Hilton Head's homeless live in a difficult, hidden world

December 30, 2007 

  • ACCESS Network: 843-379-5600 Bluffton Self Help: 843-757-8000 The Deep Well Project: 843-785-2849 HELP of Beaufort: 843-524-1223 Holy Family Catholic Church: 843-785-2895 Lowcountry Food Bank: 843-589-4118 Salvation Army of Beaufort: 843-524-3727 United Way of the Lowcountry: 843-524-4357 (Beaufort); 843-757-4357 (Bluffton); 843-686-4357 (Hilton Head Island)

Through the thick tree cover on the edge of a stream that branches out from Jarvis Creek, there is a place where the untouched environment of Hilton Head Island reveals itself in the way the sun spills through into quiet marshland. On the opposite bank are large waterfront homes. Just within earshot, but out of sight, is the constant hum of the thousands of cars that pass every day. Many are on their way to family vacations, golf courses or gated communities. They live in a different world than the people here.

In this sunlit clearing at the end of a small trail beaten out of the underbrush by years of trespassers, deputies in November found the body of Hector Mejias Bueso face down, surrounded by a nest of beer bottles, food wrappers and other trash.

Under the top layer of his sleeping bag was his Spanish-language Bible. Other possessions that likely belonged to him were scattered nearby -- a suitcase, its contents spilled across the forest floor, a pair of jeans and other loose clothing hanging from a branch, empty bug spray bottles, a small can of shaving cream.

Hector appeared to have died of natural causes, having recently been treated for a liver condition at Hilton Head Regional Medical Center. He'd been homeless for a long time and had slept alone in the woods behind the Shell station across from Spanish Wells Road for about a week.

Wooded areas like these hold the secrets to another world on Hilton Head, one where surviving the winter cold is easy compared with the thick, crippling heat and plagues of insects and snakes of the summer, plagues that make sleeping outdoors almost unbearable. People in this world bed down on discarded mattresses pulled from trash bins and drink cheap malt liquor, when they have the money.

A handful of makeshift shelters and squatters' camps are scattered across the island, far from the view of passersby.

This is the world of Hector Bueso and his friend Michael Ballard, two of the island's estimated 20 to 25 homeless, who live in the shadows of resorts, multimillion-dollar homes and country clubs. Some sleep in storage units, vehicles or vacant buildings. A few live outside in the elements, scouring woods or trash containers for a place to rest for the night.

"People on Hilton Head, they don't want to hear this," Ballard said. "People on Hilton Head don't want to realize we got this problem."

At another camp, this one behind the south end Bi-Lo supermarket, a mattress has slipped down the bank of a small stream. The water is coated by a thick blanket of pea-colored algae. The surrounding area of the woods is littered with discarded beer bottles and women's underwear. A large, plastic bumper, like those used at nearby loading docks, is propped up by a tree branch. Beneath it are newspapers and enough room for someone to lie down. Farther down the trail, a second camp is nestled into the side of a hill. It's secluded, despite being only yards from an active construction site and a miniature golf course. Recent issues of fashion magazines and a Spanish-language newspaper are stashed inside a concrete pipe. Employees of nearby stores said they see three or four people a day going back into the woods.

At about 10 a.m. Nov. 5, Michael Ballard went to visit Hector in the woods behind the Shell station. Ballard, 52, and Hector were about as good friends as two people in their positions could be. They drank beer together and shared tips on places to sleep where they wouldn't be discovered. When they talked, they stuck to the superficial. Neither man knew much about the other's past. They never asked. In this world, information about previous lives is seldom volunteered.

It's irrelevant when you're in this situation, Ballard said.

Ballard had tipped off Hector to the spot behind the Shell station, and advised him to go far into the woods to avoid detection. Closer to the road are milk crates, an old love seat, branches tied together to form a frame for a tarp and mattresses covered with newspapers -- remnants of a camp where the homeless like Hector used to sleep.

Now it's mostly used by day laborers and others as a party spot to celebrate the day's end with large bottles of cheap beer. Law enforcement is aware of this spot. Passersby occasionally wander off the sidewalk and into the woods here, not ideal for either privacy or sleep.

Hector had just been released from the hospital and had been given several bottles of medication. When Ballard came to check on him, Hector was face down in the dirt. He wasn't moving. His body was stiff, but not covered with insects. Ballard tracked down a sheriff's deputy who had pulled over someone on a nearby street. He watched detectives roll his friend over. Two months later, Ballard can't shake that image.

"I still see him," Ballard said. "He's still there. I still see him."

Hector's pockets contained a roll of pennies, a tube of travel-sized toothpaste, a lighter and a single dollar bill.

His life once contained much more.

He was 42 and had told people he was an accountant back home in Honduras. He sometimes claimed to have eight children. Ballard thinks that was so people would give him more money.

The two met outside a convenience store nearly a year ago when Hector asked for a cigarette. He spoke good English, Ballard remembered, and at the time was living in an abandoned trailer on Spanish Wells Road.

