Of the thousands of motorists who drive southbound Interstate 75 every day, hundreds take the Exit 374 ramp toward Micanopy, and they all pass Sharon James and Tim Rader.
James and Rader have been “off and on” homeless for over 20 years and have been in Florida since 2016. They spend their days panhandling at the exit and return to their tent in the woods at night, where they weathered Hurricane Ian and Tropical Storm Nicole.
“The first one wasn’t nothing — we slept through it,” Rader said. “But that second one… it was scary.”
The couple’s tent lies behind an abandoned home in Micanopy about a mile from I-75 and is surrounded by large trees. While Nicole made its way through Alachua County, James and Rader worried the wind would destroy their tent. James, who uses a wheelchair, was struck in the back by a large branch that tore off a pine tree about 15 feet from where she sleeps.
The injury meant she wasn’t able to panhandle with her husband for several days, which had the potential to decrease the number of donations they received. The amount they do earn each day is rarely consistent and can depend on the weather, flow of traffic and general attitude of the people around them.
“We have got $100 bills sometimes; we have got $50s.” Rader said, “You get runs like that every now and then, but it ain’t like that all the time — trust me. If it was, everybody would be doing it.”
Patrick Dodds, director of the North Central Florida Alliance for the Homeless & Hungry, said there’s no one reason why someone is homeless. The North Central Florida Alliance for the Homeless & Hungry is part of the Continuum of Care, a service from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and oversees five counties across North Central Florida: Alachua, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Putnam.
The four main pillars of the North Central Florida Alliance for the Homeless & Hungry are funding, governance, data collection and distribution of services for all federally funded or associated networks that support homeless populations. Dodds said that while the Alliance doesn’t have any record of unhoused individuals in Micanopy, Alachua County takes a majority of the Alliance’s attention.
“The lion’s share of individuals experiencing this crisis are here in Alachua County,” he said, “and the lion’s share of services and providers are here in Alachua County”
He said James and Rader are typical for those who experience “chronic homelessness.” They both have physical disabilities that prevent them from working and have experienced homelessness more than four times in three years or have been homeless for over a year.
“The experience of living outside is traumatic,” he said. “The actual experience of being homeless is so traumatizing in and of itself that it often leads to this, like, perpetuation of it.”
He said that homeless people often live in a constant state of fear and worry from living outside because they cannot guarantee their safety, their next meal or clean clothes. In addition to the physical concerns of not having where to live, unhoused people also suffer from social isolation.
“They’re experiencing the worst day of their lives over and over again,” he said. “Oftentimes, we don’t understand that that’s their experience, and we’re so shocked by their behavior without really recognizing that that’s how anybody would respond if they found themselves in that situation.”
Rader first became homeless in 2000, and while he’s had a few jobs since then, it’s never been consistent enough to have a steady income. At the moment, he and James live off donations and her Social Security disability benefits, which can only stretch so far and aren’t enough to cover rent for a month. They hope that once Rader starts receiving disability, they might be able to pay for a two-room place to live.
“I wish I could get a job,” Rader said. “I can’t work no more; I can’t breathe. My heart’s not functioning right. My back’s messed up; my hip’s messed up. My lower body’s wore out.”
James has been unhoused since her ex-husband died about 20 years ago and left her with nothing. After Tennessee’s Department of Child Services took two of her children, she moved into a motel and has experienced housing instability since.
She met Rader about eight years ago in Cleveland, Tennessee, and together they moved to Florida after one of James’ daughters was hospitalized at Shands. They spent some time in Panama City before relocating to Micanopy after James’ daughter, Montana, dropped them off at a motel.
They left the motel in October and have lived in the tent without heat or access to running water for weeks. James can’t remember when she last showered, and her hair is starting to mat because she can’t brush it.
“Now, it ain’t the happiest moment of my life being homeless,” she said. “I don’t recommend it for nobody.”
As winter approaches, James and Rader are looking for ways to stay warm. James has an electric blanket, and Rader currently uses a heating pad for dogs to warm his sleeping area. They’re looking for a space heater.
Despite their living conditions, neither Rader nor James wants to go to a shelter because they fear being split up, and James said she had a bad experience in one previously. She’d rather live in a tent than leave her husband.
James and Rader are assured that they’ll make it through this next season because it’s nothing they haven’t experienced before.
“My life goes on,” James said.