He was once homeless. Now this Crestview veteran is an activist, builds Black community


Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News
Contractor, filmmaker/actor DeCarlos Garcia was once another homeless veteran living on the streets of Fort Walton Beach. A Bible and a phone call changed his life forever.

CRESTVIEW — If De’Carlo Garcia falls down, he will get back up.

You can be sure of it.

Garcia has fallen down many times — at times so hard he didn’t know where his next meal would come from, where his next resting place would be or if he’d ever amount to the man he always aspired to be.

In many ways, he has.

The Crestview resident owns his home, and he’s the first in his family to be able to say so. He uses his voice as a member of the Citizens Advisory Council to the mayor of Crestview. He gives help in the same ways he once needed it, donating what he can — sometimes his most precious asset: time.

Garcia is a founding member of the African-American Military Heritage Society, not only recognizing the history of those before them but being a doer rather than solely a “sayer.”

He has made it his mission to create a positive image of the Black man, something he feels over which they have limited control.

“Me, especially in this local community, I want to show that as a Black man I can have a positive impact," Garcia said.

“We can actually be about ours. And when we tend to ourselves and make sure that the next generations have something positive to learn from, then, to me, that just starts another generation of positive influences for the younger generation of Black men to come out and actually be active in the community.”

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Success to statistic: Another homeless veteran

Garcia has often tried to find the path to success, although it didn’t always look the same.

He had a meager upbringing that, as a child, left him quiet and self-conscious, he said.

“Girls wouldn't pick me; guys made fun of me,” Garcia said. “I was awkward. I wasn't the best. I didn't have money. We lived in the projects, so it was always in the situation of having very little, so I was very self-conscious of that.”

Because of it, he felt hopeless. At first, he thought the path to success would be the U.S. Air Force.

“I always want to be a part of something bigger or greater,” Garcia said. “And I thought, ‘If I joined the military, what if I was that one guy that tilted everything in my favor?' ”

In that path, he also saw protecting his mother.

“I said, ‘Well, Mama I'm gonna go out there and I'm gonna be one of the people that actually take part in defending you, so I want to go into the Air Force,’ ” Garcia said. “I thought I was gonna be a pilot, then I found out the reality of what it takes to be a pilot. And I'm like, ‘Oh, I don't think I'm ready for this.’ ”

His first duty station after basic training and tech school was Hurlburt Field, working in avionics on gunships. But he only made out with four years in the military, much less than he had envisioned and sans the degree he once hoped for.

When he transitioned from military to civilian life, he had given a month’s notice on his lease, recently totaled his car and had no job. His out-processing came fast, too, leaving him without an ID card, final physical or a sufficient enough understanding of unemployment.

That fall and winter of 2001, through a series of unfortunate events, Garcia became one in the homeless veteran statistic.

Homeless life in the Florida Panhandle

Garcia had no one.

He didn’t have family in the area, as he was originally from Lufkin, Texas. And he found out quickly how many true friends he had: None.

For nine months intermittently, he slept under the Brooks Bridge, in the restroom of a condo on Okaloosa Island, in a laundry mat or in the boxing ring of the Chester Pruitt gym — anywhere he could find warmth.

Actor DeCarlo Garcia has bee slime applied to his face during filming of “Zombeez” at the Elks Lodge 1795 on Okaloosa Island.

“Wherever I dozed off, I dozed off,” Garcia said. “I’d buy something at a restaurant and kind of just doze off and then eat and get up, because they wouldn't let me stay anywhere. They would harass me. Cops would come, maybe. It didn’t matter if it was rain, sleet or snow, you could not stay there. I just slept wherever I could.”

People didn’t reject him; they feared him.

“I'm homeless, so I can't shave,” Garcia said. “I got this big beard. I got a ’fro. Everything that I could carry is what I owned. Everything else was in storage and basically lost.”

When Garcia walked around, people looked at him differently than they ever had, he said.

“They didn't give me the chance to show who I was, so they treated me like I was a criminal already,” Garcia said. “They treated me like I was a danger to them already, before I even got a chance to get up close to them. And I could see it in their eyes, so I tried to avoid them but sometimes I couldn't.”

Sometimes, the cops came.

“I was like, ‘Man it's raining. I just want to stand here and not get rained on,’ ” Garcia said. “‘No, you gotta go.’ I gotta walk out there in the pouring rain, get soaking wet. I have nowhere to dry these clothes. I have nowhere to sleep. It was a very traumatizing situation when you have nowhere to go and nothing to do. You can't do anything. You don't know who to go to. Psychologically, it really can work on you. Don't give up. It’s as much of a mental game as it is physical as far as the pressure on your body.”

It was shameful, he said.

Garcia wouldn’t call his mother though. He is no “Mama’s boy,” he once thought.

“I know she would have been like, ‘I'm coming to get you baby,’ and probably sold her car or something,” Garcia said. “Like, ‘Mom, don’t sell your car. This is temporary. Don't do that. Now, neither one of us have a ride.’ ”

And maybe just the smallest thread of his mind thought — no, likely resented — that he might end up in exactly this place.

“I was thinking that maybe I did something to deserve this or put myself in this position,” Garcia said. “So I was like, ‘I gotta figure out a way to get out of this position if I'm here.’ I went through a process of depression and blinding myself, and I didn't want to do anything at the time. I didn't even want to work. I was like, ‘Forget it. I'm done.’ "

Contractor, filmmaker/actor DeCarlos Garcia was once another homeless veteran living on the streets of Fort Walton Beach. A Bible and a phone call changed his life forever.

Homeless to homeowner

Garcia was never alone, though.

He sees that now.

