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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Letter Home From Orlando

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Richard Scott Archer Jr. writes a letter to his mother as others sleep around him. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

ORLANDO, Fla.--Using a street light as his lamp, Richard Scott Archer Jr. lay on a white sheet outside a church, writing a letter home.

“Dear mom, How are you all doing I hope good...I need a job and I need help...Leaveing [Living] out here is killing me slowly I mean I can feel my body is diying slowly on me.”

Less than three months earlier, the 32-year-old was working for UPS and renting a $675-a-month apartment with his girlfriend. Then, one night after his shift ended, he and twenty coworkers were told they were no longer needed. Without money to pay his rent, Archer watched his apartment slip away, followed by his girlfriend.

He was lying on his stomach outside a church in downtown Orlando when Michael and I saw him. About 50 men and women had each claimed a spot on the pavement around him, spread across sleeping bags and blankets. That many, Archer among them, hadn't been homeless long was evident by their socks – some were still white, and others discolored but not yet worn through.

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Homeless men and women sleep outside a church in Orlando. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“My buddy here, he’s a truck driver,” Archer said, pointing to a large man curled up on his side, sleeping. “He had just got his license renewed when he was laid off.”

“It can happen to anybody,” Archer added. “People in Orlando go to work and go to the bars and they don’t think it could happen to them…I have given money to homeless people, I have talked to them. I never thought it’d be me. And it’s me.”

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Krystal Eastman, who is four months pregnant, came to Orlando from New Hampshire with her husband Otis Faden in search of work. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

He laughed as if to stress the ridiculousness of the situation.

When I asked what he was writing, he handed me the notebook. Three pages were filled with sentences that ran into one another without punctuation. It was a letter to his family in Wall Township, NJ.

“I just don’t no what [else] to do about anything anymore I need help I’m lost There got to be a job out there some where or help I mean there’s got to be a job out there so where is it”

Then a few lines later.

“It’s Saterday night and I am sleeping at a churche They only let us sleep there on Saterday nights ok Mom but I’m ok You don’t have to worry about me at all Ok I love you all But I don’t no how much more I can take out here.”

After losing his apartment, Archer said, he spent his nights riding the bus, back and forth, and when that became too expensive, he tried sleeping outside a post office and then by a lake. Finally, he settled under a highway bridge. That’s where he has spent most nights, except for Saturdays, when the homeless are allowed to sleep on the church lot because breakfast is served there early Sunday morning.

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Leon Johnson left Buffalo for Orlando 13 years ago and said he found plenty of work until the labor pool that employed him shut down about a year and a half ago. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

One of the newer faces on the lot is Shawn Holmsted. He said he came from Connecticut two months ago for a vacation but was robbed of his money and identification and now can’t get home. He showed me a Greyhound bus ticket in his name--destination: New London. He said he missed the bus by six hours because he had to walk to the station and now can’t afford the $42.50 to change the ticket.

“I’m trying to get home,” he said. “Everyday, I’m out trying to find a job,” but it’s been difficult without an ID, he added.

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Shawn Holmsted said he needs $42.50 to get home to Connecticut. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael and I had seen him earlier in the evening, standing a few blocks away with about six other people. They’ve become a strange street family, he said, helping each other navigate an area that is relatively new to all of them. None of them have been homeless for more than a year.

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Robert Wooten, who is in a wheelchair after shattering his ankle, hopes to marry Marie Hancock, who left home because of family problems. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Among the group are Robert Wooten, 38, and Marie Hancock, 22, who met in January and got engaged a few months later. He came from Tennessee looking for construction work but didn’t find any, he said. Now, after shattering his ankle, he depends on a wheelchair to get around. Hancock said she ended up homeless after losing her job at Universal Studios eight months ago and encountering “family problems.” She lets her parents think she’s in a shelter, she said, because she doesn’t want them to worry.

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A sign held by Robert Wooten. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Sean Smith, 24, and his wife, Rebecca Smith, 20 came from Ohio with their son Steven, who is now a year old and in the custody of Child Protective Services. Sean said he thought he could get a job in Orlando and find them a home, but an earlier criminal conviction has followed him into every interview, outweighing the slacks and tie he wears to each. He said one potential employer wrote “Criminal” on his application and underlined it in front of him.

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Steven Smith's parents lost custody of him after they became homeless. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“If you’re homeless, you’re not going to get a job. If you’ve got felonies, you’re not going to get a job,” said Smith, who at age 18 went to jail on a forgery charge. “I have 100 applications out.”

On the night we met the couple, neither of us would have guessed they were homeless. They had dressed up, hoping to get a pair of the free club tickets they had seen handed to attractive couples on the street. Rebecca wore a lacy red tank top and a jeans skirt, frayed at the bottom where she had just cut it. Sean wore black slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt.

“I just got tired of looking like a bum,” he said.

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Sean and Rebecca Smith dress for a night out in downtown Orlando. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

That’s the thing about people who haven’t been homeless long, Michael and I realized – you haven't let go of your former self or of routines that are not yet that distant. You dress up for a Saturday night out and write letters home, even if you sleep on a concrete bed.

