I had been scouting Lake Eola for days when I encountered Robin. The 41-year-old was sitting on a park bench next to her boyfriend, who appeared to be asleep with headphones on and one shoe off. She was surrounded by some belongings and seemingly busy reading Reader’s Digest. It was enough to convince me that she may be the homeless person that I was looking for.
Finding a homeless person in the park is easy. Finding one that is willing to share their story is a bit more difficult. Because Robin was reading when I found her, I assumed she would have a voice. I hoped that she could give a true account of her lifestyle, unlike someone who may have a mental illness. I approached her with two sodas and ten bucks.
Robin accepted my offer to interview her with no inhibitions. She was much more gentle and kind than I had imagined any homeless person would be. There were times during this interview when Robin smiled and laughed, though it seemed more likely that she wanted to cry. Mostly, she spoke effortlessly.
It’s hard to ask someone to open up to you without feeling an obligation to help them. I think of Robin often. I use to see her downtown all the time. Then one day it stopped.
Jana: So Robin, where are you from?
Robin: Originally, New Jersey.
New Jersey? What made you come to Orlando?
[Laughs] I don’t know. It was a wish and a dream I guess. I came here in 2000 and just never left.
What did you come down here to do?
I guess to just get away … from Jersey … from everything.
What were you trying to get away from?
Nothing, I guess. Nothing … I just thought a change would be different.
Do you have a home?
Where is your home?
Basically, where we lay our heads. [Laughs] We’re usually up by Princeton, not down in this area.
So you only come into the city during the day time?
How did you lose your home?
I didn’t really have too much of a home when I first got here to Florida. It’s like, you work, get a room, work, get a room. Basically, we were living in motels … and workin’.
What kind of job did you have?
I was working in labor pools. You know, construction clean-up, dishwashin’ and things like that.
Did you lose that job?
No, the labor pools closed down. Then jobs got scarce.
I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by labor pool. Could you help explain that to me?
It’s daily labor with daily pay. You work and you get your check at the end of the day. They call it labor pools because they contract you out to other businesses. Like a business will contact a labor pool, and then the labor pool will send you out. They pay the labor pool, um … I don’t know how to put it, but basically, they pay the labor pool double what you’d get. You still get your minimum wage but that labor pool gets like $13 an hour.
Are you looking for another job?
That’s what I’m currently doing now because I just stopped drinking two months ago. I’m trying to get my … everything together.
What makes it hard for you to find a job?
Um, now … well with being a convicted felon, that’s the hardest thing.
What did you do to become a convicted felon?
Robbery with subsequent force. It would have been petty theft but she touched me.
Can you describe a typical day for you?
When I’m not working, basically, I wake up, come and hang out here. Then when it’s time to go for lunch we find a place. Then hang out here until about 7 o’clock, then we head back to go lay down.
What do you do to keep your mind busy when you’re hanging out?
I read. Here and there I’ll listen to music, things like that.
What do you read?
Everything. I read mysteries … I don’t like love stories.
I’m not too much into reading love stories either. [Laughs]
Yeah, I like mysteries. I have Reader’s Digest. Sometimes, I just like magazines. I like reading books. I don’t like carrying them around with me all day. I might put it down and lose it.
Have you met a lot of friends out here?
I can’t say they are friends. I can say they’re more like acquaintances. There wouldn’t be anyone here, except my boyfriend, that I’d trust my life with … besides the man up above, that’s it.
So your boyfriend is like your family?
Down here? Yeah.
And is he also searching for jobs and a home?
Where did you meet him?
Here in Florida. Right here.
Like here, right here on this park bench?
Oh no. [Laughs] Basically we started interacting because we worked the same labor pools.
What about other family? Do you have any children?
Do you ever talk to them?
And a grandson. I haven’t talked to my kids in … last year was the last time I talked to them. I need to get their numbers all back because someone stole my bag.
Do you miss them?
Where are they?
Back in Jersey.
How do they feel about you being here?
My younger kids don’t know where I’m at. My eldest daughter knows I had a drinking problem. I’m not saying that’s the whole problem … I just can’t blame it on that.
Have you been living this lifestyle since you moved to Florida?
Yep, for seven years.
What is your favorite time of the day?
[Laughs] Night time—when it’s time to lay down. To me, the best time is when the day is over. It’s like, okay, maybe the next day will be better, something better will happen.
Do you have any hobbies?
Here, I don’t really do nuttin’. When I was up north, I did crafts and I knew how to crochet. I still do know how. Here, it’s like, um … you got … a rut …you’re here, you’re just here.
Do you think the city does a good job of taking care of you?
What can the city do to help you get back on your feet?
They need to … well for one, housing. Housing is the biggest thing [wrong] out here. As you can see, everything that is going up is a step away from low-income housing. Then when they talk about it in Orange County, about having lower income housing for the needy, they’re talking about nurses, firemen and people like that. Well okay, what about the people on Welfare, Section 8 and things like … well we’re a couple and we are trying to struggle. And even if we work on a daily pay, it’s a little over $100. A room is $60 a night. What can we do with that $40? You gotta eat, get to work the next day … and I smoke cigarettes because I stopped drinking, so all the money is gone already. It’s like a never ending cycle.
