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Meet Marta and Chuck -- life without a home in the meanest city in America -- an interview

Updated on December 14, 2009

Meet Marta

"We are lucky. I thank God for our blessings everyday."
"We are lucky. I thank God for our blessings everyday."

Meet Marta and Chuck

She is waiting for me as arranged, in front of the sports bar in the Landings Plaza, in south Sarasota. She slings beer there, two or three evenings a week, along with three other part time jobs – another waitressing gig serving breakfast in a diner, and a weekend job picking up trash in a parking lot.

I recognize her immediately. She is just as described, petite, blond, forty-something, colorfully dressed and judging by the big smile she flashes as I approach, full of the joy of life.

“Marta?” I stick out my hand in the universal symbol of greeting. “I’m Lynda.”

She drops the four plastic bags she is carrying and holds up her soiled hands. “I’d better find a place to wash first,” and makes a mock fierce face. “I was collecting bottles and cans.”

The plastic bags clink and rattle as she picks them up. “Let me get rid of these.”

I follow her to a leprous –looking minivan, a Dodge Caravan, maybe 1998 or 99. She opens the back hatch, swings it high, and carefully deposits the plastic bags alongside two bedrolls, several plastic cartons of clothes, boxes of food, personal effects, towels, a folded up tent – all the flotsam of someone on a camping trip.

Unfortunately for Marta and her partner, Chuck, camping is illegal for them in Sarasota and the surrounding environs. They are homeless.

She pulls a five gallon container of water forward, until the spigot juts out from the van and pours some water into a plastic ice-cream tub. A bottle of Sunlight dish soap appears in her hand, and she adds a few drops to the water. She washes her hands, dumps the used water surreptitiously under the vehicle, and then, offers me one to grasp. “Pleased to meet ya.”

“Where would you like to go?” I ask, because our agreement is, Marta will talk to me openly about life as a homeless person in Sarasota, and I will buy her lunch. That’s all she asked, even though I’d offered to pay her for her services as a guide.

“Out on the key,” she replies, and I realize she means Siesta Key – tourist paradise and the pride of Sarasota – the white sand of the beach earning “the key” the honor of second best beach in the U.S. and, she informs me, a place where homeless persons are definitely not wanted. “Let me change.”

She disappears into the van and re-emerges dressed in a wrinkled but clean sundress. We walk over to my car. I will drive. Marta and Chuck cannot afford to buy gas for anything less than a trip of absolute necessity.

It is the off season, so parking on Siesta Key is not the problem it would have been at other times of the year. It doesn’t escape my sense of irony, that we walk through the lush streets of millionaire’s homes and luxury condos, admiring the beautiful, professionally landscaped grounds, the up-market autos, and the well-dressed inhabitants of this wealthy enclave, while discussing the quality of life for those too poor to afford a home.

“How long have you been homeless?”

“Two years and five months.” Again, she flashes that brilliant smile. “We’ve gotten pretty good at it. Nice to be a success at something.”

She explains. “There are two kinds of homeless: those that give up, let go and sink – they’re the dirty ones, the beggars, the winos, the crack-heads and the sick. Then, there are people like us – we keep going, keep trying and manage to maintain our dignity. Chuck and I work all we can, but most times we only make enough to feed ourselves, keep the van rolling and treat ourselves to a motel room once in a while to get a hot shower, and a good night’s sleep. “

For a minute, she stares up at the sky. “And I have two kids. They live with their father and his wife, and have since I lost my job and the house. I give them two hundred dollars a month – not much, I know – and sometimes that’s hard to get – but I always do.”

“Do you see them?”

“Every chance I get.” She fishes in the fabric bag she carries and hands me a photograph, two boys ten and twelve.

We’ve arrived at the commercial sector of the island, an oasis of oyster bars, restaurants, patio cafes, boutiques selling designer clothing, Birkenstocks and fine art, and the usual assortment of tee-shirt and tourist junk shops.

