A Letter Home From Orlando
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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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