He doesn’t want to seem spooky or off-putting, but Garcia had someone by his side the entire time: God.

“When I was homeless, that was my only friend; that was my only recourse,” Garcia said. “I could always, you can always talk to God. You can talk to him when you have everything, also. But when you don't have anything, you really come to a realization of who is actually there for you no matter what.”

For a long time, it was just Garcia and his Bible. That’s all he had.

“You get a lot of reading in because you have a lot of time,” Garcia said. “But once again, the mess was the mental side of things. When you're by yourself, you can run into the problem of talking to yourself, because there's nobody else to talk to.”

Humans are social creatures, Garcia said.

“That’s why I mostly read through the Bible out loud,” Garcia said. “I just wanted to hear myself read it. I would go to the library and talk to people and fast-food restaurants when I ordered something. I tried to make sure I kept my conversations open with other people.”

His faith started to increase. He always read the Scripture, but now he understood it, he said.

“I noticed, as far as those couple of times when I was homeless, I picked myself up and then I’d kind of fall back down. It was my relationship with God that was really important,” Garcia said. “That was correlated. When I was focused on God and my grind, I've got a car, I got a job and a place to stay.”

He found a church home, previously at Light of Life Church in Fort Walton Beach. 

The moment he starting getting distracted, looking for companionship or focused on money, he would fall, he said.

“I'm like, ‘OK, yeah, this is stupid. I'm not going through this again,’ ” Garcia said. “‘I need to keep my head straight and stop being foolish. I'm not a child anymore. I'm a grown man, and I need to start making grown-men decisions. My primary thing was my life with God and doing the things that I need to do versus what I wanted, and things started working out.”

Garcia hounded employers, made and remade his résumé and traversed job fairs to find a way out of being a statistic. He sometimes found himself alone in this endeavor, often coming across other home insecure people with a much different mindset.

“There were people, I would call them career people out on the streets,” Garcia said. “They were waiting for seasons to go and pickpocket instead of find a job. I didn't understand. Why would you do that? So me, I was like, ‘I don't want to be here,’ so I made sure that all my decisions were to get out of here rather than to be content. I was never content with homelessness. I didn't like that. That was a bad situation.”

Garcia worked many jobs, one at Walmart, one at a restaurant in Destin. Everything was tougher with his transportation issues, he said.

“It was hard to get into a good-paying job, so I kept falling back down, trying to figure out what was going on,” Garcia said. “I even moved in with a roommate and then they stole my money and so and then kicked me out. So it was a couple of bad situations of finding people, seeing if you can be compatible, trying to find friends and things like that.”

But then it happened. He got the call.

Garcia received a phone call from a military contractor about a job.

“It was almost like man, ‘You don't even have to tell me all the benefits. Just let me in the door. We can figure that out later, because I'm sure it's better than what I have right now,’” Garcia said.

And it was.

“God blessed me to buy a house,” Garcia said. “I have a beautiful daughter. She's 5 years old. I have my own food. I haven't had to suffer through another winter of not eating and walking and not being able to rest. So it's been up and up from there.”

Building the Black community

Today, Garcia works for a local military contractor.

He donates when he can to Sharing and Caring because he once benefited from the nonprofit while he was homeless.

“I made sure that when I got something, I started donating back to them because I know they really need it and they use it for the local people,” Garcia said. “That’s a big thing.”

He started donating to a lot of places and volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

“I noticed once you start giving to others, a lot of things start landing,” Garcia said. “Not to be spiritual again, but that's what it calls back to. The more you do for others, the more things are done for you. It’s that reciprocation, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Garcia works a lot and spends his evenings with his daughter, Lailah. He bought his house in 2014 with her in mind — so she could start off with something better than he did, he said.

“I'm the first of my family to actually buy a house,” Garcia said. “I'm trying to break a lot of the curses, if you want to call them curses. I'm just trying to move up and create generational wealth because throughout my family and generations, that's something that we did not practice, mostly because we didn't have anything to pass down, except for maybe debt.”

African-American Military Heritage Society Vice President and event emcee De'Carlo Garcia thanks guests at the conclusion of the inaugural Juneteenth program and celebration at the Armament Museum.

Garcia also has followed his passion to create a positive image of the Black man in the community. Through networking, he has taken on a leadership role with the African-American Military Heritage Society, which will someday have an exhibit at the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base. He recently hosted its first Juneteenth event.

“It’s just, there's a lack of presence,” Garcia said. “For the Black community, there's a lack of very readily open presence. So we wanted to try to do something to show that we are here, and that we are here to support you, and we're alive and well. And we're about the action and not just the words.”

Action isn’t hard, Garcia said. He recently helped with a food drive.

“Just get out there and do it,” Garcia said. 

The title “role model” doesn’t sit well with Garcia. Being in public sometimes means you’re thrust into that role, whether intentionally or not.

“If you don't want them to copy the bad things or negatives, don't do anything negative,” Garcia said. “It’s hard for them to copy anything negative if what you're doing is positive. So I'm trying to change, not just for everybody else, but also myself. I want my daughter to also see that ... . I want my name to be positive to where she has a name that has something to be proud of.”

Garcia also has found himself in a new circle of people: the local filmmaking community. He played a role in the recently made film “Zombeez – The Movie” and won the Jury Award in the 2021 Gulf Coast Short Film Fest for “Nickel ‘N Swine.”

“I'm starting to be like, ‘Man, I think I'm pretty good at something. Maybe I need to keep going,’ ” Garcia said. “It takes a lot of my time and energy, but I believe that you have one life, and if you really feel passionate about something, sometimes you gotta sacrifice a little bit extra to get into it, and it'll pay off. It'll pay off after awhile.”