The two rusty trailers sitting atop six-foot cinder block piers weren't always a fixture in the island's homeless world. They offer a sweeping view of Honey Horn and a gnarled, creeping live oak. The town just bought the land for $790,000 to preserve that view and the adjacent headwaters of Jarvis Creek. The trailers' underpinnings are torn away, perhaps by someone searching for copper that can be sold at scrap metal yards. A shed is lined with blankets and empty cans of Tecate beer. Nature is reclaiming the trailers through the broken windows, filling rooms with leaves, hornets' nests and a heavy, earthy odor. In the kitchen, bags of dried beans, a can of vienna sausages and an expired bottle of ranch salad dressing sit on the counter. In one room, two mattresses, food containers, cardboard boxes, empty beer bottles and cigarette packages line the floor. A sheet hangs over a shattered window. The refrigerator is rancid, a dark substance oozing out of a carton of eggs. The toilet is worse.

Ballard, Hector learned, was an expert guide through the small world of Hilton Head's homeless. He's a master of the necessary survival tricks.

He has sleeping bags stashed in several places. If you put your stuff in black trash bags, he said, it stays dry and doesn't look suspicious to anyone passing.

It's best to move to different spots every few nights to keep a low profile, he said.

If you lie flat in certain woods, you can't be seen.

There's a shed off Spanish Wells Road you can get into if necessary.

During the summer, beat your sleeping bag with a stick to drive the snakes out. If you pour turpentine around the campsite, the reptiles won't return.

Ballard usually keeps his spots secret, but tells a few select friends to check on him if he hasn't been seen for a few days.

He's been on the island for 30 years and has been homeless on and off since 2003. He was into drugs and used to smoke crack ("I can't afford them now.") and said he's lost jobs because of drinking, injuries and insubordination. He used to hang sheetrock and work in carpentry. He had an apartment in The Oaks. Folks there used to call him "Rebel." On the streets, he's sometimes called "Indian" because he used to have long hair.

His latest stretch of homelessness started in August when he lost his job and his temporary home.

Ballard's head is covered by a mop of sun-bleached hair, but he hasn't seen the ocean in 12 years. When he wore it long like Jesus, a friend at a house party created a homemade tattoo, the initials "JC" in forest green on his left forearm. His fingers are nicotine yellow. There are scabs around his nails. He's inside a small, windowless, interview room at the county jail. The food in the jail is OK, he says. Better than that Meals on Wheels stuff he used to get. It's a good place to take a break from the open, he said. It's warm and there aren't any ticks. He can shower, but he can't smoke.

Ballard was arrested Dec. 12 on a 2004 open container violation. Because he couldn't pay the $237 fine, he was sentenced to 30 days, but only had to serve about half that.

Before his arrest, he worked jobs at an animal shelter and a kennel. It's hard to get a job if you don't have a car, he said, because everything on the island is so spread out. Not being able to clean up doesn't help either.

"If you're homeless, you've got to show up wearing the same clothes," he said. "In the summertime, you ain't going to smell too good."

In the woods, sleep is anything but restful. He wakes up every couple of hours to see if it's time to start the day -- time to go to the convenience store that's the center of his daily orbit. He has no real concept of time beyond the store, where he panhandles for enough to buy booze, hot dogs and two-for-a-dollar cans of vienna sausages.

"What time it is doesn't matter," Ballard said, correcting himself a moment later. "Well, it does for me because that store don't open till 6 and it closes at 11."

King Cobra is the beer of choice because it's the biggest and cheapest at $1.49 for 40 ounces. USA Gold, a generic brand of smokes, cost $2.20, about 75 cents less than name brands or "Cadillacs" as Ballard calls them.

He chooses carefully who he asks for change, most often approaching Hispanics or those buying beer. They're likely to be more charitable, he said.

At night the clerks sometimes give Ballard the hot dogs and doughnuts that otherwise would be thrown out. In exchange, he looks out for female employees who work the late shift.

Hector also found comfort at the station.

One morning workers arrived to find him shivering near the front door. He never asked for help, but one felt sorry for him.

She gave him an old coat from a back room. Sometimes they also gave him food. He also scored meals from the cooks at a south-island wing joint, and used to hang out at other gas stations, workers at the north-end Shell said.

A woman who has worked at the Shell and another station said she has no doubt Hector was an educated man, and probably did work as an accountant.

A local accountant would sometimes quiz him. Hector knew the answers, she said.

He told people he moved to the United States about eight years ago and worked good jobs in Texas. Then alcohol took over.

"We felt sorry for him," said Leticia, a gas station employee who declined to give her last name, through a translator. "He was very nice and never bothered anyone."

Hector wore his hair long and had a full beard. He was personable, at times even charming.

"He was very handsome," said Esperanza, another employee who declined to provide her last name.

If there's a Marriott of squatter's camps, this might be it.

The trail behind the St. Andrew-By-the-Sea United Methodist Church is well-hidden and perpetually soggy, but when you turn a corner, you can see it. The homeless have built a shelter from blue tarps big enough to house a few people. Inside the 8-foot-tall refuge are pieces of old furniture, chairs, bicycles and other belongings. A man parks a bike by a tree outside the shelter.

"Is Liz here?" asked Ballard, looking for a friend who sometimes sleeps here.

"No," said the Hispanic man with the bike, looking suspiciously at two strangers.

