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One Man's Story Of Homelessness In Pensacola

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

The EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless recently conducted its 2018 Point-in-Time survey. The effort, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was conducted on January 24.

Staff and volunteers visited local shelters, encampments, and street corners in an effort to determine the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals in the area and identify service needs.

“I’m currently homeless,” said Robert Simpson, identifying himself. He’s one of the people to complete an ECOH/HUD questionnaire this year. “I sleep in the woods by a bonfire or a sleeping bag, and my feet get cold sometimes,” he chuckles.

On this cold January day, Simpson is dressed in layers to keep warm. He is 48 years old, from Sioux City, Iowa.

We met him at the Alfred-Washburn Center, which provides services to homeless people in the Pensacola area.

How did he get to Pensacola?

“I come down here to visit my uncle and he died, and I’ve been here ever since,” said Simpson clarifying that it’s been about three to four months since his uncle passed away and he’s been homeless about that long.

That means that he’s relatively new to homelessness.

“Very new to this,” he said, referring to now having to the bicycle he was straddling as we talked. “This is the first bike I’ve ever owned since I was a kid.”

Simpson’s bike is royal blue with whitewall tires and orange rims, and he’s got a little cart attached to the back.

It’s fairly nice, and it gets him where he wants to go. But, is a far cry from the Cadillacs he says he used to drive back in Iowa before he got down on his luck and came to Pensacola.

Sharing a little more detail about what happened here after his uncle got sick and died, Simpson says another part of the family took over things and the result is that he now doesn’t have a place to live.

For now, it’s not a situation that he’s working hard to change.

“I just don’t want to go back home, because I don’t want to go back home, and I have no way to get back home,” Simpson said of the choice he’s made.

“I mean, I suppose if I applied myself, I could come up with a few hundred bucks to get a bus ticket to go back home, but I don’t want to go back home right now, so I’m doing fine.”

Simpson says he’s not strung out on drugs or alcohol, and he’s making do with a campsite he set up for himself in the woods.

“I got a nice little spot, big ole’ fireplace. I got it all “tarped” in. No rain, no wind, no none of that; big tent with beds in it and stuff. So, I’m doing okay; I feel like I’m doing okay.”

Thus far, being homeless is nothing like Simpson thought it would be.

“No, no. This would be miserably hell for somebody that was real sociable or like wants to be around a bunch of people,” he said.

He describes his younger life, before this current period, as going in and out of nightclubs, drinking and fighting.

“None of that goes on in my life now,” he said, referencing the time he spends sitting at his fire, making canes for people and minding his own business.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
The Alfred-Washburn Center to homeless people in the Pensacola area.

He comes to the Alfred-Washburn Center 3-4 times a week to shower and wash his clothes, and then it’s back to the woods.

Simpson is currently unemployed and says he has no income to speak of.

Without elaborating, he talks about spending time in prison and being shot as a younger man back in Iowa; he still has bullets in his leg, buttocks, and back.

To date, efforts to get disability assistance have failed. He says he earns a little money fishing.

“My nickname is Catfish, and believe it or not I fish. And I make a pretty good living doing it.”

At the very least, the fishing helps him get by – enough to acknowledge his young daughter on her birthday, which was coming up the next day, on Jan. 25.

Simpson says he sent her $11 and some seashells, a birthday card and a bunch of pictures of the two of them that a friend made on the computer. Also, he planned to call her.

Simpson’s daughter is back in Sioux City with his estranged wife, who’s moved on with her life without him. Thus far, he says he has no regrets about the situation, about being here, or about being homeless.

“This is a choice that I’ve made; it’s a choice that all these people made,” he said, noting that the vast majority of the homeless people he’s encountered are healthy enough to work if they want to.

This, he says, is how they want to live their life; and it’s how he wants to live his life, for now.

“I’m in the process of getting my social security card. I can go get me a Florida I.D., now I get me a job or something I can handle, I can’t do too much, I got three bullets in me, really I do.”

Referring to his former life back in Sioux City, he says he used to be a supervisor or floor lead at a call center and he’s owned two businesses in his life. One was an internet-based operation, where he sold catfish online.

In short, Simpson is working to get himself together, as he does his best to cope with his homelessness.

“I’m making it work for now, but this is not the way I want to live the rest of my life or not even a proportion of my life,” said Simpson, who has hope for a brighter future.

“I’m doing alright. I’m (going to) get out of the rut and then get me a nice little place or something, and I don’t know. It ain’t too late for me.”

At this point, the Alfred-Washburn Center is preparing to close for the day.

“Try to stay warm,” Simpson said as he readied to ride off on his blue bike. “I think it’s [going to] be cold again tonight.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.