These people will have their judgment before God, not man," Brian Nichols, pastor of the First Vagabonds Church of God, tells the dozen or so homeless people gathered in front of him.
This is a different kind of funeral. There's no mourning widow, no organ music, no black-suited clergy repeating ominous scripture about mortality and judgment day. Because this service isn't even in a church there are no pews to sit in, no body to say goodbye to or even pictures of the deceased. The best description of Bobby Jones you can get is that he was 48, tall and black. He was homeless. He has three children in the Orlando area, two of whom live in foster care. He worked in day-labor pools. He was quiet and easygoing. His brother lives in Riviera Beach. He had a congenital heart condition, and within the last six months he had triple-bypass surgery.
For the last five years, Jones lived among an encampment of homeless people that hovered around the State Road 408 underpass near Sylvia Lane, just southwest of Orlando City Hall. On Dec. 3, he complained of chest pains. Someone camping with him called 911, and paramedics — who took at least 20 minutes to arrive, they say — took him to Orlando Regional Medical Center. Two days later, Jones suffered two major heart attacks. By Dec. 5, he was dead.
So this morning, Dec. 16, Jones' companions, homeless advocates and a handful of local media gather to memorialize him. An hour prior, scores of homeless people packed this park to receive their Saturday morning feeding from the Ripple Effect, but that crowd has largely dissipated. Just a few remain, and they are what you'd expect: dirty, scruffy, unkempt. They've worn the same clothes for days, if not longer. Their possessions are laid out in stacks, protected from the elements by a donated plastic tarp.
George Crossley, the former televangelist and ex-con who now heads the ACLU Florida's Central Chapter, opens the service with a prayer and an admonition that this is to be a celebration. Jones is in a better place, Crossley says. He's surrounded by divine love.
Then comes Nichols, who ministers to the poor and has clashed with the city on its homeless policies. He retells Jesus' parable of Lazarus, a poor servant who dies and goes to heaven. Lazarus' rich master, while burning in hellfire, begs Abraham to send Lazarus down with water to quench his thirst. Abraham refuses. The rich man abused his servant in life. Eternal suffering is his comeuppance. "Those with this mentality ended up in a place of torment," Nichols says.
First came the July ordinance restricting homeless feedings in public parks. Then, on Nov. 17, city officials and police forced the homeless out from the State Road 408 underpass. Then, the day before this service, city officials erected "no camping" signs at this park, where more than 40 of those who were booted from the underpass in November had stayed since then. Once again, they had to go.
But Jones' death is why advocates have gathered. They say he's dead because of the city's policies. In November, when the city rousted the homeless from the underpass, workers gathered up some of their belongings, packed them into city trucks and discarded them. Among the items tossed in the trash, say homeless advocates: Jones' heart medication — and the prescription meds of some 40 other homeless people as well.
The city took his medicine Nov. 17. Jones died Dec. 5. His brother sees a direct link. "I think the city is negligent for his death," says Lee Vern Jones in a phone interview. His brother died on his 49th birthday. "They just threw it away. They got rid of his meds."
His family is considering a lawsuit. "The city just doesn't care about the homeless," Jones says. "If you're small, you just don't belong."
Jones, 49, has the same congenital heart defect that killed his younger brother Bobby. Every day he takes a cocktail of four prescription drugs — Coreg, Lipitor, Lisinopril and Furosemide — and aspirin. Without those pills, "within three or four weeks I'd be dead," he says. Bobby Jones faced the same fate.
But it's not clear that Bobby Jones went without his prescriptions, at least for the entire 16 days between when the city allegedly took his stuff and when he went to the hospital for the last time. Broderick Williams, a homeless man nicknamed "Shorty" who claims to be one of Jones' best friends, says Williams got his meds.
Jones died of a heart attack, but he had pneumonia too, his brother says. "A lot of those people are sick," Lee Vern Jones says of the camp where his brother lived.
That's true. Given the rainstorms and rapid transitions between mild and cold temperatures that mark Florida's winters, it's not surprising that many of those in the Sylvia Lane camp are sick. On a Dec. 12 visit, I saw signs of sickness everywhere at the camp. One man asked me to find a number for a clinic. He was weak and pale, and the others feared that without treatment he might not last the night. The place had no shelter from wind or rain. When it stormed, camp inhabitants headed to the underpass, where they stayed until it cleared up or the cops chased them out, one man said.
The camp itself was like a small village. There were leaders, men who ensured that the camp ran smoothly. Outsiders weren't allowed in. Crack smokers and people who fought were kicked out. Someone was always at the park, 24 hours a day, to ensure that no one stole the group's stuff. No one was allowed to lie down during the day; you had to be at work, you had to stand, or you had to sit on the park benches. They didn't want people looking like vagrants.
For about a month, from Nov. 17 to Dec. 18, the camp had an unofficial truce with the city. If camp residents didn't cause trouble, the city left them alone. That was how the homeless liked it. Many of them refused to stay at the Coalition for the Homeless, the agency that shelters most of downtown's homeless population. That's common among the homeless: Men say the men's pavilion is too dangerous; women say the women's shelter is often full or that families are forced to separate.
On Dec. 18 — one week before Christmas — police and city officials showed up once again, ordered everyone out, locked the gates and said that any unattended possessions would be discarded at week's end. After Jones' service on Dec. 16, I asked Williams, a resident of the camp, where he would go. There was a bridge down on South Orange Blossom Trail, he told me, where the cops leave you alone. He and his wife would stay there for now.
On Dec. 15, 580 WDBO-AM aired a comment from city spokeswoman Brie Turek denying any city involvement in Jones' death, and adding that the city hadn't received claims for missing property. (Homeless advocates say there wasn't any point in filing claims because the city had already destroyed their stuff.) The city says it kicked the camp out of the Sylvia Lane park because of complaints from neighbors and businesses. Besides, a city statement released to Orlando Weekly says, this park was designated for feedings, not sleeping. To allow homeless people to stay there indefinitely raised both safety and sanitary concerns, according to the city's statement.
So the city may have solved the homeless problem at Sylvia Lane, but it's falling behind in dealing with the problem of people with no place to live. It still hasn't figured out what to do with the Coalition for the Homeless shelter. Because of rules forbidding Parramore social services to expand or renovate, the Coalition can't keep up with demand. The city has about 2,000 shelter beds, but estimates put the number of homeless at more than three times that.
Officials say they are working on a solution. City clerk Alana Brenner has been meeting with homeless advocates and Coalition staffers to figure out how to renovate that facility.
"We've got to deal with them," Brenner says. "If that means changing the ordinance `that forbids the Coalition from renovating`, we've got to change that ordinance."
Early in 2007, the governing board of the Central Receiving Center — which handles indigents who are mentally unstable — will release its recommendations on how to create more transitional housing for homeless people trying to get back on their feet, and Orlando city commissioner Robert Stuart is pushing anew for a daytime drop-in center. Brenner also recognizes that the city doesn't have nearly enough permanent, supportive housing for those with very low incomes.
None of which resonates at Bobby Jones' memorial service. What these homeless people see is a city that wants them gone, no matter how it happens.
As the service breaks up, Williams steps forward. He's a talkative guy, but polite and soft-spoken. And watching him during the service, it's apparent that he, more than anyone else, has taken his friend's death hard. "It's hard to believe he was gone," he'd told me a few days earlier.
Now, he bids farewell. "I adopted him as my brother," he tells the small crowd. "I still love him, no matter what."firstname.lastname@example.org