Marta chooses a simple sandwich shop and orders a cheese and vegetable wrap and a fruit smoothie. “First thing you have to learn when you’re homeless – do all you can to keep up your health. If that goes; you’re done for.”

Over lunch she tells me a little of her history. “I worked as a teller for a bank for twenty years. Yeah – I was one of those idiots who believed you got a good job and kept it, and then, you’d be all right. They went bankrupt four years ago, and I was out of a job. But a lot of banks went under that year, and unemployed bank tellers littered the streets. I had unemployment for a while, but that ran out. The government didn’t start the extended benefits until this past year – too late for me.”

“I tried to keep the house, but then the bank forced me out. My ex took the kids, thank God. I see women on the streets with their kids, and I’d never wish that on mine. He’s an okay guy, my ex and he’s helped me as much as he can, but he has a wife and four kids to support now, so I don’t ask him for anything. He’ll let me and Chuck park on his driveway sometimes – you know when the cops are on the prowl and it’s hard to find a safe place to sleep. Like I said – an okay guy.”

“What you just said – when the cops are on the prowl – can you explain that?”

“Oh – they are such assholes.” She takes a bite of her sandwich and chews hard. “It’s been so bad in Sarasota lately – you just get to sleep in the car and they come knocking and tell you to move on – or worse. If they’ve seen you around before – they’ll arrest you and impound your car.”

A look of sudden inspiration swept across her face. “Here, look at this” – she hands me a pink document –“It got so bad here in Sarasota and we couldn’t afford a motel room, so we went down to Venice to try find a place to park where it’s quiet. Sure enough, a cop gave us -- a warning.”

I read the ticket – their crime, “bedding down.”

“He said he was doing us a favor. He could have charged us and then we’d face a fine of $500 or thirty days in jail, and our car and stuff taken away. We moved on.” She laughs as though this is the most hilarious thing she’s ever heard. “$500 fine for being poor!”

“May I borrow this?”

“Keep it. We used to be able to camp out in a section of bush on the other side of the I75, but the cops came there, ripped up everyone’s tents with knives and forced us all out. They drove us out like cattle and a lot of us lost our stuff. Now if we want to use the tent, we have to drive all the way to the state park, pay their fee, and then drive all the way back for work. Doesn’t pay to do it. So we sleep in the car, sometimes at a gas station – with permission, or at McDonald’s – with permission, but even with permission the cops move us on.”

She finishes her sandwich. “We try and get a motel room every third or fourth night, so we can get some sleep. And a hot shower is a nice break from the cold ones at the beach.” She sits straight up in her chair. “I take some kind of shower every day. You let yourself go – that’s the first step to a bad end.”

Marta tells me she met Chuck, her partner, in the first few months of life without a home, at a shelter. She was happy to meet someone sober, kind and hard-working, and she needed a man in this life, to keep her safe. In the first three months of homeless life, she was raped twice and robbed a number of times. And Chuck finds street life with a female partner safer as well. The cops are easier on him now than when he was alone.

“Not exactly the height of romance,” Marta says, once more laughing that marvelous laugh. “But it works for us. Want to meet Chuck?”

Today, Chuck had a day’s labor working for a friend in the landscaping business, pouring concrete for a patio in one of the yards here on the key. He was to finish at three, and in the meantime, Marta suggested, we’d take a walk on the beach.

Around the side of one of the shower and change sheds by the entrance to the beach, I was startled to see a pair of female legs sticking out.

“That’s the problem,” Marta said. “When you’re not left in peace to sleep at night, you can’t stay awake in the day.”

Legs behind the change shed.

Thats the problem, Marta said. When you're not left in peace to sleep at night, you cant stay awake in the day.
Thats the problem, Marta said. When you're not left in peace to sleep at night, you cant stay awake in the day.

We saw the Beach Patrol in their dune buggy driving toward us. Marta went to the unconscious woman and woke her. “Come on, wake up. You’ll get arrested.”

