 2016, Chasser made headlines when the county cited her for running an illegal rooming house. But she didn't characterize herself as a landlord to press or county officials.

"Any time anyone would ask, when reporters or police would come through, she would have us lie and say we were helping out with bills and helping with the upkeep at Shawnee's Place. But we all paid deposit and rent," Barreto says.

Barreto says she moved to Shawnee's after moving to Miami from Wisconsin. She says she had little choice at the time.

"I didn't have anywhere else to go. I was in between odd jobs and waitressing at the airport, and I found an ad for this place on Craigslist," she says.

According to Barreto, Chasser would set out rodent poison on the property, in spite of the fact that Barreto's cat walked the grounds. Barreto says her cat was poisoned, and that Chasser eventually told her she could either turn over the pet to the Humane Society or abandon it in a "wealthy neighborhood."

Chasser says she doesn't remember Barreto and that "there's no such story like that."

Barreto says many of her fellow Shawnee's residents had drug problems or other hardships. One woman who lived there, whose name was Jessica, died of a heroin overdose while on the property, according to Chasser and Barreto.

Barreto says Chasser would take people in and charge them rent but expect them to love her and do favors for her out of gratitude. "If you don't bend to her will every time, she'll get an attitude with you," Barreto says.

In court papers Chasser filed against a former tenant in 2017, a "month-to-month rental agreement" is attached as an exhibit, which includes a "gratitude clause."

"The very instant that you lose that feeling of gratitude or contribution, kindly and lovingly find another place to live. It is the school of life," reads the handwritten clause, which ends with doodles of a heart and peace signs.

Chasser says she's taking care of young, lost souls who come through and offering them her friendship. She gives them love, a place to live, and, in some cases, extravagant gifts, as in the case of Narjess Al-Awady, a young woman from Michigan.

"Narjess told me she always wanted to play piano, so I went out and bought her a piano, but she packed up and left. Her sister had told me I was saving her life," Chasser tells New Times.

Since April, Al-Awady has been living in Miami, where she's pursuing an architecture degree. She tells New Times she saw an ad for Shawnee's Paradise on Craigslist. Though she found it "sketchy," she couldn't beat the price of $500 a month.

Al-Awady says Chasser seemed nice at first, like a grandmother, but things turned sour.

"I started noticing some funny things going on," Al-Awady says.

People who live at Shawnee's normally have jobs, according to Al-Awady, but they contribute to the commune by doing chores around the property. She says she started picking up tasks like cleaning or sweeping, but it began to seem like Chasser wanted her to work all the time.

"After a while, she took advantage of that. At 5 a.m., she would knock on my door, like an alarm nonstop, and be looking through the window while I'm sleeping, telling me to work," Al-Awady says. "I'm paying rent here — it's not boot camp. It's an invasion of privacy."

Chasser says she occasionally knocked on Al-Awady's door because Al-Awady was depressed and had seizures, and she wanted to make sure she was OK.

Al-Awady says she's been seizure-free for five years and did not have depression.

As for "saving her life," Al-Awady says she didn't need saving. She says she only mentioned that she was looking into getting a piano for herself but never asked for someone to buy her one.

"It seemed more like someone controlling, rather than someone looking out for you," Al-Awady says. "She took it really personal if I wasn't the friend she wanted."

After only a month or so, Al-Awady packed up and left. She was afraid to tell Chasser in advance that she intended to leave, because she'd heard stories from other tenants about how Chasser got angry if she felt someone had crossed her and she feared eviction. She says she repeatedly asked Chasser for a copy of her lease agreement so she could see how to get a refund of her $500 security deposit but that Chasser never supplied a physical copy — a complaint voiced by other tenants.

Al-Awady says she pleaded for her security deposit after leaving but Chasser stopped answering texts and phone calls.

Chasser tells New Times that she won't return the deposit because Al-Awady left with such short notice.

Chasser is similarly quick to discredit her other critics. She says Hudspeth and his mother are "mentally ill." She calls Al-Awady "pathetic" and spoke at length about her personal issues, urging New Times to publish the details. When a New Times reporter left her property, Chasser approached the reporter's car to further disparage Hudspeth, saying he was an alcoholic and that his tent was a mess.

Hudspeth tells New Times he is recovering from alcoholism and was sober when he left Shawnee's.

A Craigslist ad for Shawnee's Paradise says Chasser is looking for "community minded" individuals to live there, and the property's website calls it "an escape" with "magical energy."

Brandi Barreto begs to differ.

"At first it seems magical — it almost seems like a godsend," says Barreto. "Like a gift to get back on your feet. But it ends up turning into a nightmare."
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos