'There'll be more jobs under Romney'


THE MEN emerge to greet me from the dense, sub-tropical foliage like indigenous tribesmen. They guide me through the woods to a small clearing where three tents are pitched in the sand.

Each of the camp’s inhabitants has a bicycle, their only form of transport. The biggest of three tents is spray-painted black, to make it less visible to the police helicopters that scour the woods for the homeless.

A train thunders by on the railroad tracks, some 40 feet to the west. The same distance to the east, the traffic on US Highway 1 rumbles constantly.

“I got used to the noise,” says Chris Graves (36). “But if a pin drops in the camp, I wake up. The worst thing is the bugs. The fire ants are hellacious. The mosquitos are just as bad.”

Snakes and brown recluse spiders are also common.

“There are dozens of tiny encampments like this one,” says Dennis Bartholomew, executive director of The Source, a church-funded charity that provides three daily meals for 140 of Vero Beach’s 750 homeless.

The economic crisis has made the problem worse. More than half of Vero Beach’s homeless work, but do not earn enough to pay rent. Some lost houses to foreclosure. Others, like Graves, fell into chronic homelessness when they got out of prison. The majority are white Americans.

Indian River County is one of the richest in America. “The 32963 zip code, on the beach side, is one of the wealthiest,” Bartholomew says.

Retired chief executives and European royalty own sumptuous houses in gated communities which they visit for a few weeks a year.

In campaign speeches, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney invariably repeats the grim statistics: 23 million Americans unemployed or under-employed; one in six Americans living in poverty; 46 million Americans on food stamps.

Romney uses the figures to condemn Barack Obama, but offers no solution other than cutting taxes and regulations to help business. “I’m not concerned about the very poor that have that safety net,” Romney said in February. “It’s not my job to worry about those people,” he said in May, in a secretly recorded video of a fundraiser in nearby Boca Raton.

Yet Bartholomew and the homeless of Vero Beach are receptive to Romney’s message. “The only thing that will improve the situation is more jobs,” he says. “Listening to the guys at The Source, it’s Romney.”

Barry Hilliard (34) left his last job, cutting sheet metal in Indiana, three years ago. He drifted from Corpus Christi to Yeehaw junction, then Vero Beach.

“I don’t have any college,” Hilliard explains. “I’m looking for unskilled work, and there isn’t a whole lot of that.” Graves and Hilliard watch television at The Source, and surf the internet in the shopping arcade and library. “I watched the first debate, where Romney destroyed Obama,” Graves says with delectation.

Convicted of a felony for injuring a man in a fight, he’s not yet allowed to vote. But if he could, “it wouldn’t be Obama. I don’t think he’s done what he said. He’s tryin’ to change us to a whole ’nother thing. I don’t like his agenda.”

Hilliard is thinking about registering, using The Source’s address, “to get rid of Obama. His policies – his Obamacare – are a lot of crud. Gas prices went up because of him.” The men spend up to $300 a month on petrol to fuel their electrical generator.

Hilliard is a shy man, but he becomes animated when he talks about politics.

“I do believe there’ll be more jobs under Romney,” he says. “If you read [the conservative website] Drudge Report, several companies have told employees that if Obama wins they’ll get fired . . . Tax the rich? Redistribute wealth? That sounds like socialism, communism, to me. It didn’t work in Russia and it didn’t work in China. Before Obama started changin’ things, our country was working fine.”

Hilliard shows me the small tent where he keeps his earthly possessions. “It’s not bad. It’s not horrible. It could be worse,” he says. “America has the richest poor people in the world. I got an air mattress and a tent that keeps the bugs out.”

An hour down the highway, in Port St Lucie, lives Rochelle (42). A struggling member of the middle class, she is a single mother and does not want her family name published out of concern for security.

Back in 2003, Rochelle signed a mortgage for a three-bedroom bungalow costing $118,000. She holds a two-year college degree in business administration, and worked as a book keeper for a construction company. By 2008, the firm had let go all but eight of its 150 employees. Rochelle hung on until 2010, but has been hired and laid off twice since. Her income plummeted from $45,000 in 2007 to $275 a week in unemployment benefits, which will soon expire.

In 2008, Rochelle was treated for breast cancer. She lost her healthcare coverage when she lost her first job, and has relied on charities to obtain continuous treatment. Under Obamacare, she will be able to buy coverage for her pre-existing condition, if she can find a job.

Rochelle was on the verge of losing her house to foreclosure last June when she was saved by President Obama’s Home Affordable Modification Programme, which lowered the interest rates. She is still embroiled in litigation with the bank, and cannot afford to maintain her 1979 house, which is literally falling apart.

Everyone she knows is struggling, Rochelle says, but she hasn’t lost heart. She’s just enrolled in another Obama initiative, which will pay half of her salary for the first 90 days to a prospective employer.

Rochelle was raised a Republican and voted for John McCain in 2008. Now she’s leaning towards Obama.

“When I listen to him, I feel I can trust him more than Romney,” she says. She resented Romney’s dismissal of the 47 per cent of Americans who benefit from federal programmes.

“I’m proud and resilient. I want to stand on my own two feet. But because I’ve worked all these years, I want to know that if I need help for a few months, I can get it.”