A young, light-skinned African American woman followed Marta back to the path. She was groggy and dazed. “Thanks.” She stumbled down the path away from the beach.

Siesta Key beach is truly beautiful. The sand is soft as talcum, and so white as to be dazzling in the sun. The water, blue-green close in and azure blue further out, brilliant sky and white sand form a contrast that is hard on the eyes. We walked along the water’s edge.

“Have you had no luck at all in finding a full-time job?”

“Try getting a good job when you have no address. Try getting anything without an address. And though we both have cell phones, we can’t always afford minutes, so” – she shrugs, still smiling – “what do you do?”

“It’s a good thing,” she continues, “we both have friends from better days. The owner of the bar where you picked me up, he’s known me for years so he gives me work whenever he can – and Chuck, too. He’ll get him to clean the kitchen and whatever else he can find. And the guy Chuck’s working for today – he gives him side jobs. Chuck worked in construction, a framer and dry-waller, but he’s been without full time work for years. He gets little jobs by word of mouth, again thanks to friends. He’ll do anything.”

Her smile grows wider. “We’re lucky. I thank God for our blessings, every day.”

I am amazed at her attitude, and feel humbled by it. The silly things I worry about.

We make our way back to the main street. Marta makes a call on her cell phone – lasting about twenty seconds. “Save the minutes,” she says, snapping it shut. “We can meet Chuck now.”

Meet Chuck

"We work and work and never get enough to get off the streets."
"We work and work and never get enough to get off the streets."

"Survival is a full time job"

He’s a big man, cleanly dressed even though he’s worked pouring concrete since eight in the morning. He grips my hand, more tightly than my arthritic bones can tolerate and I wince.

“Sorry,” he says, and by the look of him, he means it. He poses for me, with his work implements. “Let your readers know we do work – most of us do. We work and work, but never get enough to get out of the street.” He grins. “Survival is a full time job.”

Chuck wants to take a shower after his labors, so we walk back to the beach, but we have to wait. Beach security is nearby, and they will question him, dressed as he is, and carrying his back-pack, he fears. Sarasota doesn’t want homeless people using public facilities.

Once he deems the coast clear, he takes his shower, changes quickly in the three sided shelter, and emerges, clean and damp.

I offer refreshment at one of the cafes or bars.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Chuck says in his soft drawl. “I’ll take a tea.” His voice drops. “I’m an alcoholic, sober for six years, now.”

We sit in a patio bar, and they tell of the trials of their life. “Summer is the worst. It’s so damn hot, and hard to work, hard to sleep and there are so few people out on the street, we stick out like sore thumbs. At least in winter, we can blend in better,” Chuck says.

Marta adds, “Sometimes we go walk around Walmart, just for air conditioning. But you can’t stay too long if you’re not buying. They watch for us [homeless people] on their video cameras.”

“And winter?” I ask.

“Easier,” Chuck answers. “In winter, you can always use another blanket, but summer” – he laughs ‘’ “once you’re naked, what else is there?”

“What is your biggest problem?”

“The police,” they chorus.

Chuck adds, “If they’d just leave us alone, we’d do all right. We’re not hurting anyone. We don’t do drugs, or drink. We don’t steal. You’ve no idea how it feels to be hunted down at night and rousted out. In Venice, they told us to get out of town; if we were there the next morning, we’d be arrested and do thirty days.” He huffs out his disgust. “ We used to camp a lot, but now we can’t.”

We discussed the idea of camping, and Chuck laid out his ideas on the subject. I promised I’d include it in my article. I was impressed with how much thought he’d put into the plan.

“And it doesn’t make sense,” Marta says. “Florida is one place where a life of camping is feasible, but no – we can’t. There are lots of people living in campers and trailers, but they too are forced out. There’s a law that says you can only put a camper on land specifically licensed for that purpose – so there you have it. All that empty land, and we can’t use it. Does that make sense to you?”

