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Despite arrests and offers of help, homeless man's place is on Dunbar bench

Fort Myers' McCollum Hall is the stage for a dispute between the bureaucracy and an elderly man who has fallen through society's cracks

Dec. 14, 2013   |  
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Homeless man makes boarded-up McCollum Hall home
Homeless man makes boarded-up McCollum Hall home: From Dec. 2013: Medford Silas, a homeless man who calls the Dunbar area home, has been arrested more than seventeen times for loitering. Local agencies try to help, the city wants him to move on but the seventy year old always returns.
Medford Silas looks west at oncoming traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He is a lifelong resident of Fort Myers and expresses his love for Dunbar. / Guy Tubbs/The News-Press
After being arrested in early December for loitering, closed circuit video of Silas's first appearance is streamed from the jail to courtroom 3D in downtown Fort Myers. / Special to The News-Press

The draw of McCollum Hall

The redevelopment of the 9,983-square-foot McCollum Hall is a crucial part of reviving the businesses along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The corridor averages 26,000 vehicles a day.

The city’s developer is searching for dollars before starting the roughly $5.2 million renovation project that’s envisioned to include a famous soul food cafe franchise, where the now vacant Art Deco building sits. Plywood covers alcoves and a tall fence surrounds the property, which has prevented Medford Silas from sleeping in the doorway or behind it as he used to.

“I kind of look at him like a guardian for McCollum Hall,” said Fred Schilffarth, an advocate for homeless people who has helped Silas. “He should have a stopwatch and see how long it takes for the city to finish the project.”

McCollum Hall opened in 1938 and became a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, where black and white audiences could see black performers during segregation. Its bookings reportedly included Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, who recorded that he and his orchestra played there on a Tuesday in April 1947.

“Old man Jim Crow didn’t allow ‘em to stay downtown,” said Pat McCutcheon, who booked the talent, according to an interview with the Lee County Black History Society before McCutcheon’s death in 2012. “They would stay on the bus...But I got so I could get places to stay here in private homes.”

So the lore goes, integration started at the hall. A velvet rope separated the white and black audiences, but when people set to dancing, the color line dropped.

“The rope would fall away and no one cared.” asked Michele Hylton-Terry, the city’s redevelopment manager. The historical information about the hall comes from her office.

It also was a retail space, including a market, barbershop and restaurant. The dance hall operated until the late 1970s and in the 1980s, the second-floor hall was converted into a boarding house. The city bought it in 2007.

The laws

Cities may use trespassing and loitering laws to criminalize homelessness, legal experts said, but the way they are enforced can infringe upon the constitutional freedoms of homeless people. In some of his arrests, police reports indicate Medford Silas was jailed after sitting too long on benches near McCollum Hall, from where he’s been trespassed.

“It would not simply be enough to remain idle to qualify for an arrest,” said Tristia Bauman, the housing program director at the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty in Washington, D.C. “We have a right to be idle. That’s a basic freedom we have.”

Bauman’s organization tracks the usage of laws that criminalize homelessness. They have noted an increase. The public cost, including court fees and paychecks of the police and court employees, is great.

“It ends up being a very expensive proposition that just puts him right back on the bench, just slightly later,” she said. “It’s also an extremely expensive use of the criminal justice system as housing or a mechanism by which to limit the free choice of this individual.”

The ACLU of Florida has successfully fought to protect the constitutional rights of homeless people in Miami and Sarasota, who were being targeted for police enforcement. It brings up questions of being free of unwarranted searches or capricious enforcement of law, and selective enforcement, said spokesman Baylor Johnson.

“The problem seems to be who is sitting on the bench, so that clearly raises some concerns.”

Medford Silas's senior yearbook photo. His ambition was to be a mechanical engineer.

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There’s a man, tall, thin, and old, who soaks in the sun on a bus bench along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fort Myers. Cane propped near, he gazes at cars streaming downtown. He strokes his gray beard, eyes in the clouds. He dozes.

His name is Medford Silas. He’s homeless, has been so for decades, and wishes to remain that way. His spot is near boarded-up McCollum Hall. These days, it’s hard to imagine the vacant building’s storied past: sounds of jazz legends spilling onto sidewalks that now sprout weeds. Its hopping era was square in Silas’ childhood in segregated Dunbar.

“That was the place,” said Willie Jackson, 67, a longtime friend of Silas who sometimes brings him clothes and food. “If you caught somebody off-guard, we’d slip in the door.”

Fort Myers wants to restore some glory to the hall with a long-awaited, long-delayed $5.2 million redevelopment project. Silas is slight, but a formidable obstacle for the city.

