Published: Sunday, January 23, 2000
Section: SUNSHINE MAGAZINE
BY LISA J. HURIASH
It's early morning on the beach, already warm and noisy with the
laughter of children and cars back on A1A. This is not what wakes John
Balderson from his bed on the sand, however, as much as the feeling in his
He gets up from the blue sheet he bought at a thrift store, his mattress for the night. His blanket is the clothes on his back; his slippers a pair of size-12 black sneakers he wore all night, fearful they might get stolen if he took them off.
The feeling in his stomach is there again, as he starts thinking about what he has to do today. It's an anxious feeling, he thinks, or maybe it's excitement.
Gently, he rolls out the gray pinstriped suit he kept wadded in a black garbage bag at his feet. He picks up a razor and the wrinkled suit and walks over to the public restroom on Hollywood Beach.
John Balderson has an interview for a computer job at 2 o'clock in Fort Lauderdale. Maybe this will be the day, he thinks, he won't have to be homeless anymore.
But now he's feeling it in his gut - excitement that the job might be his, anxious that it might not.
The tide of luck has got to change, he thinks. He's 44, and he desperately wants it to change. How difficult could it be not to be homeless anymore? Balderson stares into the mirror and thinks he should never have been here, standing in a rumpled suit, in a public toilet smelling of urine.
In high school, he was sure greatness was within his grasp. He was a science and math whiz who thought he would change the face of computer programming.
But it didn't work out that way. Instead, one computer-related job led to another. Then to none.
He grew distant from his family, too. The man he'd dreamed of becoming never stepped boldly into the world.
"I'm kind of like a balloon," he says. "I get inflated with air that things are going to turn around, then the air gets let out."
Now, every direction he walks seems to lead to a dead end. He moves from the streets to transitional housing, then back to the streets as various agencies shuttle the needy in and out. Living month to month, he faces the fear of being homeless again and again.
For that, he blames the system. He blames himself, too.
John Balderson is used to measuring his life in steps. One step forward, two back.
And always, it seems, away from the man he's dreamed of becoming.
JOHN BALDERSON came to South Florida from Atlanta in March 1997, because he thought he'd find a job and a home here.
Instead, he moved into Tent City, a temporary shelter the city of Fort Lauderdale put up for the homeless downtown. Homeless advocates say the majority of the people in the tent in a parking lot across from City Hall suffered from drinking or drug problems, mental illness or a combination of the three.
Balderson, who says he has none of these troubles, moved in among them. He rolled out a blanket on a cot under the Tent's fading tarps and started looking for a job.
It was not a pleasant place. At night, the sounds of sex, cries, fights, threats and drinking filled his ears. Old people who came in from the streets traded cigarettes and drugs just to be left alone.
Without a job, Balderson started selling his blood for money. At night, he says, he was too afraid to go to sleep. He'd tuck his belongings under his cot, including his computer-programming manuals and discs, and pray.
If only he could work, he'd say, he'd leave Tent City for good. He'd never come back.
He says his prayers were finally answered in December 1998, when he got a night job in computer technical support for a telephone provider in North Lauderdale.
He had to take two buses from Tent City to get to the office. He says he sent part of his pay - about $2,000 - to his mother to save for him, a claim she would later deny. The rest, he says, he spent on food and computer magazines. After work he'd go back to the tent, where he kept to himself - telling anyone who asked that he didn't belong there. Not with its cots accommodating 400 people in the winter. Not with its toilets without doors and showers without curtains. Not with its diseases.
Some people slept all day, spread out on cots and blankets donated by church groups. Some joined labor pools and were picked up in vans for painting or construction jobs that paid $40 a day.
Balderson worked at night to get away from the most terrifying hours of the tent. He spent his days reading books, building and updating his own home page on the Internet and checking his e-mail at the Broward Main Library. Sometimes he walked or took a bus to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where he'd sleep in a chair in the waiting area.
Then he lost his job. It was a partly a personality conflict, he says. "They didn't think I could perform well on the job." They said he couldn't handle customer calls within the time allotted.
Taking a step back, he nonetheless refused offers of help from church and social-service groups, believing that he could pull himself out of the muck, the "cesspool of despair," as Steve Werthman, Broward's coordinator of homeless programs, once described Tent City.