“Or all the empty houses,” Chuck adds. “Dog in a manger – know that story? Well that’s the local government.”

“What’s worse is the way people look at us.” Marta places her hand over Chuck’s. “They think we’re lazy and this is all our own fault. Like somehow we deserved to have this happen to us. No one works harder than Chuck.”

She makes one request. “Please tell your readers that we are good people. We work hard and we try hard, and we don’t deserve to be treated like this, chased away and threatened. We are God’s children, too. We’re not asking for help or handouts – just to be left alone.”

I promise I’ll quote her, and then ask, “Do you like opera music?”

Sarasota – Number One Mean City in the U.S.A. – according to the National Coalition for the Homeless

Sarasota, population 55,000 now enjoys the dubious distinction  of being labeled “the meanest city in the nation” toward homeless people, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.  This rating is based on the number of “anti-homeless” legislations passed by local governments.

The city’s ordinance 05-4640 has generated national attention, not helped by recent reports of a plan to play opera music in Five Points Park to deter homeless people from gathering there.

It started in 2002 when the city enacted its first no-camping laws, which included bans on public urination, and panhandling. In the first five months of this new law, Sarasota police arrested more than 120 people charged under the ordinance. A circuit court judge struck  it down as unconstitutional.

The city tried again, only to have a judge rule it penalized “otherwise innocent conduct” and left too much discretion and power to the police.

The city commission passed a third version in August of 2005. This time it was disguised as a “no lodging” measure, whose wording did not exactly prohibit people from merely sleeping outside, but rather forbad residing outdoors.

This ordinance was upheld on December 29 of 2005.

A local attorney, Chris Cosden, who has successfully challenged this ordinance twice, and is appealing this third version said, “This latest edition is a thinly masked attempt to make homelessness a crime. What’s going on here is the city of Sarasota trying to make the lives of the homeless so miserable they’ll go elsewhere.”

“We should not be treating other human beings this badly.”

Michael Stoops, spokesperson for the National Coalition for the Homeless said, “We have never seen a city so determined to pass anti-homeless legislation.”

However, City Commissioner Palmer said, “The negative attention is very demeaning to this city, and we don’t appreciate out-of-town critics suggesting that city officials are out to harass homeless people.”

“The whole purpose of the ordinance is to protect the homeless. It’s an attempt to try and keep people from living unhealthy and unsafe lives. I think most people feel the reason the Commission did this was to help, not hurt.”

Warning: sleeping in your car is a crime

Marta and Chuck, harassed out of Sarasota drove to Venice to get some sleep in a parking lot. They received this warning ticket -- their crime -- "Bedding Down." They could face $500 fine, 30 days in jail or both. They were told to get out of town.
Marta and Chuck, harassed out of Sarasota drove to Venice to get some sleep in a parking lot. They received this warning ticket -- their crime -- "Bedding Down." They could face $500 fine, 30 days in jail or both. They were told to get out of town.

Who are the meanest cities according to this report?

I have copied it here, verbatim.

#1 Sarasota, FL. After two successive Sarasota anti-lodging laws were overturned as unconstitutional by state courts, Sarasota passed a third law banning lodging outdoors. This latest version appears to be explicitly aimed at homeless persons. One of the elements necessary for arrest under the law is that the person “has no other place to live.”

#2 Lawrence, KS. After a group of downtown Lawrence business leaders urged the city to cut social services and pass ordinances to target homeless persons, the city passed three “civility” ordinances, including an aggressive panhandling law, a law prohibiting trespass on rooftops, and a law limiting sleeping or sitting on city sidewalks.

#3 Little Rock, AR. Homeless persons have reported being kicked out of bus stations in Little Rock, even when they had valid bus tickets. Two homeless men reported that officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station, even after showing the police their tickets. In other instances, homeless persons have been told that they could not wait at the bus station "because you are homeless."

