People are living in parks,
woods near city’s downtown
of homeless people who camp in the woods in Boca Raton.
Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Sallie James
Their makeshift camp was tucked carefully out of sight, nestled amid the sea grapes, just north of the entrance to South Beach Park.
The homeless group — five strong — had pitched three tattered tents together, but the tangle of clothes, coolers and grubby shoes drew attention.
A park ranger warned them to leave, or else.
“They told us if they catch us camping on the beach again, they are going to call the cops,” sighed Kara Hine, 20, who was eight weeks pregnant and has said she has camped at three different beach locations in Boca Raton. “We went back to our tent and packed up.”
Within 20 minutes, the group had moved on. Rousted again.
In a city where property values rank first out of 38 municipalities across Palm Beach County, Boca Raton ranks fourth in the county for the number of homeless, estimated at 69 people within its city limits, according to the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County.
Only West Palm Beach (332), Lake Worth (142) and Riviera Beach (80) had higher estimated numbers, according to the coalition’s August census.
Homeless numbers are rising, said the coalition’s executive director, Marilyn Munoz. Even in what some call “ritzy” Boca Raton.
“Some people are surprised by how many individuals and families are homeless in the Boca Raton area. The last official count revealed high numbers in the southern part of Palm Beach County,” Munoz said. “That’s why we held ‘Project Homeless’ in Boca Raton in August. That day we helped more than 100 people get connected with services.”
who, like Rouse, is homeless. Miera lost his leg after unsuccessful surgery to remove a tumor.
Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Among Boca Raton’s homeless were the five camped on the beach: Hine and her boyfriend, Chris Dawson, 19, Pittsburgh transplants who headed south after their own families fell on hard times; Theresa Rouse, 29, and Gus Byam, 33, a streetwise couple who joined forces to survive; and Billy Palmieri, 32, a chronically homeless Boca Raton native with a mischievous smile and a checkered past.
They are the not-so-invisible street people who live in the shadows of this community, where the median annual household income is $71,867, U.S. Census figures show.
By contrast, the median income in Delray Beach is $51,833, according to the U.S. Census.
Homeless people vs. property values
At times the two worlds clash in Boca Raton.
During a January 2016 City Council meeting, residents of the Mizner Court condominium on the south side of Silver Palm Park accused homeless people of setting smoky fires in the park’s grills, defecating in the grass, fighting and urinating near the boat dock. The park, at 600 E. Palmetto Park Road, is open to the public 24 hours a day so boaters can access the water.
“The park is owned by the homeless right now. I feel bad for them, but at the same time it is depreciating the value of the property,” resident Paul Cohen fumed to the council. “Some way, somehow something’s got to be done about the homeless in Boca Raton, especially in this park. So before anything really bad happens, maybe we can put up a sign that says this boating ramp is for boaters only?”
Boca Raton police spokeswoman Sandra Boonenberg acknowledged the presence of homeless people in some city parks, but said they generally cause few real problems.
“Silver Palm Park is unique in the fact that it is open 24/7, 365 days a year and people are more likely to see them there. They are just more visible,” Boonenberg said. “We let the facts speak. We don’t have a lot of incidents at Silver Palm Park.”
A fatal incident
David Bartolino, 47, once a regular among Silver Palm Park’s homeless population, said condo residents have called the Boca Raton Fire Department repeatedly to report homeless people’s cooking fires.
“We became an eyesore. The people didn’t want to see us,” he said.
In late March, Bartolino made headlines when a Silver Palm Park fisherman who had taken him in was fatally shot.
Thang Nguyen, 62, was gunned down outside his house in the 2800 block of Northeast Second Avenue after Bartolino got into an altercation with a man down the block. Police said Nguyen was killed when he confronted Dylan Cirillo, 24, with a gun. Bartolino was shot in the shoulder.
Bartolino was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon because he picked up Nguyen’s gun and shot it into the air several times to attract help, police said. Cirillo told police he shot Nguyen in self-defense.
Cirillo has been charged with carrying a concealed firearm without a license and is free on $3,000 bail.
A teary-eyed Bartolino said later that Nguyen had generously given him a home, arranged for him to work as a janitor at a relative’s nail salon, and watched over him. Since Nguyen’s death, Bartolino has been back on the street.
