ST. AUGUSTINE – Jim sleeps on my couch, a product of my giving nature and admitted naiveté. I used to give a dollar to the homeless guy on the corner who consistently requests a specific amount of change – something like 24 cents rather than a quarter – outside the Lil’ Champ. Now my living room has become a kind of bedroom for a “third roommate” with a sleeping bag and two piles of sweatpants and stretched-out t-shirts pressed against the wall.
In exchange for a place to sleep at night, Jim cleans the bathroom and does the dishes – chores that a life of American leisure has reduced to mere nuisance – but the garbage can smell left on the green cotton fibers of my couch remains.
For a couple of months, Jim made a bed from his sleeping bag and a blanket I lent him in the sandy area behind my apartment where the garbage cans for the whole building reside. Above his head towered the protective overhang of the staircase leading to my upstairs neighbor’s door.
Our symbiotic relationship worked pretty well for a while: I gave him a place to sleep and shelter inside when the weather turned sour, and he would come in every once in a while to scrub my bathtub. The exchange became spoiled when a resident in a neighboring home complained to the landlord after witnessing Jim “loitering” behind my apartment building. Apparently, living to one man is loitering to another.
“I see some of these guys out there that just wanna give up,” Jim says to me as he sits in a plastic green chair on my four-step stoop. “They’ve lost any reason to live.” His blue eyes stare past me, and his white socks stretch to the middle of his calves. “There’s a big difference between living and existing.”
“Which are you doing?” I ask because I know he’ll give an articulate answer since he seems to have a more developed intellect and a larger heart than the majority of homeless people in St. Augustine.
“Well, I used to have a life – back when I had two-million in the bank.” He pauses and stares down at the gray concrete, his back arced forward and knees spread. “But now I’m more like those other guys: I don’t do anything!”
Jim tells me that he used to work as a street cop in New York City. When he testified against two crooked cops who worked with the mob to knock-off local do-goody officers, a price-tag materialized on his forehead and he skipped town. He then moved home to Minnesota and started his own biker bar. The success of the tavern raked in a top gross of over $2 million. The problem was he hired too many young girls to work for him – Jim is soft for the ladies. After numerous warnings, the cops busted one of the young female bartenders pouring a little too much into a shot glass – “over pouring” as they call it in mixology – and stripped away his liquor license. He had to sell most of his assets to pay off the debt he acquired. To escape the heat in Minnesota, he moved down to Gainesville because he knew a contractor friend who could get him some construction work. One night sleeping in a tent in the woods, two guys invaded his tent, stole all of his possessions including his IDs, and left Jim with a broken arm and a broken nose.
Of course, this is what he tells me – the guy letting him sleep on his couch. Who knows what he tells anyone else.
“Have you ever seen a feral cat?” a St. Augustine police officer asks me in front of my girlfriend’s apartment after riding with him to identify a friend’s stolen bike.
“Sure,” I answer.
“If you feed one what happens? They always come back. This is why there’s so many homeless in St. Augustine: there’s so many tourists that’ll hand out money.”
I remind him that the difference between the homeless and feral cats is that the homeless are people – perhaps sick, dirty, stinky, destitute, needy, obnoxious, aggressive, dishonest, untrustworthy, or dangerous, but people nonetheless.
Musicians and performing artists used to line the cobblestone, pedestrian-only street of St. George. Since March 13 of 2000, when city commissioners passed laws prohibiting anyone to perform directly on the tourist-laden avenue, only evangelists and middle-aged couples dressing their poodles up in little cowboy outfits for the public to see set up shop on the strip. Local business owners prefer the entertainment outside of their shops quiet and sedated.
Because tourism accounts for almost the entire industry of St. Augustine, business owners have the loudest voice in town. They took the initiative to remove the “nuisance” that “drove business away.” Once St. George Street teemed with vibrant sounds and fascinating characters, but the downtown art has since been reduced to paintings of sailboats and Flagler College in galleries whose salespeople glare with narrow eyes at anyone browsing with no intent to buy the $5,000 paintings of roses and wine glasses.
The driving-away of the street performers left a vacuum of homeless who have no other means of income except asking tourists for change. They used to earn spare change by singing, dancing, drawing, and utilizing their creative capacities, but now they have been reduced to mere beggars swept under the rug by people whose solution to the problem is pretending it doesn’t exist.
Jim sleeps on my couch. In three weeks my roommate and I will move out of our apartment, and Jim will be back on the street. At fifty-nine years old, he has no desire to work. He will never have any more money than what the people he meets on the street give him for a quart of Mickey’s Ice. He has almost given up on life. At this point he only exists, he does not live. Most likely in a few years he will be dead, and he will die alone. There’s no perfect solution to the homeless situation in St. Augustine, but ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist is no solution at all.