FORT WALTON BEACH — On a mid-February afternoon in a patch of woods next to a school, robins hop around empty vodka bottles and food containers, scattered clothes and pillows, and several car batteries on the mucky ground.
A lamp leans against a tree. Shirts and pants hang on clotheslines attached to palms near a toppled shopping cart. Laughter and shrieks of delight from children at play float through the woods from the nearby school. No one is inside a large tarp-covered tent in the woods or at other, adjacent makeshift camps.
Not far away, Clay and Wanda Wittman sit on a curb, their few bagged belongings by their side. While they don’t stay in the woods by the school, they look weather-beaten and seem deeply tired.
The Wittmans met each other while working in the area for a government contractor.
“When the contract was terminated, we (lost our jobs and) wound up on the street,” said Clay, who’s 61.
He and Wanda have been homeless for about a year.
“I’ve got a vehicle, but it got impounded,” said Wanda, who is 57.
On this particular afternoon, the temperature was in the low 60s.
“We sleep over there,” Clay said while pointing to a church's covered walkway.
He said the church allows homeless people to sleep on the walkway at 9 p.m. each night.
There are some other couples and some single people who stay there, too, Clay said. He said he and his wife sleep there even on very cold nights, when the temperature drops to the 40s and 30s.
The Wittmans have talked with Homelessness and Housing Alliance officials about permanent housing, but “there’s not much they can do for us right now,” Clay said.
He’s on kidney dialysis and has a pinched nerve in his back that makes it painfully difficult to walk. Besides his physical suffering, Clay said one of the toughest parts of being homeless is dealing with poor weather, especially rain. He praised the church for helping him and his wife.
“They pay attention to the weather,” Clay said.
After a little while, the couple is visited by 26-year-old Ken Wilkerson, who is a relatively new resident of Fort Walton Beach. He gives them some food he received from the pantry managed by the nonprofit Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida.
“You’ve been too long in this world to live on the street,” Ken tells the Wittmans. “Once you get to this point, it’s hard to get up” and change.