“Thang was my blessing,” Bartolino said sadly. “People couldn’t stand that Thang stood up for me. He treated me like a human, not a homeless person.”
Bartolino is now staying somewhere in Lake Worth because of fallout related to the shooting.
James Gavrilos, who runs the nonprofit agency Boca Helping Hands, said the existence of homeless people in Boca Raton is well known. His agency provides free lunches to the working poor six times a week at its facility at 1500 NW First Court. Lately, more homeless people are showing up to eat.
“We are not technically [an agency for the homeless]. Our goal is to help people break the cycle of dependence,” Gavrilos said. “But when the homeless come, we will feed them. There seems to be an increase in the number of homeless people who are living in our area.”
Hine and her tent-mates are usually among Gavrilos’ lunch guests.
On a recent night, Hine’s group gathered on park benches outside Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in the 200 block of Northeast 12th Street to socialize. The site is familiar to local homeless people because Love Boca Outreach Ministries holds Thursday night dinners at the church for those in need.
Life on the streets
Hine said she and her boyfriend stayed in Fort Lauderdale when they first arrived in Florida, but headed north to find a safer place after she was almost attacked.
“Everybody kept telling us about Boca Raton, that you can get fed every day at the same place,” Hine said. “I’m scared. I don’t want my baby to be homeless.”
Rouse, the mother of three young children, said she knows firsthand that bad things can happen in the streets because she’s been on them 10 years. Her own children are being cared for by others.
On her own since 18, Rouse turned to prostitution to survive and eventually got pregnant. Her daughter, Aaliyah, 10, has a guardian and lives in Boca Raton. Rouse sees her regularly. She has two other young children, 6 and 4, with whom she keeps in close contact.
Rouse relies on her partner of seven years, Gus Byam, to help keep her safe. Six months ago, she learned she is HIV-positive and has struggled with the diagnosis since.
It is Aaliyah who brings brief flashes of light back into Rouse’s grim life.
“My daughter is in church programs and ballet,” Rouse said proudly. “She has lots of ties to the community.”
Suddenly the 10-year-old is in her mother’s lap. She lives just down the block from Ebenezer Baptist. Aaliyah knows everyone in her mother’s homeless cluster, and goes from person to person, getting hugs and kisses. They are her extended family.
She worries about her mother’s homelessness.
“She lives in the woods where there are snakes and stuff. But she tells me everything is going to be OK. ‘Think happy things,’ she says. She said she found a great spot where everything is going to be OK,” Aaliyah said.
The group pools the little money it collects from asking passers-by and detailing cars so Rouse can take Aaliyah bowling, to Boomers! or the movies.
“My mom is my personal favorite parent,” Aaliyah said smiling, her arm again around her mother as they sat. “The best thing about my mom is that I have her.”
Palmieri mugs wickedly at Aaliyah, trying to make her smile. Aaliyah calls him “the funniest guy I have ever met.”
Palmieri, who said he is also HIV-positive, is a Boca Raton native who’s been in and out of jail most of his adult life. He’s been a street dweller for 10 years. Palmieri’s life fell to chaos after his mother threw herself in front of a train. His stability comes from his friends.
He and Byam have been close since elementary school.
The childhood friends — Palmieri has a tattoo of the name “Gus” — detail cars to survive, carrying their cleaning supplies on bicycles and stashing them in their tents at night.
When Palmieri looks at Aaliyah, he sees hope.
“What do I want to see happen for this kid? College,” Palmieri said. “Me, Gus and [another friend, Bubba] will make sure she has the money to go to college, even if we have to panhandle.”
Aaliyah’s mother agrees.
“I want her to be better than what I am,” Rouse said softly.
Anne Cann, executive director of Love Boca Outreach Ministries, provides food, clothing and showers to homeless people through her program. She worries constantly for her “guys” because she knows how hard it is to live on the street.
“I love these guys. I wake up in the middle of the night if it’s pouring rain and say a prayer because I know the majority of my guys are soaking wet,” Cann said. “We don’t know what events have occurred in any of our homeless people’s lives as to why they are in the situation they are in. These are just individuals and everyone has a story. It’s better to be part of a community.”