Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Off The Grid - Adventures In Homelessness

Today we are delighted to welcome our guest, Russell Lighthall, to 4writers. Thanks for taking the time to be here today and share some of your exciting and often humorous experiences, Russell!
Russell Lighthall spent his younger years moving all over the U.S. as the son of a Navy Chief, going to twelve different schools through High School. This solitary existence was always eased by his love of reading and guitar.

 After graduating from Bellaire High in Houston, Texas he joined the U. S. Navy himself as a Communications Technician, receiving a Top Secret Clearance. After his discharge, he attended the University of Houston on the GI Bill, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.

After thirty years in the Paper and Printing Industry and raising two beautiful daughters, he finally decided it is now or never to devote his energy to his real love, writing. He is now currently working full time on a detective novel along with keeping a journal of his current travels which he intends to also turn into a non-fiction book.

Last year I decided that after working for 46 years, and having virtually nothing to show for it, it was time to re-evaluate my situation. In all fairness, my many marriages (all my exes live in Texas) may have had something to do with my struggles! But be that as it may, I still was not happy with going from being a "fair-haired wonder" to an older, less valuable worker. My only choice in recent times had been to work in "Call Centers" while waiting to get my retirement in two years. So I decided to retire a couple of years early, but without the income! I get a small annuity, but not enough to pay rent. My two daughters were off starting families of their own. So nothing was holding me in Texas.

I Googled California and Florida to find a good location. My main priorities were a place with 1) a large homeless population and 2) warm nights year round. I figured if there was a large group of homeless, the police would be more lenient. I looked at Key West first, having lived there 3 years as a child, but the police have been hassling the Homeless in Key West to protect the tourists. And Key West is not a very large island. So Fort Myers Beach, Florida won the prize...ME! With an average nightly temperature in the 50's and a large transient population, Ft Myers seemed at the very least a good place to start.

So I caught a Greyhound for Ft Myers, and rode for 38 hours to sunny South Florida. A 38 hour bus ride! I got car sick twice, slept maybe 6 hours on the whole trip. Next time I fly (or walk)! Please understand, I never even had camped out before except one time for two nights! So I had no idea what the heck I was doing!

I got to Fort Myers with a sleeping bag, a radio, a pillow, and not much else! I caught a Trolley to Ft Myers Beach and ended up at Bowditch Park, which was run by the county. I went deep into the park, found a secluded area, and collapsed into my sleeping bag. So started my Adventure in Homelessness.

Over the next few days I explored Ft Myers Beach, while sleeping in the evenings at Bowditch Park. I showered at the beach showers, soaping up fast and rinsing off before anyone noticed what I was doing. I had a few dollars left for food and to buy a Pup Tent and a cheap Bicycle. I met a couple who were bar-b-queing at the park who had the "homeless look", so walked up to them and I was right! Emrys and his wife Julie told me about a Chapel where I could shower Monday through Friday,and also get breakfast! Chapel By The Sea is a non-profit organization run totally by volunteers from the area churches with space at the Presbyterian Church of the same name. So the next morning I got on my bike and after getting lost I finally found the Chapel. The church people were totally welcoming and I was able to get cleaned up, get breakfast, and also a bag lunch. So Monday through Friday I was good.

A couple of Highlights of my journey so far...

After a week sleeping in Bowditch County Park, and being eaten up by gnats and mosquitoes, I was told by some other homeless people that I needed to move or the Police or Park Rangers were certain to soon find me, so I packed up my meager belongings and headed to the other end of Ft Myers Beach. Unfortunately, that night I got caught by the Rangers and was kicked out of Lover's Key. So I'm on the Beach Trolley next morning with nowhere to go and no idea what's next when Providence intervened! I was telling the Trolley Driver about getting tossed out and another passenger said, "I have an old Campsite I don't use any more. Come with me and I'll take you there." And that's how I met "Vodka Steve". (Note: almost every homeless male here has a nickname. I've met Vodka Steve, Vodka Sam, Hawk, Bronco, my neighbor Pork Chop, and at least a dozen guys called Cowboy, to mention just a few.) Vodka Steve took me off the beach and over the bridge off-island to some woods and actually gave me an old beat-up pup tent at his old campsite.

Now, 6 months down the road, I have three tents I have accumulated. I have two newer pup tents and a large tent for sleeping. After a week of sleeping in the open with just my sleeping bag when I first arrived in Ft Myers, Florida, I bought a small pup tent, then was given another small tent at a Veteran's Stand Down, a yearly function to help Homeless Veterans. I finally bought a six-man tent, (which is really a one-man, let's face it, but I could finally stand up inside!)

I have joined the Library, so have a place to charge my cell phone and also have gotten a small DVD player and a Walkman Radio! Pork Chop, my aforementioned neighbor, has been camping out for 5 years, and is a wealth of knowledge about surviving as a Homeless Citizen.

One more Highlight:
Last week was the first time I met the Lee County Police. At a few minutes after midnight I was sleeping in my large tent when I saw three flashlights shining through the tent. A voice said, "Lee County Police, please come out." I said, "Be right out." The voice said, "Do you have any deadly weapons in there?" I answered, "Just my Scuba knife," as I opened the front flap of my tent and emerged from within.

The flashlights shone directly in my face as I came out, so much so that I couldn't see anything. "The lights are blinding me," I said and they lowered them. There were three deputies standing looking around. The one who was taking the lead and obviously was in charge asked, "Are all three tents yours?" I said, "Yes, all three are mine." "Please open them so we can see what's in them," the officer said. I opened both pup tents, explaining that I keep my clothing in one and my food in the other. One of the officers laughed and said, "You sure are organized!"

Things loosened up after that. I figured the worst that would happen would be they would tell me to pack up and leave. That wouldn't be thrilling, but I can live with it. I volunteered my ID from Texas. After taking down my information, (which I imagine he ran through his computer when he got back to his police car) the cop in charge said "Have a nice night." And they left, just like that. The good news is that obviously they aren't looking to hassle the homeless. But the bad news is I can't delude myself that I'm safe just because I'm inside my tent. I no longer feel insulated from danger in my tent at night.

But overall my journey has been an interesting learning experience so far. I have a year left until I get my Social Security and move back home to Texas, and every day something new and interesting happens. I'm keeping a Journal of my "Adventures in Homelessness" and the main thing I've learned is this is nothing like I imagined it! There is so much more going on in the "Homeless Universe" to document, but that will have to wait.

I intend to compile all my notes into a book when I get back home next year, and who knows, this may soon be a Major Motion Picture, coming to your city!

Russell Lighthall


  1. Wow, what an incredibly brave thing to do, Russell. And a grand adventure! I loved your phrase Homeless Citizen. I wish more people would view the Homeless in the light you've portrayed them: Helpful, knowledgeable and kind. I'll keep you in my prayers for your safety and continued good health and I look forward to reading your book one day!

  2. An awesomely interesting post, Russell. Thanks so much for sharing your Adventure with us! Can't wait to hear the rest of the story!

  3. Thanks for sharing, Russell. By the time you return to Texas, you'll be a fountain of interesting stories.

  4. Russell Lighthall has asked me to please thank each of you for visiting and reading his blog. He looks forward to sending us an update somewhere down the road.

    1. Is Russell still on his adventure?