The faces of hope: Ten years in a tent, a lifetime to share
By Nancy Kennedy
Saturday, November 15, 2008 at 8:00 pm
Editor’s note: To mark National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week Nov. 16-22, the Chronicle is profiling these men. This is part one of a three-part series.
For a vagabond and a drifter — that’s what the police call him, he says — L.C. “Pappy” Robertson keeps a neat room.
Everything is in its proper place, his bow (sans string or arrows), his notebook and ink pen, his stuffed parrot, bottles of ibuprofen and vitamins.
“I don’t like looking at nothing plain,” he says.
His prized possession, a tiger blanket, covers his bed in his room at the top of the stairs at the Mission in Citrus, a homeless shelter for men in Lecanto.
At age 54, Pappy has spent the past 10 years living in tents in the woods and sleeping behind buildings.
Before that, he worked construction.
“For a long time, I wanted to be homeless,” he says. “I lived down in Naples. I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do. I was in the labor pool — I could go to work when I wanted to — and when I didn’t want to, I stayed home and got drunk.”
Pappy makes life in the woods sound romantic and idyllic. He and whoever else was around him would set up a camp in the woods. They’d eat at a local mission or buy food with food stamps or money they panhandled.
“We had a Coleman stove to cook on, and we had a big, screened-in tent that was like a kitchen,” he says. “For showers we had a big ol’ fresh water lake — with alligators.”
But it wasn’t always fun. Like when he was panhandling, sometimes the police would hassle him.
“I’d say, ‘Would you rather have me ask for it or take it from them?’ Either way it’s illegal,” he said, “but I did it anyway. I made enough to survive.”
Sometimes people bought him food. Sometimes, like when he had the shakes, he’d tell someone, “I need a beer” and ask for money.
He’s been sober for five months now.
“I asked God to take (drinking) away from me,” he said. “I didn’t want to shake no more.”
Pappy loves to tell people how he got his tiger blanket.
“God gave me that,” he said. “I was sleeping behind a store one time and all I had was two big jackets to cover up with, and somebody threw something over me. I don’t know who gave it to me. It fell out of heaven.
“I was freezing to death,” he said. “I was so glad.”
After living in Naples for a while, Pappy lived with some friends in Ft. Myers until they took off for Tennessee. Then he met another guy and invited him to stay with him in a big eight-man tent. That guy wanted to go to Cocoa Beach, so they packed up their stuff and hitched a ride with a guy who didn’t speak English and ended up in Miami.
When they did make it to Cocoa Beach, his friend met up with a woman and Pappy was by himself. He ended up in Orlando and Apopka, bumming money to take city buses and sleeping in abandoned buildings and on the street. He did that for about a year, until he found his way northwest to Citrus County.
It’s here in Citrus County that he decided he didn’t want to be homeless anymore. He met the other men at the Mission in Citrus and moved in.
His job at the mission is gardening, although it’s too cold to plant anything right now. He’s cultivating an organic garden, getting the dirt ready for when it warms up.
“People ought to look at the homeless in a respectful way and not judge them,” he said. “They ought to talk to them. They’re welcome to come here any time they want or get out in the woods and talk to them, maybe take them a Bible because they might not have one, see what their side of the story is, not what people say about them.”
Pappy said there are a lot of good people in the woods who might not want to go to a shelter that’s run with strict rules, “like jail.” He said there are some like that.
“Might as well go to jail — there you get ‘three hots and a cot,’” he said. “I’ve been in prison five times, for illegal possession of a firearm, unlawful exhibition, drugs, fighting, but I’m retired from that.
“I’m retired from all the jail, all the trouble, all the probation. I don’t have to look over my shoulder — I’m not wanted for anything anymore,” he said. “Right now I’m trying to get my disability, get some help. If I could do anything, I’d be a junk man and a fisherman.”
Since meeting Jim Sleighter, director of the Mission in Citrus, he’s been in touch with his family — a brother in Lake City and sisters in Alabama.
“Connecting with family is one of the most important things in the life of a homeless person,” Sleighter said..
So is cultivating a person’s natural gifts and talents. Sleighter said Pappy has talents and ideas that will help make the shelter successful.
“This is how we built the program,” he said. “When we all met (at another shelter), we talked and asked each other, ‘What would help the homeless?’ That’s how this evolved. Everything’s coming from their ideas because the best person to help the homeless is someone who’s been through it.”