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  • Tara Crutchfield

Tent City Tribulation

A sandy path of broken glass lined on either side by discarded children’s toys, shopping carts, tires, and other refuse leads to a hovel hamlet. To get there, you must cross a bridge overlooking a canal that jet skiers and boaters take every day, unaware that yards away is a homeless camp with dozens of people who can’t secure affordable housing, earn a living wage, are without family, struggling through mental illness, or in active addiction. Though ramshackle, this tent city displays an amount of resourcefulness born out of desperation – desperation for identity, for something of one’s own. Old signs and headboards are turned into make-shift gates to separate one residence from the next. Multiple tents or tarps are strung together to create individual living spaces for families. Though best efforts are made to create a ‘home,’ these dwellings are a portrait of depression.


This is one of Polk County’s five to six known homeless encampments. According to Talbot House Ministries Executive Director Maria Cruz, the amount of people experiencing homelessness has increased by almost 65% in the last three years. However, identifying the number of unsheltered individuals is a difficult task. Cruz notes that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Pointin-Time Count is a baseline but is not entirely reliable. The HUD 2023 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations counted 776 homeless persons in Polk County. This number doesn’t reflect those who choose not to disclose their housing status or those in unknown encampments, among other discrepancies. “Single individuals are falling through the cracks because they have not been counted correctly,” Cruz said.


All federal funding assigned to counties follows HUD’s Point-inTime Count. “We are not receiving the amount of funding that we should be receiving. Who is advocating in Congress for that to change nationwide? Not too many people,” said Cruz, who noted little to no County or City support. “The majority of our programs and services exist due to the community’s support.”


McKinney-Vento is another metric to consider when estimating the unhoused population. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, “Each year, the states submit information regarding the education of students who experienced homelessness to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) as a part of the EDFacts Initiative. Using the most recently available data, this brief examines the number of students who experienced homelessness, the type of housing they used when first identified by school districts, and subgroups of students who experienced homelessness.” During the 2020-21 school year, approximately 62,971 students experienced homelessness in the state of Florida, making up 2.3 percent of all students in the state.


Andrea Anderson is the Director of Community Outreach for Polk for Recovery, an organization “led by and for those in recovery from substance use, mental health, or other obstacles to wellness.”


Each week, she and her team walk the dusty, rubbish-lined trails to check on folks in the camp – and extend help. They hand out clothes, food, water, hygiene kits, and offer treatment or safe housing. “I encourage everybody to visit the encampments [accompanied by Talbot House Ministries] so you can see in real-time the things that many people don’t want to be presented,” said Cruz. “Higher levels in the community don’t want that to be out there because, of course, they want to look good. Of course, they want the CRA to clean all this and present the best face. We want them to see the reality and not to forget that they are human beings.”


While walking through the encampment with Anderson, we came across a young man who was shirtless and unkempt. Twenty-seven-year-old Nicholas has been homeless for a year and a half. After a family disagreement, he was kicked out of his house. His daily life consists of cleaning up around camp, cutting firewood for meals, and collecting water jugs to cook, bathe, and give to his dogs.


Nicholas lives in a tent with his significant other, his mother, and her boyfriend. “There’s no real plan to it. You just kind of make the best of every day,” he said. He’s been at his current homestead for six months. Asked about his ideal life, Nicholas said, “I honestly couldn’t tell you. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.” Anderson, as is her job and purpose in life, offered him hope in the form of her business card.


From Heroin to Heroine

Andrea Anderson is the kind of person who effuses genuineness. She cares about everyone in the camps and knows many of them by name, including pets. As we made our way through a vein of footpaths that trickled off to this tent or that one, she’d call out to folks, asking how they were and if they needed anything. She, herself, is a woman renewed. This life is all too familiar to Anderson. As Lorree from Gospel Village would say, it’s one of her taproots. But, you’ll read about her later.


Andrea Anderson

“I started using from a young age. My addiction progressed throughout the years,” Anderson said. Heroin and crack were her drugs of choice. By the time she ended up homeless, she’d been in and out of prison. “Getting out of prison, I had nothing left. I had to do things that I’m not proud of to support a habit that I had to use every day to stay well.”


She hustled to make money to afford a motel room each night. “It was terrible. It was degrading,” she said. “I couldn’t look at cars that passed me on the street—I felt less than. Stores wouldn’t let me in to use the restroom.”


Anderson said that her addiction kept her in bondage. She was ready to break free. “I went to jail the last time and was headed to prison for the second time. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said. “I gave my heart to Christ and asked for help. Immediately, I was changed. I knew that I never had to do that again.”