Councilman Johnny Streets has asked city leaders to remove Silas from outside McCollum Hall and the bus stop bench. He sent an email to city leaders in November and this one from June:

Subject: Medford Silas (homeless person)

I would like the assistance of removing the above subject…This is an everyday occurrence and does not sit well with motorist (sic) and visitors and people who travel this rout (sic) back and fourth (sic) everyday. He has created a nuisance and has cluttrd (sic) McCollum Hall with trash.

In the past two years, Silas has picked up 17 trespassing or related charges for being near the hall and spent about 120 days in jail. Fort Myers police and a slew of do-gooders have offered him services he declines. In some cases, he’s been sitting on a bench in front of McCollum. Legal experts question if arresting him there infringes on his basic freedoms.

The futile cycle - arrest, release, repeat- has cost more than $12,000 in jail and court fees.

“His crime is being an elderly homeless person with limited mental capacity and that’s not breaking the law,” said Tracey Galloway, CEO of CCMI, the soup kitchen and social services organization in Fort Myers working to secure benefits for Silas.

Fred Schilffarth is another advocate for homeless people helping Silas.

“It’s a long history,” he said. “It’s sad, but unfortunately, it’s true. Go to any city in the country and find a Medford.”

Silas is not one for small talk and shows signs of dementia. He will tell you why he always returns.

“I used to dance up there,” he said. “It’s home.”

A familiar face

One morning in October of last year, Jerry Swan-Harris spotted a familiar face on a bench at McCollum Hall. Swan-Harris, 70, was in town from California for a Dunbar High reunion. That’s Medford, he thought. He hadn’t seen him since high school.

When Silas graduated in 1957, his face bore a serious expression. He was a sharp dresser who carried a book in his pocket and competed for high marks. His yearbook photo carries his ambition: mechanical engineer. Swan-Harris had admired Silas, who had encouraged him to go to college.

He parked his rental car.

Medford, man, what’s happening?

Silas smiled slightly.

You don’t know who you are talking to.

Yes, I do, he recalled Silas saying. Swan, Jerry Swan.

He got chills. At a reunion event, he asked a few friends, including Willie Jackson, what could be done.

“I was puzzled by why nobody had done something but when I talked to Willie there wasn’t a whole lot people could do for him,” Swan-Harris said.

Cape Coral husband and wife, Patty and Curtis Knowles, graduated in Silas’ class of about 40 students. The classmates used to swing-dance at the drug store.

“He was one of the ones that quite a few of the girls used to make eyes at,” Patty Knowles said.

He played football and baseball. His friends thought he was bound to be someone important.

They can’t pinpoint exactly why and when he changed. His grandmother’s death? A best friend’s murder? A broken heart? It happened sometime after he returned to Fort Myers from attending a year or so of college in South Carolina.

“He fell to pieces,” said Johnny Carter, 75, who lived near Silas and the grandmother he said raised Silas.

In the sixties, the Knowles and another classmate tried to ease him off the streets, but he grew angry.

“We have all been concerned about him and tried at different times to help but he didn’t seem to want it,” Patty Knowles said.

During his visit, Swan-Harris took Silas to breakfast and back to his hotel for a shower and headed to the Dunbar High homecoming game. At the game, classmates complimented Silas on how good he looked. Dunbar won that evening and when it was over, Silas wanted to return to McCollum Hall.

The next morning, Swan-Harris drove to pick Silas up for a reunion breakfast and saw that Silas’ clothes were wet with urine.

You don’t want your friends to see you like that, Swan-Harris said.

No, he told him.

Swan-Harris often worries about Silas.

“I just didn’t have enough time.”

Carter honks at Silas when he sees him. Carter still harbors hope.

“What they need to do is get to the man’s mind,” he said.

Just sitting on a bench

Earlier this month, Silas peered through a video monitor from jail. Hands clasped in front of him, he wore a red jumpsuit and faced Lee County Judge James Adams at his first appearance for loitering at a bench near McCollum Hall. Silas told police he had been walking earlier.

“The statute requires that there be an obstruction,” assistant public defender Sean Czarnomski spoke up. “Walking back and forth, that is not a prohibited act.”

Adams allowed the case to go forward, because of the officer’s observations. He had been sitting at the bench two hours, the report said.

“Mr. Silas, do you have family here in Fort Myers?”

“Yeah, hmm, hmm.”

“Who do you have here in Fort Myers?”

“Uh…” his voice gravelly and barely audible.

“Beg your pardon?” the judge said.

“I’m confused.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“Yeah, uh, huh.”

Later, the judge asked:

“Do you have a substance abuse problem?”

“What?”

“Do you have a problem with either drugs or alcohol?”

“No, no.”

Adams agreed to release Silas if he entered the triage center, which offers shelter and services as an alternative to arrest. The latest arrest came after an officer’s check targeting Silas.