Inside the shelter, another man stirs.

"Tell her Mike is looking for her," Ballard said, quickly backing away.

Ballard was born in Savannah, but going to the homeless shelters there is not an option.

"Them places are more dangerous than this jail," he said "You've got the same elements in them homeless shelters. ... They're not supervised like we are here."

A local shelter isn't the solution either, he said. A better option is a place for people to shower, wash their clothes and maybe get a meal.

"If you got a homeless shelter, you're going to draw more homeless people," he said.

Beaufort County has no shelters, but some hope to change that. The Deep Well Project, one of the area's biggest charities for the needy, has programs to help families who lose their home or people put out for a night or two, but nothing for people like Ballard and Hector. On cold winter nights, though, there's always help available.

"No questions asked, we would get them a warm bed for the night," said Deep Well executive director Betsy Doughtie.

But they have to ask for help first. And many just don't.

"Usually the people who are living outside are doing that because they are pretty content to do so," she said. "They're not coming to us for food."

Some of them are new immigrants who don't have jobs yet, said Luis Bell, executive director of the Hilton Head-based Latin American Council of South Carolina. Other times it's people who get desperate and fall into alcoholism, he said. The council is willing to help, but Bell said the homeless are reluctant to come forward.

"It is happening, and it's sad," Bell said. "We know this is a problem with them. Sometimes they don't come up and express themselves about their needs."

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his officers generally don't interfere unless a property owner complains or unless there is a sanitary or public intoxication issue.

"I'm not judging people, but in some cases, they're homeless because there are other issues surrounding their lifestyle, which is why they're in the condition they are now," he said. "It could be alcohol abuse or other issues that alter their mind, but you also have people who are just flat down on their luck, with no family to go to and no one to help them out."

If there is a trespassing complaint, the person is issued a warning and asked to move on. If they return, they're arrested. In most cases, people move along.

Deputies sometimes make phone calls to nonprofits and give rides or meals to the homeless, Tanner said.

"We try to give them as much guidance as we can," he said. "You just don't kick someone to the side of the curb without trying to help them."

Getting a firm grasp on the size of the homeless population is difficult. When people get arrested or questioned by police, they sometimes give an old address or the address of a family member, said Maj. Charles Allen of the Beaufort County Detention Center.

The South Carolina Council on Homelessness estimates 6,759 people were without homes in the state in 2007. About 71 of them live in Beaufort County.

The Volunteers in Medicine clinic offers free health care to needy island residents and workers. Homeless people come in on a daily basis, staff said.

"Sometimes we're the last stop, the last hope," said Julia Copp, director of patient care. On the day she was interviewed, the clinic treated a man who was living in the woods and another who was in danger of losing his house by the end of the month. The clinic tries to refer patients to social service agencies, but red tape often gets in the way. Sometimes, the homeless just disappear.

"You feel helpless sometimes," Copp said. "You can't save everybody. You can try."

The homeless on Hilton Head are perhaps more fortunate than those living elsewhere because of the groups willing to offer assistance, said Stan Storlarcyk, the clinic's director of volunteers. But there still are deficiencies such as the lack of shelters and comprehensive services, he said.

"There's nothing except the goodness of churches' hearts," Storlarcyk said. "What's happened in the past is people will help them for a month, but that doesn't solve their problems. It just solves a problem at that time."

The island is wealthy, but also is home to extreme poverty.

A person on Hilton Head must earn at least $12 an hour to live in one of the few low-cost apartments that go for $650 a month, according to the Affordable Housing Coalition of South Carolina. The average rent here is $803, and average wage about $14 an hour, according to a Together for Beaufort study.

"The disparity here is really vivid," he said.

The trail is full of young pine trees standing shoulder to shoulder. A small path leads along a lagoon where a sleeping bag sits buried beneath leaves and other debris. Nearby, an abandoned Island Packet newspaper box lies on its side. The top sits several feet away, the blue metal caved in and its bounty of coins long-since looted. Like the other spots, this one follows the same pattern: within walking distance of a convenience store and situated on a body of water.

Ballard was released from jail early Wednesday, before breakfast. He had 45 cents and half a pack of generic cigarettes. He hitchhiked, catching the attention of three motorists -- one who got him to Bluffton, a sheriff's deputy he says threatened to arrest him and another driver who got him to the island. The trip took four hours.

By 1 p.m., he already had retrieved one of his trash bags that contained a mattress, camouflaged hat and other personal belongings. He celebrated his freedom with a friend, a construction worker who owns a trailer off Wild Horse Road. They sat on a fallen tree not far from where Hector's body was found. Ballard hadn't eaten yet, but his 40-ounce King Cobra was about half-gone. He said he'd rather have a beer than food anyway because he just got out of jail. He talked about getting another job working with animals.

His friend talked about getting him off the streets.

"Nobody should be living like this," the friend said, as he sipped his own can of malt liquor.

Or dying that way either.

Even now, Hector remains homeless.

Authorities were unable to locate any relatives. The coroner's office held his body for about a month before cremating the remains.

The ashes will now sit on a shelf with the rest of the unclaimed or unnamed.

Unless someone comes to bring him home.

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