02/22/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

Indian River County Charity Plans Tent City For Homeless

When the wealthy come to visit Indian River County on Florida's Treasure Coast, they can sleep in $7 million pads on Ocean Drive in Vero Beach or hit the holes at the Indian River Club.

For Matthew Martone, 47, who has been homeless since August, the options are more limited.

"It is kind of hard to pedal out to the beach to shower, and pedal by all those beautiful homes, and just be grateful that you have a bar of soap in your bag," he said.

Amenities for poor people in the county, one of the country's 100 richest, are limited. There is only a shelter for those with children. For people without children, the options include crashing on a friend's couch at night or sleeping in the library during the day. Martone has done both but he refuses to do what some in his situation are turning to: pitching a tent in the acres of private, undeveloped land nearby.

"They have no safe, legal housing options whatsoever," said Sonya Morrison, executive director of the local Christian homeless charity The Source. "The best I can offer them is a tent, some bug spray and send them off into the woods."

For many people in Florida, this is the picture that homelessness is now taking on -- not of people crowding into a city shelter but rather of individuals pitching a tent in the woods. Across the country, federal efforts to ease homelessness will help only 1 out of 10 of those lacking housing, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The question is what to do for the rest.

The housing downturn has hit all of Florida's Treasure Coast especially hard. In Indian River County, home to Piper Aircraft and citrus growers, but also including large residential swaths, local industry has struggled to make up for job losses.

About a year ago, The Source's Morrison came up with an alternative to dispensing bug spray. Since 2007, a Catholic charity near St. Petersburg has offered homeless people land to pitch a tent or simple wooden sheds. Tents have also been adopted in sections of California with a warm climate. Now The Source is seeking to build its own tent city, a place to be called Camp Haven.

The arrangement is a far cry from more permanent housing, but national homelessness experts say this is better than nothing.

"There's not enough money for shelter," said Neil Donovan, executive director at the National Coalition for the Homeless. "So we're really left with having to think outside the shelter." He would like the country to take a far more comprehensive look at the root economic causes of homelessness. Until then the tent camp alternative is "far from an ideal, but it's viable. And when you're presented with difficult options, sometimes that's the best you can ask for."

While living in the woods, friends of Martone have been bitten by snakes and brown recluse spiders, Martone said. And when the sheriff comes along to break up camps on private land, the squatters are simply pushed deeper into the woods or to The Source, which currently offers no beds. Morrison has arrived at work to find 30 people on her doorstep, desperate for help, she said.

Being homeless comes with a litany of hardships, which Martone had never encountered until a few months ago, he said. Ever since he was young, he has held jobs -- as a welder, a mechanic and a crane operator. Though Martone had weathered precarious times before, the lingering effects of the recession and a recent breakup resulted in his landing on the streets this time.

Martone's story is hardly unique: Seasonally unadjusted unemployment in Indian River County reached 11.4 percent in December, far above Florida's 9.7 percent average.

Over the past few months Martone has had his share of unpleasant experiences: He was jumped outside a 7/11 by some young kids just for being homeless, he said. He is now accustomed to others taking one look at him and deciding who he is. In contrast, the help offered at The Source -- temporal and spiritual -- has been a great comfort; there, homeless people can find a welcoming community, he said.

"When you have a comfortable life and you've got the steady job and security and all of that, you don't think all that much about God, because you're doing your thing and everything's covered," Martone said. "When you find yourself sleeping in a laundromat, you tend to ask yourself, How did I come to this?" Martone is confident, though, that when he finds a job, he'll be able to house himself, he said.

But for homeless people living in the woods right now, "it is a full-time job to live like that," Marone said. "You have to walk all of your food and things into the woods." Once Camp Haven gets set up, "that would be organized; that would be different," he said.

In December The Source received a $25,000 donation for the Camp Haven project. Morrison is now in the process of looking for land, gaining community support and figuring out how to navigate the county's zoning process.

Camp Haven has many hurdles yet to cross, but the community's reaction so far has been warm, Morrison said. "In some ways the economy has been good for our mission," she said. "A few years ago the reception was different. There tended to be the idea that homelessness was the result of some sort of character defect."

These days, everyone understands that these are tough times and that almost anyone could find themselves homeless, Morrison added. "There has been a tendering of the heart toward the plight of the homeless," she said. "People understand it's not a character defect; it's a reality of the times we're living in."