When Anderson was released from prison, she entered a sober living facility in Polk County. She went through a treatment program, learned life skills to stay sober, and worked at a restaurant for seven years. She went on to work for Tri-County and eventually, along with her colleagues, helped to start Polk for Recovery with Executive Director Craig Pickos. Anderson is still involved in a 12-step program, keeps multiple service commitments, and gives back through her job in community outreach. “It helps keep me sober.”


Having suffered through addiction, hustling to make money to have somewhere to rest her head at night must have been spiritually burdensome. To see it now through sober eyes can’t be easy. But Anderson has a different outlook on it. “I never personalize it. This is all God’s business. We’re out here planting seeds,” she said. “We’re meeting them where they are and offering them help. When they’re ready, they know us and might call us.”


A Not-So-Simple Life

Darlene is a special woman. Tough and sincere. Beaten down by circumstance, she was guarded but honest as she talked about life on the streets. While holding a newborn puppy she called Sweetie, she told us about the plants she tends. Darlene has a small garden of rosemary (for mosquitoes, she said), cacti, an Easter lily, and a plant she called ‘earache medicine.’

Darlene

She does her best to keep her space and herself clean, which is a daily task. Darlene has been homeless for the better part of 20 years and has been in her current space for over 10. “My mother died. My father kicked me out after four years of taking care of her. I miss her,” she said. Darlene cared for her ailing mother 24/7, “But I’m okay with that. She was my mom.” Her mother had terminal throat cancer. “I fed her every four hours and made her gain weight. I took her to her treatments. I took care of the house, took care of the bills for Daddy.” Then, she was kicked out. Her father died six years later. With no brothers or sisters, “I don’t have anyone in my life,” she said.



“We don’t know where we would go if we lost this,” she said of the property on which she lives. Her entire life is this cobbled-together homestead. She doesn’t want to enter a facility like Talbot House or Gospel Village because she’s worried she’d have to give up her animals. “I don’t think I could give my babies up,” she said of her five dogs. “They’re the only thing I’ve got to talk to.”


“There’s a lot of depression. There are a couple of girls that want out of here,” Darlene said of the encampment. “The guys out here give us a hard time. We have a lot of stealing going on. I’ve lost my hatchet. I’ve lost my machete.” Being a single woman on the streets is demanding. It’s a lot of “taking up for yourself. The guys try to run over us a lot, and I won’t let them. You’re not telling me what I can and can’t do.”


Meth and alcohol are the specific blights on Darlene’s community. “Everybody around here, they’re either on drugs or they trick.”


“Every time we leave here, the cops pull us over and search us constantly,” she said, calling drugs an occasional temptation. “But I can’t afford it, so I don’t mess with it. I’d rather spend money on my dogs.”


“I isolate myself from people,” said Darlene. Other than her puppies, Ms. Smith is her only friend and confidant. “She’s 85 years old and got more brains than I do,” Darlene said. “She sees me every day. She tells me when I need to go home and take a shower, when I need a haircut.”


Deterioration of the backbone, skin cancer, and essential tremors slow Darlene – but they don’t stop her. Each morning, she wakes up to the mess outside her abode and does her best to clean it up. “The garbage around here wouldn’t be that bad if they would just set up a dumpster because all of us would put our trash in it.” Instead, she’s forced to burn and bury her garbage.



“I cook me some breakfast, and then I get to work,” she said. Darlene collects water, washes dishes, scrubs laundry, rakes the yard, and cuts the grass with scissors under the merciless Florida sun. “It takes me all day to do what I need to do out here.”


“Mentally, I’m burnt out,” Darlene admitted. “Talking to a psychiatrist don’t work and the medicine they give you don’t work. […] I don’t know what to say. I’ll be 58 years old in July. My body’s wearing out early.”


“People just look at you like you’re nothing, and we do feel it. It’s like the rich men get it, and the poor people get nothing,” said Darlene as she shielded her eyes from the beating midday beams. “Let’s trade for 24 hours. Do what I do.”


Asked how people could help her situation, her eyes brimmed with tears, “I don’t know,” she said, dejected. “I’ve had the Census Bureau out here several times. They keep saying they’re going to do something, but they don’t. It don’t get better. Grady Judd comes out here – it don’t help. They just throw us away.”


In response, Sheriff Grady Judd called himself and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office advocates for the unhoused. “We spend an inordinate amount of time and resources in our homeless communities county-wide. We do that because we want to make sure they have the basic necessities – food, clothing, and shelter,” he said. Sheriff Judd noted he personally visits the homeless communities, inquiring about their needs. “We can’t control if someone lives in a homeless environment, but we certainly look out for them in that homeless environment. We can’t live their life for them, but we do our best to take care of them.”