#4 Atlanta, GA. Amid waves of public protest and testimony opposing the Mayor’s proposed comprehensive ban on panhandling, the City Council passed the anti-panhandling ordinance in August 2005. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta stood firm in its resolve to criminalize panhandlers. A Katrina evacuee who was sleeping in his car with his family after seeking refuge in Atlanta was arrested for panhandling at a mall in the affluent Buckhead neighborhood, even after he showed the police his Louisiana driver’s license, car tag, and registration as proof that he was a Katrina evacuee. In addition, during the first week in December, the Atlanta Zoning Review Board approved a ban on supportive housing inside the city limits.

#5 Las Vegas, NV. Even as the city shelters are overcrowded and the city’s Crisis Intervention Center recently closed due to lack of funding, the city continues to target homeless persons living outside. The police conduct habitual sweeps of encampments which lead to extended jail time for repeat misdemeanor offenders. In order to keep homeless individuals out of future parks, the city considered privatizing the parks, enabling owners to kick out unwanted people. Mayor Oscar Goodman fervently supported the idea, saying, “I don’t want them there. They’re not going to be there. I’m not going to let it happen. They think I’m mean now; wait until the homeless try to go over there.”

6.    Dallas, TX
7.    Houston, TX
8.    San Juan, PR
Santa Monica, CA
10.  Flagstaff, AZ
11.  San Francisco, CA
12.  Chicago, IL 
13.  San Antonio, TX
New York City, NY
15.  Austin, TX
16.  Anchorage, AK
17.  Phoenix, AZ
18.  Los Angeles, CA           
19.  St. Louis, MO
20.  Pittsburgh, PA

When laws are found to be illegal

These practices that criminalize homelessness do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Instead, they exacerbate the problem. They frequently move people away from services. When homeless persons are arrested and charged under these measures, they develop a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain employment or housing. Further, criminalization measures are not cost efficient. In a nine-city survey of supportive housing and jail costs, jail costs were on average two to three times the cost of supportive housing. Further, existing supportive housing only has space enough for 25% of the current homeless population.

Criminalization measures also raise constitutional questions and many of them violate the civil rights of homeless persons. Courts have found certain criminalization measures unconstitutional:

For example, when a city passes a law that places too many restrictions on begging, free speech concerns are raised as courts have found begging to be protected speech under the First Amendment.

When a city destroys homeless persons’ belongings or conducts unreasonable searches or seizures of homeless persons, courts have found such actions violate the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Courts have found that a law that is applied to criminally punish a homeless person for necessary life activities in public, like sleeping, violates that person’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment if the person has nowhere else to perform the activity.

Laws that do not give people sufficient notice of prohibited conduct or allow for arbitrary enforcement by law enforcement officials can be unconstitutionally vague. Courts have found loitering and vagrancy laws unconstitutionally vague.

In addition to violating U.S. law, criminalization measures can violate international human rights law. The United States has signed international human rights agreements, many of which prohibit actions that target homeless people living in public spaces.

Marta and Chuck have a solution

Marta and Chuck had a good idea – campgrounds, for anyone who needs them, charging a minimal fee, or work around the place – a safe place for those trying to get ahead to stay, and sleep without fear of being rousted. . And although it would not work in North Dakota or Maine, it would in Florida and other “balmy” states.

The trouble is, this level of living is now illegal almost everywhere, (another example of anti-homeless legislation.)

Many churches and service groups would fund and supervise such campgrounds. And if laws allowed, private operators might open for-profit campgrounds, which even at a minimal fee of $25 week, would more than make enough to cover operating costs, particularly if residents were required to pitch in and keep the place tidy and secure.

People without homes are camping out anyway – no matter how many laws are passed. Marta and Chuck would like to see the experience made as clean and safe as possible. At least, that would give them an address, they say, and a sense of “home” – something very important.

Chuck and Marta hope you never experience the loss.

Marta adds, “God bless you all.”

For further information on Sarasota's latest tactic to deter the homeless see my hub "Of mice and men -- does Sarasota know the difference"  Click here


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