Roving homeless colony keeps North Miami Beach cops busy

The famed molesters under Julia Tuttle Causeway were never the only homeless colony in town. And now that those persecuted pervs have been dispatched to God-knows-where, we can give some overdue media attention to other, less Hannah Montana-lovin', local bands of merry hobos.

One such band: Camp Merrill, named after Jay Merrill, the hobo who founded the colony either a couple of months or ten years ago, depending upon whom you believe. On the day New Times encountered the group, a bulk of the members — four white men yelling to each other on bicycles — was pedaling away from the encampment across the street from Watercrest Care Center, an old folks home on West Dixie Highway in North Miami Beach. We chatted with Harold Gus, interim spokesperson while the camp's full-time mouthpiece, Ernest, was in jail for public drunkenness. Harold is a 68-year-old Kansas City native who keeps his divorce papers from three ex-wives wrapped in plastic in his jeans pockets.

The camp has some swell digs: torn black leather couches, a television with a collection of VHS tapes — Hudsucker Proxy, Gigli — a cabinet full of canned beans and corn, a cage stocked with two stuffed birds, and a shopping cart full of crushed beer cans. A cardboard sign announces "no vacancies" but lists the rules just in case you're persistent: "4-pack minimum [that's referring to six-packs] plus pack cigs." Also, "no crackheads."

Harold says there are about five charter members and usually about five additional "stragglers" each night. But all is not peachy in this Camp Nowhere: Cops have been hassling the colony, Harold says, even slashing tires and emptying his wardrobe all over the ground. "Look at my clothes!" he screams, pointing at a pile of clothes in the dirt. "I don't conduct myself that way!"

Neither Harold nor any of his camp-mates saw police vandalize the place. So what's his evidence? "My brothers wouldn't do that!" he booms, before apologizing: "I've been drinking a little bit."

Camp Merrill has become somewhat notorious to North Miami Beach beat cops, says Major Kathy Katerman, although she denies her department did any tire-slashing or clothing-strewing. Camp Merrill was recently evicted from the grounds of the town's Spanish Monastery, where homeless people have lived for years, after reports of drunken squabbles in the colony. "The Father complained that somebody had canceled their wedding plans there because [the colony] had scared her," says Katerman. "That church does a lot for the homeless. But when they start to affect the business, and the little old ladies going to church are frightened, something has to be done."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts

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