Talbot House Ministries Executive Director Maria Cruz called the Lakeland Police Department a great support to their efforts. “I do believe that the police department, either county or local, are not equipped to handle the homelessness crisis. I don’t believe the police were designed to be the first responders in homelessness intervention because they don’t have the resources; they don’t have the contacts. They are trying to do the best they can.” Cruz suggests coming together as a county to develop a task force of clinical and homelessness service providers that can work with law enforcement to address the crisis. “As providers, we are working scattered, trying to do the best we can. But we don’t have an integrated approach towards tackling the issue.”


“I’m not a bad person. I don’t steal things, I don’t do drugs, I’m just stuck in a bad place,” Darlene said through misty eyelashes. “I’m not with all the drama and stuff that goes on. I don’t fit in out here.”


“You need to know their stories. You need to know what caused their situation. Most of the time, it’s not drugs or mental health – it’s life happening,” said Cruz.


Darlene hopes to escape the poverty that holds her underwater. Her life is a struggle for air. Weighed down by trauma, loss of family, and circumstance, all she craves is a deep breath – a gasp from her tired spirit. There’s no such thing as perfect, she said, but the closest thing to it would be “a little quiet small house. That’s all. And a little piece of property – just me.”


Solutions to a Complex Issue

Anderson, who checks on the encampments weekly, has an idea to mitigate homelessness – a housing-first initiative. This approach has proven successful in cities across the nation. Community First! Village is a master-planned neighborhood in Austin, Texas, that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women who are coming out of chronic homelessness. Today, it occupies 51 acres and is a respite for more than 370 formerly homeless folks. In 2021, the Reseda Tiny Home Village opened in LA County. The Village consists of 52 units and 101 beds, helping unhoused Angelenos get off the streets, into a space of their own, and on a path to finding permanent housing.


Housing-first initiatives can be seen locally in places like Talbot House Ministries and Gospel Village in Lakeland. On February 3, 2021, property on E. Lemon Street, formerly Royal Oak Estates, was purchased, and renovations began for what was to become Gospel Village. Today, Gospel Village has 34 units and 43 residents.


Anderson imagines repurposing abandoned hotels. “Put the homeless in there, have them work for the hotel. Have them work for their daily wages and food and start feeling like productive members of society,” she said.


Giving this dignified income – this purpose – could be an incentive to stay clean. “Right now, they don’t have a purpose, and they’re stuck in this addiction. [...] Small changes over a period of time make a difference,” Anderson said.


Winter Haven City Manager T. Michael Stavres called homelessness and contributing issues “complex.” According to the City Manager, addressing it within any community requires a multifaceted approach utilizing multiple agencies. In Winter Haven, this includes entities such as the City, Polk County, Heart For Winter Haven, The Mission, Central Florida Health Care, Polk County Public Schools, and countless faith-based organizations.


“The easy answer to how best to support the unhoused population is to provide housing, but that is no easy task, nor is it necessarily a cure-all solution. While having access to a greater inventory of affordable housing helps, it will not be sustainable without the wrap-around services that seek to address financial literacy, workforce skill development, mental and physical health support, and transportation,” said Stavres.


The City of Winter Haven has established an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to help financially support new developments specifically aligned with affordable housing. According to Stavres, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has also established incentive programs to help offset the development costs for projects within the CRA geographic areas. Additionally, the City’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee (AHAC) annually evaluates strategies to enhance and increase affordable housing availability as part of the State Housing Initiative Partnership Program (SHIP).


We reached out to Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz for a comment about how best to serve the unhoused population and any plans the City has for the issue, but we did not receive a response. According to their website, the City of Lakeland’s Housing Office works to preserve and develop affordable housing within city limits.


“Homelessness can be reduced if we implement and work with tangible, evidencebased solutions,” said Maria Cruz. “Housing-focused programs work to reduce and resolve homelessness, so let us invest in those evidence-based practices.” According to the Talbot House Ministries executive director, Polk County takes a reactive approach to homelessness. “We need to work and invest more in preventing homelessness in the first place,” she said. Allocated crisis assistance dollars could prevent someone at risk of experiencing homelessness from losing their job or housing and help them get back on their feet.


Regardless of the many possible solutions to the issue of homelessness, one plight remains – how we treat our unsheltered brothers and sisters. Often, those experiencing homelessness are said to be ‘on the fringes’ of society. But it’s more insidious than that. We exclude them from society altogether. We avert our eyes when we pass them on the street. We lock our car doors when they stand with a sign at the intersection. We deny them personhood as if lack of housing is a moral failure. Housing is growing more unaffordable by the day. Loss of family is devastating. Mental health struggles are debilitating. Addiction isn’t a choice. Darlene could be your mother, Nicholas your son. It could be you. If you have nothing else to give, be unsparing with your kindness.


Photography by Amy Sexson

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