When the city decided to close the tent in January 1999, Balderson saw it as a second chance. In February he moved into the county's new multimillion-dollar homeless center - with its counseling, education and job programs - at Northwest Seventh Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard.
He was among the first to move in, toting his belongings in black plastic garbage bags. He was a little closer now to the day when he'd have his own apartment, he said, he could feel it.
But there were rules here, stricter than back at the tent. Everyone had to be in their dorm by 10 p.m. All radios and lights had to go off at 11 p.m. on weekdays. Anyone caught with alcohol or drugs would be kicked back out on the street.
For a man who dreamed of having his own place, and his own life, the rules would take some getting used to. But it would be worth it, he said, if he could make a step forward. Breaking out of a cycle of homelessness, though, is hard work, says Dr. Fred Scarbrough, a veterinarian and director of the Shepherd's Way and a member of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless.
"This is not two steps forward, two steps up," he says. "This is two up, one back. If they could go two steps up, two steps up, they wouldn't be homeless in the first place. [Balderson's] story sounds very typical. He's probably half at fault. And the system is the other half.
"That's the whole problem with the system - if you don't have a strong family support system, think of the odds against you,'' he says. "He's stuck, and he probably needs another helping hand."
TALKING about John Balderson's family-support system is like rubbing a raw nerve. He says he blames them, in part, for where he is - though his story and his mother's version are strikingly different.
Balderson says he has an adopted older brother who became the star of the family. His father, who Balderson says drank, died several years ago. His mother, now alone in an assisted living facility in Eustis, doesn't know how her son lives. He also doesn't speak with his brother, an office manager in the Orlando area who is married with two sons. Balderson says his brother blames him for the death of their father, driving him to drink himself to death.
Over the phone from North Florida, Doris Balderson says she hasn't seen her son in nearly a decade. She's spoken with him, but it's been weeks since the last call. "I blamed [John] for his father's death," she says. "He kept calling him all the time, asking for money. And my husband would lend him money." About the money Balderson says he sent her from his paycheck, Doris says, "That's a damn lie. He never gave me a cent."
She's not particularly interested in her son's life now, she says. She professes not to care that he hoards toothbrushes because he can't buy them, or that he sleeps on the streets at night. "Ever since he got out of high school he worked with computer jobs, [but] his whole problem is he likes to drink," she says. "He lost several very good jobs. I never know what he's doing. And the less I think about him, the better off I am."
But, she adds, he's still her son. She sent him a birthday card, though Balderson says he never received it. Their phone conversations have become infrequent, and she has never pinned down exactly where or how her son lives. "I don't care," she says. "He's a big disappointment to me."
When he hears what his mother has said, Balderson pauses to let the words sink in. "Well,'' he says, sadly, "there is some truth to that."
BALDERSON was born in a town of 10,000 residents in Michigan. His mother was a secretary in a plastics factory. His father was an accountant. He grew up in Kenosha, Wis., and Michigan City, Ind.
"I was the nerdy type, didn't really socialize. So I can empathize with Bill Gates," he says.
Balderson attended some classes at Purdue University in 1973-74, he says, and worked in computers for various companies in Chicago. Sometimes he would pass homeless people in the street. He remembers staring at one unkempt man in a plaid jacket and thinking, Why haven't the police moved him?
But Balderson, a man who knows the meaning of "blood money" and has lived in a shelter, doesn't place himself in the same category as that man in Chicago. "There are different degrees of homelessness," he says. "I never really considered myself homeless." He says his mother shouldn't be disappointed in him. He has goals, he insists, and that's what separates him from the bum sleeping off another drunk on a park bench.
He's going to show her, he says, and his family. "I'll get my own apartment,'' he says, "which I project is four months [away]."
ON HIS FIRST DAY AT the Homeless Assistance Center, Balderson starts with a shampoo to rid his head of possible body lice. After a shower, like the other men, he rubs on disinfecting body lotion.
"People didn't want to think they were so filthy they had lice," he says. "But let's face it, the tent was not very clean." Determined to get onto the right path for a job, Balderson gets jeans, a suit and tie and dress shirts from a church clothing-distribution center. He stores his belongings in his own locker, No. 507.
He spends his afternoons looking for work at movie theaters, retail shops and every store with a Help Wanted sign at Sawgrass Mills. While reading the classifieds on the Internet at the library, he sees some familiar faces from Tent City "sprawled out on the park benches. They said they can't live by the rules [at the new center]."
