Ann rarely sleeps through the night. It’s too dangerous to do that, especially when your home is Lake Worth’s Bryant Park and your mattress is a thin blanket spread out on the grass.
“I’m always watching out,” said Ann, who didn’t want her last name used. “People can be vicious. The fear is overwhelming.”
Ann said she recently lost her job as a server at a country club. She stayed with a friend for a few days, but that didn’t work out.
Now Ann, 57, finds herself camping out with another friend, one who is snoring next to her on a recent afternoon.
She wants to work as a server again, but said she hasn’t had any luck.
“This hasn’t been fun,” Ann said, tears welling. “It’s been awful.”
Ann is one of the many faces of homelessness in America, a thorny and exceptionally complex issue that is being tackled on the county, state and national level to varying degrees of success. Locally, the number of people who are homeless in the southern part of the county — Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton — has increased the past two years, according to county statistics. In 2013 there were 233 homeless people in that southern area compared to the 290 counted in 2015. The statistics are based off a bi-annual count.
In other parts of the county, many municipalities had a decrease in numbers, except for places such as Royal Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and Pahokee. West Palm Beach had a significant decrease from 436 in 2013 to 332 this year.
Out of the southern area in the 2015 count, Lake Worth had the most homeless with a total of 142. Boca Raton had 69, Delray Beach had 63 and Boynton Beach had 16, according to the count.
Countywide, there were more than 1,400 homeless counted in that period, which is a 9 percent drop since 2013. The decrease was attributed to several things, including reductions in housing program requirements and an increase in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers.
However, the amount of chronically homeless people in the county increased by 35 percent and the number of homeless people who have mental illness or substance-abuse issues is about double from the previous count.
There’s no clear reason for the increase in south county. Officials in these cities say the increase is visible and the cities are working to get them off the streets and into a home, a battle that isn’t easy.
“It’s an epidemic. It’s nationwide and I think that we need to turn around and open our eyes and embrace these people and help them and not just ignore them and try to make them go away,” said Carisse LeJeune, the assistant city manager of Boynton Beach.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2.5 million to 3.5 million people will be homeless in a given year.
People are homeless for a variety of reasons. In Lake Worth, officials say sober homes are to blame. In Delray Beach, the homeless include transients whose number increases as it gets colder up north. The majority have substance abuse or mental health issues, Delray Beach Police Capt. Rachel Saunders said.
LeJeune has embarked on a project to help the homeless in Boynton. Through her research, she learned that 25 percent of homeless in the country hold a job but can’t afford a home based on their salary.
About 11 percent were in the foster-care system and when they turned 18 were let out without a support system. About 17 percent are veterans.
Some are out of work. Some are escaping domestic violence.
Officials and residents in Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Lake Worth say they’ve seen the increase in the number of homeless men and women wandering their streets.
In Delray, people without homes stay in parks, near Old School Square, and along booming Atlantic Avenue from Interstate 95 to the beach, and about two blocks south and north of there. They pick those spots because that’s where they feel safe, Saunders said. In Lake Worth, it’s downtown.
“A good number of people we see on the streets have addiction issues and they came from sober homes and they’re impacting crime and theft,” Lake Worth City Manager Michael Bornstein said. “The first time they fall off the wagon in a sober home, they’ve got their cart and all of their belongings and they’re back on the streets.”
Most of Lake Worth’s homeless population can be found in Bryant Park, the Cultural Plaza, Dixie Highway and anywhere that there’s an overgrown property where they can hide. There are some who camp at City Hall at night.
“We know many of them by first name,” Bornstein said. “They’re part of the fabric of our community.”
And in Boynton, people without homes go to the library, sometimes using the facilities to clean up. There used to be a camp at Jaycee Park on Federal Highway, but it’s since been abandoned.
Sleeping and living outside can be dangerous, and also can get them into trouble. Delray Beach has ordinances that make it illegal for people to sleep in a park after it is closed, leading to arrests. In Lake Worth, restaurant and shop owners say having homeless people hanging out on Lake and Lucerne avenues hurts business.
“It’s a major deterrent,” said City Commissioner Andy Amoroso, who has owned and operated Studio 205 and Java Juice Bar on Lake Avenue for more than 21 years. “I’ve seen them so drunk, they’re up in people’s faces, and I’ve cleaned up human feces.”
Sometimes just the sight of a person living outside rattles residents. Boynton’s efforts to help the homeless started after residents called city commissioners complaining.
It happens in Delray, too. But the police department is working with residents to teach them that what homeless people are doing most often isn’t a crime.
“We get several complaints of ‘this subject has been sitting on this bench for hours’ and we’re explaining to them that is not a crime,” Saunders said.
That’s what Boynton is working toward also.
Employees have tried to strike up a conversation whether they are in the parks or in the library. Craig Clark, the library director, said employees have called 211, a helpline, for homeless people. Clark said he didn’t notice any homeless people in the library three years ago, but now sees one to three people in one day.
“ We need to help the people that are in our own community to become viable citizens, and a lot of them once were and through circumstances beyond their control that has changed,” LeJeune said.
The cities are trying new programs and different approaches.
Lake Worth Mayor Pam Triolo pointed out how the city passed a more aggressive panhandling ordinance, is attempting to better enforce park hours and agreed to work with the The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to transport people to the county’s homeless resource center in West Palm Beach.
The city is also planning an event early next year with the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County to offer homeless people meals and a chance to talk to service providers.
But cities, Bornstein said, can only do so much.
“We can’t even patch our streets,” he said. “We’re working on the fundamentals, now we’re supposed to fix a national issue? Just throw Iran and Iraq and China on our plate.”
Boynton has created a team of city employees and each is researching practices and gathering data on how others throughout the country work with the homeless. They’ll create a plan that will be presented to the commission this month or January.
A big part of the plan, LeJeune said, will be having staff take an extra step to engage with homeless people, and offer them resources. The city also plans to partner with organizations such as the homeless coalition to send out case managers to assess homeless people.
“But most importantly, find out who they are, talk to them and get their story, because everybody has a story,” LeJeune said.
Jorge Rodriquez was living on the streets for 15 years. He doesn’t remember why he became homeless. Rodriguez came to Palm Beach County from Europe in the late 1990s after having family issues.
He said he didn’t have hope and felt like he didn’t have a meaning nor a purpose, so he resorted to drugs.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” said Rodriguez, 41.
With the help of the Housing First program through Gulfstream Goodwill Industries, Rodriguez now lives in an apartment in Beacon Place in Lake Worth. The program provides homes, and works to help the homeless join society again.
Rodriguez is thankful for shelter, and is thankful that he is off the street. It’s kept him out of jail. And he said he’d likely be dead if he was still out there. But, he wants more. He’s still addicted to drugs and has used flakka, cocaine, marijuana and roxycodone. He’s held jobs but loses them.
“I have to be taught how to function again and that’s not a process that happens overnight,” he said.
Delray is also trying something new, and is preparing to sign an agreement with the Senator Philip D. Lewis Center in West Palm Beach that says if a homeless person in the city wants help, they can be referred to the center.
Also, police officers will be trained yearly to learn the best practices with homeless people. Another example of their efforts is their work with the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray. The foundation keeps two beds open for homeless people with substance-abuse problems who are brought in by police officers.
But, LeJeune says, there aren’t enough beds for the homeless, and there aren’t enough landlords who have agreed to do the Housing First program.
“It’s everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. What’s wrong with us as a society that we let people — children — go hungry without a place to live while we get in our cars with our air conditioner and drive to the restaurant and have lunch?” LeJeune said.