“But I’m stronge I’ll be ok I geuss I mean I got to I got no choice now do I…I just wish some one or some thing could help me or break threw fore me I need to shave and a hair cut bad They wake us up at 4:30 a.m.”

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Richard Scott Shufelt, 55, and Mary Lynn Painter, 50, are veterans of Orlando's streets but said they see new faces every day. "You're only one paycheck away from being where I am," Shufelt said. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  July 2, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Scene along the Street  
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Comments

"'If you’ve got felonies, you’re not going to get a job,' said Smith, who at age 18 went to jail on a forgery charge."

Another in a series of pieces in which the Post needs to find better victims.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | July 2, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

OK I lived in Orlando and I can tell you that like once said of Oakland there is no there there.

The Homeless population is probably much higher than first appears because many live out on the city fringe.

Orlando has a lot of wooded areas on the city fringes, lots that are land locked or where development passed them by because they are in less than desirable areas, many homeless live in these wooded areas and use the Lynx bus to get around.

The down town core is small and compact and the OPD frowns on homeless folks in the area and there is a no panhandling zone.

The public transit is sparse at best, based on a hub and spoke system, the bus routes all go down town so to get from one place to another sometimes you have to go to the main station and then out so a trip can take a couple of hours (if you are lucky enough to be near a bus stop)

As for the fellow with the lapsed bus ticket, I am willing to bet if some one offered to take him to the bus station and buy him a ticket he would pass, this is like the girl who twice within a month approached me and claimed she had lost her wallet and needed $10 for gas. The second time when i commented to her how un lucky she seemed to be as this was the second time in a month this happened to her she took off.

Posted by: WashingtonTimesisBetter | July 2, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

While I dont know these peoples situations it sure doesn't seem like they have a lot of hustle in them, I mean if I really needed $42 I could make that in a couple of days no matter what, at least I would like to think so.

Posted by: devilsadvoc8 | July 2, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

wow. these comments made me even sadder than the article did. so, no one believes there have been any ACTUAL victims of the recession? wake up, you callous people, take off the blinders. real, living people are losing their homes, their livelihoods. people YOU might be able to help. not everyone living on the street chooses to be there, people DO deserve chances, and second chances, and kindness, and assistance. it seems this recession has created impoverished hearts, not just empty wallets.

instead of pointing fingers and glaring suspiciously at everyone from behind the curtains of the dwelling YOU still have, get out there and help someone. like the lady said at the end of the article, it's likely you're just one paycheck away from where these people have found themselves.

Posted by: emrod89 | July 2, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness, no more trickle down Obama stimulus (turtle) stories. Bottom up only stories from now on!

We want to all those friggin' factories that NAFTA has shut down.

Why aren't they being turned into homeless shelters!? Better yet, why aren't they being used again for what they were built for?

A temporary ban on non-essential imports will create millions of jobs at home and kick start these factories once again.
Let's put all these people back to work.

Everyone needs a second chance, our nation does, too.
!

Posted by: HereComesTheJudge | July 2, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Its sad to hear other people that are in the same situation we gotten into!
its almost as my story that when we went into forclosure, i lost my job at the same time.
this is why i stopped listening to anything the government says to anybody, we all gonna end up the same way one way or the other! to hear the talk of the CAP&TAX, let just say we're doomed!!!!!!

Posted by: supertroy301 | July 2, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Man emrod89 you are so right some people are just plain evil. One pay check away from this and with the greed that is running through this country it can only get worst.

The sad part is so many fall into the category of mental illness and insanity is not a crime. Most of them will remain homeless never to get out of their depression they will wander the streets until they become so depressed and finally are picked up.

Sad but this is the real world and no one thinks about it until it is too late.

Posted by: antonio3 | July 2, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Wait a second here. Is it callous to be cautious? I desire to help people who are down and out so I give money to the local food bank, among other acts of charity. Unfortunately, I routinely encounter people asking for money. Those who ask for food will get food from me but they often just walk away when they find I won't give them the money to buy their own "food". Certainly their stories are heartbreaking. But I ask you emrod and antonio, how does one filter the scammers from those who really need help? Their stories are largely the same and some stories seem to recur with a certain regularity (the bus ticket excuse came up last week). If I give my spare change to a scammer, isn't that a poor use of capital? Since it is so difficult to identify the truly needy from those who would abuse my faith and love, I choose not to give money to any of these people. This strikes me deeply in my soul. So I ask again antonio and emrod, how do you help? Help me to help those who are hurting and I will act differently. Otherwise, my charity will continue to be directed to a place I know it is used well.

Posted by: mraymond10 | July 3, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

at least the weather is good in florida most of the time......so many illegals take the jobs from these homeless people.

Posted by: charlietuna666 | July 3, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I've spent a few days thinking about Shawn's story, and wondering what I would do if I were somewhere with no money or ID. He really has no friends or family who can help? Travel bureaus? If the same thing happens to you abroad the embassy will help you get home, so surely he has options, right? I suppose I'm fortunate to have a good support network but I think somebody would come get me, or send me money. And if I were on vacation, I'd presumably have some money in reserves that one way or another I could access by contacting my bank.

I don't know. Part of me is sympathetic, and part of me thinks there's something missing to his story.

Posted by: rallycap | July 7, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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