On Feb. 8, using a computer at the library, Balderson calls up his home page and writes an entry in his online diary: "It is apparent, at least in my observations, that some people from the tent have already given up on the HAC and went back out on the streets because they choose not to live a regulated life. . . ."
Not long after going to the HAC, Balderson begins to have some luck. He gets a job selling merchandise at a discount store. One week later, though, he gets fired because he hasn't sold anything. On the way out the door, he says, the manager frisked him - checking his wallet and telling him not to come back. One step forward, he says, two back.
He finds little to console him back at the center, which is better than the tent but far from a haven from trouble. One resident complains that Balderson smells. Another breaks a stall in the bathroom. Another spreads feces on the walls and toilet in the men's room of the cafeteria. Others argue over which television program to watch. The loudest usually wins.
Balderson writes in his journal: "Residents from 600 dorm are coming over and taking videotapes that I am renting from my library card without my permission, and not returning them to the 500 dorm or to me within the three-day rental period, making me liable for their carelessness and inconsideration. Residents in the 500 dorm are not allowed to watch videos even though the residents in 600 dorm are. . . . Someone reported that the night resident dorm coordinator was allowing the residents . . . to rent and watch pornographic/adult videos." Despite the disputes, he says, he tries to be friendlier with the people at the center. But, he adds, he has no romantic interests. "Women?" he says. "There aren't that many, and they [supervisors] discourage interaction."
In March, the rules ease a bit. Residents are allowed to stay up past 11 p.m. to watch Barbara Walters interview Monica Lewinsky.
"It's newsworthy and educational," Balderson says.
Journal entry, March 8: "As a frequent user of the library . . . I fulfilled my civic obligation and voted for the library bond issue which will allow for more books and newer computer equipment." His voter registration card lists his address at the homeless assistance center and his bed number as an apartment number.
On April 1, a note of panic slips into his journal: "It is now my two-month anniversary of my coming to the center. I am extremely worried that I will not have the kind of job I am looking for and that I may be sent out into the street, despite reassurances from staff, as apparently some residents, including my neighbor from the tent, have had better luck in job placement than I have."
Officials reassure him that he can stay longer than those who are at the center simply for "three hots and a cot."
Late in the month, however, the time he is allowed to stay at the center expires. According to regulations, residents can stay between 60 and 90 days - but the average stay must be 60 days.
He is counted among the successful residents, he says, and told to go to Foundations, a group halfway home for drug and alcohol rehabilitation in Oakland Park. He goes, even though he says he doesn't have a problem.
While at the county facility, he is not treated for any problems. Says Ezra Krieg, a center spokesman, "We are not a drug-and-alcohol treatment facility." The 192-bed Foundations is a transitional housing program for men with drug and alcohol problems. It's owned by a private company, but the majority of the beds are subsidized by Broward County, and county social workers provide care and counseling. About 128 beds are reserved for people no longer eligible to stay at the HAC. It's supposed to be the last part of their transition back into society.
Some 600 beds have been added in 1999 for the homeless in various programs, according to county officials. "About 50 percent of the people you're able to get into permanent housing," says Steve Werthman, the county coordinator of homeless programs. "The other 50 percent come in and out of the system. The challenge is to catch them when they're ready. People [get used] to this lifestyle, and it's hard for them to break out of old habits."
While there, Balderson takes another step forward, landing a job as a warehouse packer for a plastics company in Pompano Beach. He goes to work at night, again, from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m.
After a few weeks, though, he quits.
"The hours were kind of grueling, the transportation was kind of difficult and the air conditioning wasn't adequate," he says.
He's still living at Foundations, where the average stay is six months.
"They learn how to be in an apartment and live with other people," says Donald Ingram, the executive director of Foundations. "We're the last part of the safety net."
One night he falls through, violating a cardinal rule of the facility: no alcohol. He says he had two glasses of beer at a restaurant. He got back to Foundations about 1 a.m. - breaking another rule, the 11 p.m. curfew. Attendants say he reeked of alcohol and was told he would not be allowed in that night and not to return.\
"I didn't realize it was going to be that noticeable," he says about the smell of booze on his breath. Later, Balderson admits to Ingram that he has a problem with alcohol. But, he hedges, that's only because it's part of the admission procedure.
