MANATEE -- Ricky Wylie and his girlfriend, Sandra Berg, have been sleeping for weeks on a mattress set up in the parking lot of the closed-down Floors Today store at the corner of Cortez Road and 26th Street West.
Another homeless couple, Donnie McKee and Carol McKee, are living two blocks east, on the west side of the closed-down former Hess gas station at 24th Street West and Cortez.
Dave and Heather Taylor, who are married, have set up their home on the east side of the Hess gas station.
Joining these six are three homeless men who share blankets and sleep nearby.
The Taylor’s rottweiler dog, Miley, brings the total count at this mini-homeless community to 10, but Miley seems to be the only happy and content one, enjoying games of catch with her human friends.
These 10 are part of a wave of homeless “camps” that have sprung up in Manatee, where on any given night those sleeping outside number in the hundreds, an official said.
Berg, 42, takes her morning shower from a garden hose located behind The Cellar bar on 26th Street East. Wylie holds up a blanket for privacy as she does.
“It’s very cold that early and I shiver,” Berg said.
Carol McKee is scared every night.
“Every noise wakes me up,” she said.
A person in a vehicle roared through the old Hess station camp to scare the residents a few nights ago, said Carol McKee, 54. The dark tracks from the screeching tires are still visible, perhaps 10 feet from the McKees bed.
Donnie McKee is trying to find a job in fast food or carpentry.
It’s hard, he said, especially without a vehicle.
“I have nothing, not even a penny,” Donnie said.
“I have five dollars,” said Dave Taylor, who drifted over to the McKees from his spot on the other side of the gas station.
“Watch out, I’ll rob you,” scoffed one of the homeless friends of the Taylors and McKees.
They all laughed. The inside joke is meaningful to the homeless because they feel they are regarded as criminals by society.
Deputies Dennis Mallardi and John Proll of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office visited the camp Thursday as they often do.
“They check up on us,” Wylie said, in an approving tone.
Mallardi, who saw some open beer cans, warned the campers about not having any open containers.
The deputies later said that as long as the owners of the buildings don’t complain, the campers can stay.
Perhaps 500 sleep outside
Manatee County’s Community Coalition on Homeless operates the Bill Galvano One Stop Center at 701 17th Ave. W., where Dave and Heather Taylor get a daily shower, use the laundromat, get mail, food and toiletries, all for free.
Berg could shower there, if she could only get there, she said.
But for all the good the One Stop Center does, it doesn’t offer emergency housing.
“This is exactly why I am trying to initiate a response for emergency housing in Manatee County,” Adell Erozer, executive director of the coalition, said Thursday. “There are a lot of people out there and they are forced to live like animals.”
Erozer is comfortable saying that on any given night, the number of people needing emergency housing is in the hundreds, with 500 not a bad estimate.
The problem is that there are only about 150 “emergency housing” beds in Manatee, all at the Salvation Army, Erozer said.
As a result, many camps have sprung up all over the county, Erozer added.
The camps are so well documented that even Manatee Glens, the county’s mental health provider, has two outreach specialists whose job it is to visit the camps and offer assistance, Erozer added.
A 9 a.m. to noon Jan. 28 public meeting hosted by the group People Assisting the Homeless has been set at The Renaissance on 9th on Ninth Street West to deal with ways to cope with the rising number of homeless, Erozer said.
“We have this problem,” Erozer said. “We don’t want to ignore it anymore.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.