The City of Orlando wasn’t this bad when I first got here. But I understand it ain’t just the city, it’s the homeless themselves. Some took advantage of the things they were given. Like, you used to be able to go to certain places and get bus passes to go to the doctor or something. Then people started taking advantage and getting, like, ten bus passes and selling them. You used to be able to sit in this park and eat, the churches would come around. But they stopped that because people abused it. They left their garbage all over the place. The bottom line is you’ve got to help yourself before anyone else is really gonna help you. I sit here and I can have a pity party, like, ‘Whoa is me.’ But then I’m still sittin’ here. I ain’t doing nuttin’. I ain’t getting up and putting in applications. The only way I can do it is to put it in God’s hands. In due time, I will get that job I need.
It seems like you’ve mastered this lifestyle. Do you ever feel afraid you’ll never be able to leave it?
You mean ever have a regular life?
I’m not sure anyone knows what a regular life is. Are you happy where you’re at?
No. I want to rent a place, an apartment with a clothes line in the back so I can hang up clothes. These are things I used to do. To me, that’s a normal life. To be out here, shuffling through a park and maybe get some money together for a room is not normal. Normal is having that key to go open that door, so you can go in and lay down and watch TV if you want—to come and go as you please. Even in shelters, you can’t do that. Once you’re there, you’re in until the next morning.
What’s your biggest fear in living this lifestyle?
Nowadays, it’s the way the young people are actin’ up with the homeless. Sometimes it doesn’t matter the weapons you got. You have to sleep with one eye open. They can find you anywhere. You know, I don’t fear it so much but it’s getting crazy out here. The fighting, the people carryin’ on … when I first came down here it was like a thrill. But now, I’m too old.
You had mentioned before that somebody had stolen your bag. Is crime a problem for you?
Oh yeah. Stealing bags and stealing clothes. Sometimes it’s weird because they can’t even fit in the stuff but they’ll take it, just to take it.
So is this all your stuff, right here? Is this all you have?
No, no, no. We put that up. I’m not one to carry all my stuff with me everywhere. If that was the case, I’d need two shopping carts. [Laughs] We ain’t those people that walk around with the shopping carts, you know? That’s like, “Hey, [look at me] I’m homeless.” They want everyone to know that.
A while back the city mandated that those who ask for money need to have a Panhandler’s License. Do you have one?
With the grace of God, I’ve never panhandled a day in my life. I’d go without. But some people—believe me—they make good money. [Laughs] They probably make more money than you make in a days work.
I bet. Do you like the way the people that come into the park look at you?
You know what, not here. When we sit here like this or when they feed down there by those blue chairs on Wednesdays, the people go by. They know. They looking. They be looking like, “Uh hmm … you’re homeless.” Some people don’t care. We get a lot of people, like church people, who don’t look at you any different. They’ll look at you like you’re their own child. Then you got some people around here with their nose up in the air. If you were passed out on the ground, they’d probably walk over you. You know? They’re probably like, that’s one less homeless person we got to worry about out on the street. But not all homeless are bad.
When was the last time you had a home cooked meal?
Oh we get ‘em. [The boyfriend who I thought was asleep appears to have been secretly paying attention. He says, “Yesterday.”] Yep, Monday … yesterday. We go to church, Calvary in Winter Park, and they have a program. We have Bible Study, drink coffee, eat donuts …
Do you ride the bus there?
No, they pick us up.
Sweet, so what’s for dinner tonight?
[Laughs] Sandwiches. Salvation Army. They used to serve really good food, but people complained about that. So they turned around and made it a soup line. You see, we got Daily Bread, that’s Monday thru Friday and Sundays, okay? We got The Salvation Army, that’s Monday through Friday. That’s dinners, Daily Bread is lunch. Now Saturday, you have The Ripple Effects, that’s underneath the bridge of the 408, and after that we know all the churches that we can branch out and go to.
So we know where to go but it ain’t the city doin’ that. That’s the churches doin’ that. The city don’t have so much a hand in The Sali [The Salvation Army] or Daily Bread. They might give it a place … but, like, when that park opens across from Daily Bread, Daily Bread’s gonna have to move too. They’re not gonna have seventy-five homeless standing in line for food next to where the kids are playing down right by the fire department.
As a mother, do you understand why they might move it?
Yeah, oh yes I do. I know they’re going to move it, just like they’re going to move The Coalition. They’re knocking everything down on Parramore.
But do you agree with it?
Yes I do. But they need an alternative. Look at all the empty warehouses. They need to be converted into something to help, and have it regulated, even have security. I mean they even breathalyze people going into The Sali now. The city can do something. They can have it on paper, and it’ll look so good. And then the city’s like, “Oh well, I don’t know.” So it goes on the back burner, and then it gets so way on the back burner, it ends up burning up.
So where do you see yourself next year?
Oh next year, I see myself working and in a place. I don’t think it’s going to be here in Orlando. I’m tired of Orlando. We want to go to South Carolina to see his parents [the boyfriend corrects her, North Carolina] … North Carolina. Then eventually I’ll go to Jersey to see my family.
What do you miss the most about not having a home?
*Interview Date: 7/10/2007