"Their definition of being an alcoholic is not my definition," Balderson says. "In my case, sure, I enjoy having beer, but it's not an obsession like I have to have it."
After less than two months at Foundations, Balderson is truly homeless again - worse now than his days before Tent City.
This time, he has no bed. He sleeps a couple of nights under a Tri-Rail overpass, a couple on Hollywood Beach beneath a lifeguard stand, another night on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. "I keep my eyes open for the cops," he says. "I seem to be one troubled individual, don't I?"
He can't explain all these backward steps, after all his high hopes. But there will be an end to it, he tells himself. Foundations has one bed reserved at the Salvation Army for people who relapse into drugs and alcohol abuse. Balderson takes an $8-a-night bed at the Salvation Army in Fort Lauderdale, and Foundations pays the bill.
"Hopefully, someone coming in, [has the] attitude and skills necessary to move toward self-sufficiency," says Howard Dom, the Salvation Army's director of social services.
In less than three weeks, though, Balderson flunks out - losing his bed, he says, because he violated curfew again.
"We did not terminate him," Dom says. "He just did not show up. He didn't show up here, and he didn't show up for work."
Balderson says, "Well, their interpretation of me not showing back up is because I didn't show back up when they wanted me to show back up. There's times I tried to get back in and they wouldn't let me."
"He never came back," Dom says.
With his last $140 paycheck he buys the blue sheet to spread on the beach, a backpack and a radio, because "I knew I would be alone a lot with nothing else to do."
He can't sell his blood anymore, because, he says, he now has high blood pressure.
"It's the worst I've ever felt in my life," he says. "Now I'm on the streets like the people I've always made fun of."
He sleeps by the train tracks or near Federal Highway during the day, using his backpack as a pillow.
He bathes in the showers on Hollywood beach, getting from Hollywood to Fort Lauderdale by an all-day walk or by bus, for which he has a monthly pass.
"I can't do a full-body shower without any clothes," he says. "I have shorts and stuff like that. I clean myself off the best I can."
He spends his time near the New River, reading library books or cruising the Internet for a new job.
There's one in Honolulu, he says, that looks interesting.
The feeling is in his stomach again.
He's shaved, pulled on the pinstriped suit and smoothed the wrinkles as best he can. Now he feels anxious and excited again, as he steps out of the men's room on Hollywood beach.
He takes the No. 30 bus across town to his 2 p.m. interview at SpeedNet in Fort Lauderdale, a company that designs web pages mostly for small businesses. He tells himself outside the office that this is it, his next step forward.
He walks in, gives the interviewer his hand and sits down. Things are going well, he thinks, as the interview stretches past the first few getting-to-know you moments.
And he gets the job.
In the end, his employer hadn't seen the man who'd slept on the beach the night before. The man who'd pulled his suit out of a garbage bag, or the one who'd shaved that morning in a public restroom.
He'd seen John Balderson, the computer programmer. The man with knowledge and skills.
He celebrated quietly, alone.
"I went down to the Riverfront,'' he says. "And had a couple beers."
THE JOB LASTED two months.
In the end, Balderson says, he was fired for what he calls a "personality conflict and misunderstandings in terms of what [the boss] expected me to do." All the money he made, the money he said he'd sent to his mother, too, was gone. Besides food and magazines and movie tickets, Balderson says he's not sure where the money went. "He would always show up, always on time," says Jay Taylor, Balderson's boss at SpeedNet. "Let's say if he was going to show up late, he'd call. Those were the things that weren't wrong. But he gets distracted easily from his work."
Taylor says that Balderson, who was designing web pages, worked on his own projects during company time. Instead of paying him hourly, he offered to pay him for each project he completed. But that took too long to make it worthwhile, Taylor says.
"He said, 'Jay, the reason I can't concentrate is because I don't have a place to live,' " says Taylor, who tried to get Balderson to save a portion of his paycheck. "I got tired of trying." After a while, Taylor says, "I couldn't do it anymore."
Balderson says, "[The boss] got fed up with the fact I was immature, that if I can't handle a housing situation then I can't handle the job."
He admits he wasn't working very hard for the $5.25 an hour he was earning. But he adds that it didn't seem fair to be earning so little for the computer work he was doing. It was "psychological" that he was moving slower than he should have been, he explains.
