Dressed in a threadbare purple cardigan and stained gray Crocs, Ines Cabrera limps to her Chevy Colorado and cracks open the passenger window. A torrent of high-pitched yelps escapes from inside. As the window lowers, four of Cabrera's 11 Chihuahuas clamor to the front seat. The disabled 52-year-old says she's had to keep them in her pickup since Hurricane Irma destroyed the sailboat where she and her husband resided, leaving her to live in squalor in the parking lot of Watson Island Park, homeless and desperate for assistance.
"We're being forced to choose between paying for medication, groceries, and our dogs' food. It's been impossible," Cabrera says as the rain lightly speckles her sweater. "We choose our dogs, but this is no life."
Hundreds of people live on sailboats anchored around Miami in places such as Watson Island and Dinner Key, and many were forced to vacate their vessels during Hurricane Irma. Some returned to the docks to find their homes irreparably damaged, severely flooded, or completely submerged.
On Watson Island, at least five former sailboat dwellers have been living beside a closed public restroom near the marina, where they've endured rainstorms and robberies.
"We're at the point where we're scared for our lives," Cabrera says. Her friend, 51-year-old Eric Manzoli, nods: "Despair, just total despair," he says.
Living aboard a sailboat has plenty of advantages: There's no rent, mortgage, or landlord, and many can still anchor for free around Biscayne Bay. Though many boat residents took precautions to protect their vessels such as replacing fenders, wrapping the sails, and taping up hatches, their efforts were largely in vain once Irma's 100 mph winds swept over the region.
Hours before the storm struck, Cabrera and her 51-year-old husband, Rafael, a pastor, fled to a local Lowe's and bided their time beneath the store's concrete overhang.
"With the water coming in, it was very freaky," Cabrera says. "My husband is huge, but the wind was still taking him away."
Meanwhile, Manzoli, a native Bostonian, abandoned his newly purchased sailboat and evacuated to Massachusetts.
"The shelters, which by the way were Catholic charities, wouldn't take me because they said I hadn't been a Massachusetts resident for six months," he says. Thankfully, the trip back to Miami was long enough that Manzoli missed the worst of Irma's wrath.
Even so, upon returning to his vessel, Manzoli noticed his sailboat had flooded with murky yellow water and the interiors had grown layers of toxic mold. "I tried sleeping in my boat for a night and woke up coughing and coughing," he says. "My throat is still sore." Since then, he's been sleeping underneath a shredded beached catamaran in the parking lot.
"I only get $750 a month in social security," he says. "I can't afford to rent anywhere else."
As for the Cabreras' boats, Rafael points to an overturned, mastless hull in the marina. "That's our 27-foot sailboat," he says. "It's totally lost, but we might be able to save our other, 34-foot sailboat."
A few feet away, beside a submerged dock, is a large, tattered vessel with shredded sails and broken wooden flanks. He's taken many photos of the boat's flooded interior to show FEMA, but the agency has been unresponsive so far, he says. "We're still waiting to hear from them."
For now, the biggest challenge has been procuring desperately needed medications, Ines Cabrera says. She suffers from fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, and even a brain tumor, while her husband struggles with a painful limp caused by a gunshot wound that ripped off a third of his calf in 1991. As for Manzoli, he has long suffered from hepatitis C, he says. "I hadn't been on my meds for five months, but with the hurricane, I needed them," Manzoli says. "But I was turned away, and [they threatened] to lock me away, saying I was homicidal or suicidal."
Stuck in the parking lot, the five-person community says it has been struggling with basic sanitation. Despite being located next to a public restroom, they say the facility had been locked for the past month. Without a bathroom, the group was forced to defecate against a wall, just a few feet from their makeshift dining table, where they cook on a propane burner.
Among the five homeless residents and the park's security staff, Ines Cabrera has become known as "Mom" because she spends her disability checks and food stamps to buy groceries for the community. Just yesterday she offered the chorizo dish she cooked, bottles of water, and cold sodas to her neighbors. "I'm spending all the money I have to pay for the food, but we're in a crisis right now," she says.
Worst of all, Manzoli says, is the danger that the homeless residents have experienced since the storm, including a violent knife attack and multiple thefts by a mentally ill, homeless person. "It's unbelievable what we've been going through," he says. "We called the police, but they couldn't do anything because it's a public place."
Cabrera says she, her husband, and Manzoli have made multiple calls to FEMA, the American Red Cross, and local shelters to beg for assistance, temporary lodging, or funds.
"The shelter said they'd come on Friday, but it's been weeks," she says, beleaguered. "We're still trying to figure out which day, which month, which year, which Friday they meant."
Despite the seeming hopelessness of her situation, Cabrera says her priority is to keep the community safe and positive. "We call ourselves 'Watson Island's Homeless and Forgotten,'" she says. "But we're still alive."
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