“Officer Najor has been directed to conduct these checks due to citizen, vehicular traffic and City Council complaints reference a male subject, Medford Silas,” the report said.

In most cases, Silas pleads guilty at his first court appearance and is released. Kathleen Smith, the public defender for this circuit, declined to talk about her office’s representation of Silas. She did question if arrests for sitting on a bench were legit. At least three arrests specifically mention he was sitting on a bench.

“What’s illegal about sitting on a bus bench? I would certainly challenge that.”

Legal experts echoed her sentiments. Targeting him for just remaining idle on a public bench could be a violation of his rights, even if he has been trespassed from buildings nearby.

Because Silas’ cases have been misdemeanors, the courts can’t mandate him to a state mental hospital, Smith said. He’s not a danger to himself or others, so he cannot be confined under the Baker Act either. Mental health court, where people receive support services, is voluntary.

“Taking him to jail doesn’t solve anything,” Smith said.

His recent arrests have been mostly for trespassing, along with a nuisance and a few failures to appear in court cases. In October, he was jailed for breach of peace after officers found him covered in urine and yelling inside the abandoned bail bonds building next to McCollum. He’s had five open container violations, but the last one was about a decade ago.

For years, officers have been trying to get him off the streets. In November 2011, officers dropped him off at a controversial homeless camp 25 miles away in an isolated area of Charlotte County. Silas didn’t want to be there. Somehow, he made his way home, three days later.

The city fenced and placed plywood over the entries of McCollum Hall, so Silas can’t sleep behind it or in the doorway as he used to.

Last June, city officials contacted Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition. Bartos recruited Schilffarth, the advocate based at First Baptist Church in Fort Myers. He met with Silas on his bench. Schilffarth did some digging and found out he’s about 74, instead of the 69 listed in records. He connected with his family. He signed him up for benefits. He found him a cane.

Schilffarth and Dunbar community policing officer Bryan Fuller worked in tandem to figure out options. Fuller convinced Silas to check into the triage center. Silas entered June 14.

“He was good to go and a day and half later, he was gone,” he said. “It’s difficult but not impossible. I’m going to keep trying with him.”

Two days later, another officer arrested Silas. He was released and arrested again three days later for being on the bench “without a purpose or destination in front of McCollum Hall,” the report said. It’s unclear why, but Judge Adams set his bond at $1,500 or 30 days, according to a recording of the hearing. Adams declined comment through a spokeswoman, who cited ethical reasons.

"He's like a baby"

Torri Benyard, Silas’ niece who lives near Orlando, sent Adams a letter asking for the court to appoint a guardian for her uncle.

“I ask that you please find a place for him to go temporarily,” she wrote. “I know for a fact he will return to his ‘bus stop’ being that this is the only place he calls home.”

(A courts spokeswoman said family letters to judges are often returned because it’s not considered fair to the proceeding.)

In the end, Silas served 48 days.

Benyard, 32, said she has taken the family lead in trying to help him. Her 86-year-old grandmother in Fort Myers, who is Silas’ stepmother, is not well enough to help him. He used to drop by her grandmother’s home, but since the house was painted a different color he no longer visits. McCollum Hall may be the one place he recognizes.

When she returns to Fort Myers, Benyard makes sure he has food, water and cleans up his mess. He can’t recall her name.

“He’s like a baby,” she said. “His mind is gone.”

She’s not in a financial position to hire an attorney to file for guardianship. She wants the police to stop arresting him.

“He just sits there,” she said. “He’s not cursing, drinking. Just leave him alone.”

What can be done?

“He seems to be falling through everybody’s system,” Bartos said.

In a memo to city leaders, Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker was at a loss for a solution.

“Mr. Silas refuses assistance time and time again and arresting him appears to have no consequences,” he wrote.

Streets said his requests to remove Silas come from worry for his welfare.

“I refuse to let Medford die on city-owned property,” Streets said.

Having a public shelter would help Silas and hundreds like him, said Schilffarth. Private shelters are often full or reserved for families.

Meanwhile, Kaitlin Major, who handles homeless services at CCMI, has been trying to get Silas benefits that may help him secure long-term care. She delivers food and clothes to him at the bench. On Thanksgiving, she came with turkey. He rewarded her with a hug. She’s never found him drinking or with drugs. She’s never seen him panhandling either.

“He’s very well-known in the community for positive reasons,” Major said.

Hours after his recent morning court appearance, Silas was released. By dusk, shoulders stooped, Silas shuffled his way from downtown east on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He hobbled, relying on his cane.

“I’m going home,” he said.

He walked toward the peach hues of a setting sun and McCollum Hall.

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