Two steps back.
IT'S NOW September.
Balderson is still homeless, but he has befriended a waitress who works at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale's Riverfront district. He has another job, too, as a factory worker at the Motorola plant in Plantation. It's the best job he's had, he says. He earns $8.74 an hour and says that this time he'll save some money.
He's pulled himself up again, but he's not quite anchored. He tells counselors he's not an alcoholic. He drinks only three glasses of beer on days when he's not working, he says. Maybe "four or five when I get stressed out."
"Let's just say I enjoy having a couple, but I don't let it affect my work," Balderson says. "But I can live with that, and I have. Since I've been at Motorola I haven't had any. This is a golden opportunity. The temptation is there, but I'm not going to sacrifice my job over it.\
"The long-term goal is to have an apartment," he says. "Maybe by Thanksgiving. Definitely by Christmas. Part of it's my own fault. I didn't comply with the rules [those other times]. But it wasn't 'cause I was malicious." He pauses, then adds, "Some of the things I did were petty . . . But rules are rules . . . But the employers should have given me a better shake, a better opportunity . . . I haven't told my mother this - I don't want her to think I'm a quote-unquote- homeless bum. I have no more money in my pocket than when I started [in January 1999]."
The web site he created about the homeless (www.geocities.com/ftlaudhomeless) chronicles his life and develops a following. Officials from the HAC have asked him to clarify points for the public. The director of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless, county officials and former homeless people have sent him encouraging words of support.
But none of it seems to matter, because John Balderson is still taking one step forward and two back. In October, he loses his job at Motorola.
"He thinks he's a computer analyst, but he doesn't have a degree," says Terry Stewart, manufacturing supervisor at Motorola.
Balderson's job included testing radios, but Stewart fired him out of frustration. Following paydays, she says, he wouldn't return to work for three or four days.
"Then when he'd come back to work he wouldn't have a dollar for lunch," she says. "He called me from a bar one time and said, 'I know you've given me a lot of chances, blah blah blah.' I said, 'John, I can't do anything else.' "
She tried to help, she says, sending him to take a shower or suggesting social- service agencies that would provide a bed. She would lend him money for lunch but got upset when he ordered food at the cafeteria and told the cashier to put it on her tab.
"I really tried to help him," Stewart says, "and he took advantage of me." Out of a job and back on the streets again, Balderson says he feels bad.
It doesn't help when he goes to the airport and gets arrested for trespassing while sleeping on a chair. He'd signed an agreement never to come to the airport again unless he had a ticket.
In October, while he was still working for Motorola, he wrote in his diary: "Last Friday on my payday October 1, I did several stupid things. I received a check for $305 for which I was planning on paying my rent and paying back a loan from my supervisor at Motorola. . . . Instead of going out to Motorola to leave the money I owed . . . I went to Las Olas Riverfront instead and saw the George Clooney movie Three Kings. I then stayed until 5 p.m., when an office party, with free beer from 5 p.m.-10 p.m. for $10, took place in the courtyard. Needless to say, neither individual got their money. I spent it all foolishly at Las Olas Riverfront and at Atlantis and Blondie's on Fort Lauderdale beach. As a result, I was kicked out of the house, and almost lost my job, if it hadn't been for the continued generosity of my Motorola supervisor."
ON A SUNDAY NIGHT A few weeks before Christmas 1999, Balderson took a cardboard box he found on the street and spread it out as a makeshift bed near the CSX train tracks off Broward Boulevard. He wore cargo pants and a Dolphins windbreaker as pajamas and pulled some bubble wrap around as a blanket.
In the morning he sat up on his makeshift bed to the sound of freight trains rumbling past. The dust from nearby construction clogged his nostrils.
He nibbled on a piece of warm cheese and potato chips from a plastic bag at his feet and drank from a bottle of soda. He freshened up in a restroom at the Tri- Rail station. In the afternoon he applied for a job at McDonald's.
It's not a computer job, he says, but he won't give up. He will be the balloon that rises. He will make his mother proud.
"I'm a persevering person," he says.
To be in Bill Gates' shoes, that's where he wants to be.
"Maybe a year from now,'' he says, "I'll have that kind of money." It's one step forward.
Return to Home Page