City officials in DeLand are considering a new law that would make it illegal for a homeless person to set up camp on a city bench or elsewhere on public property.
The law would apply to anyone, City Attorney Darren Elkind was quick to point out, but the impetus for the proposal was obvious: Earl Loveless Edwards.
The 58-year-old homeless man has been a fixture in Downtown DeLand for years — most recently making his home on a bench on South Woodland Boulevard, near the Save-A-Lot grocery.
Blankets, notepads and bags full of possessions that adorn the bench are only the tip of the iceberg in the story of a troubled DeLand native who was once on track for success at DeLand High School. Edwards was born in 1960; his record with the criminal-justice system stretches back to at least the 1980s.
According to Volusia County Clerk of Court records, Edwards has been involved in no fewer than 70 court cases — a combination of criminal arrests and temporary detainments for evaluation under the Florida Mental Health Act, commonly known as the Baker Act.
Edwards was held under the Baker Act some 16 times. His arrest record lists crimes ranging from criminal mischief to theft, stalking, drug charges and aggravated assault.
His most recent arrest, in March 2015, was for aggravated battery — a felony — after police said Edwards got agitated and “pushed” a woman after asking for money, according to a charging affidavit.
The case has been dragging on for four years, with Edwards committed to a state mental-health facility, then released, then put on probation and community control, sent back to jail, and then out again.
In the months since his last release from jail, Edwards has made the bench on South Woodland Boulevard his home, piling up possessions there.
City officials at the Feb. 18 DeLand City Commission meeting, when the proposed law was discussed, said the problems extend beyond Edwards’ occupancy of the bench.
“It’s not just the fact that people drive by and it’s unsightly or they have certain opinions on the topic, but there are a host of other problems that are created that we did not appreciate and did not know about,” City Attorney Elkind said.
Attorney Kirk Bauer, whose 223 S. Woodland Blvd. office is directly behind the bench, explained.
“This one’s a tough one, because I do have compassion for the individual living on the bench in front of my office,” Bauer said. “That is his home, and if it rains, he tries to make his home under the front porch of my office, to where it’s caused difficulties.”
Staff members leaving Bauer’s office have been confronted and cursed at by Edwards, he said, and his cleaning crew is reluctant to go outside to clean the front windows while Edwards is sleeping there.
“I went out the other day and the individual was chasing a car in my parking lot, chasing the car, using the ‘F’ word, and yelling,” Bauer said. “In the car was … a man 50 years old, and probably a 5-year-old child in the car. It’s those type of things that I’m dealing with.”
The problem of Edwards’ possessions piling up on the bench is sometimes exacerbated, Bauer said, by people who bring more bags, suitcases or blankets in an attempt to help Edwards.
The clutter reached such a point that, recently, City Manager Michael Pleus offered to buy Edwards’ possessions — with his own personal money, not city funds — and store them.
That temporarily solved the problem, but the possessions are once again piling up.
Members of the DeLand City Commission were sympathetic to Bauer’s plight.
Commissioner Jessica Davis asked if there was a way for the city to work with The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, an organization that combats homelessness, to help Edwards get into a better situation. She raised the idea of putting a bench on The Neighborhood Center’s property and having Edwards move there, at least at first.
“I’m sorry that you’re going through that; that’s not the goal,” Davis told Bauer, adding, “But I don’t want to put a Band-Aid over it, and that’s something we’ve had a lot of discussion about. I want to work with the professionals.”
City Manager Pleus said city officials have been in contact with The Neighborhood Center, and the organization offered help to Edwards, but he refused it.
“He’s got family; he’s got friends; he’s got a number of people that would be willing to help him if he would take the help,” he said. “He’s just not willing to.”
Elkind echoed that sentiment, and pointed out that the city has put a significant amount of effort into helping the homeless, including the current effort to erect a shelter and day center.
“You’re investing a phenomenal amount of money and effort and time into a resource center for people in just this sort of situation, so nobody can say that you’re not going above and beyond the call of duty to help folks like this, but … some people just aren’t going to take that,” Elkind said.
The proposed law would give the city a tool to force people to either move elsewhere, take advantage of services, or face arrest.
Still, Davis wanted the city to focus on getting Edwards help, rather than criminalizing his behavior.
“Some of the activity that was explained by the business owner is criminal, so when it transitions into that, it’s another level,” Davis said. “But the mental-illness part is what I would like for us to see if we can talk to The Neighborhood Center, because they have had some dialogue with him.”
Vice Mayor Charles Paiva asked Elkind to explore whether the city’s ordinance on sleeping in public during the day, passed in 2014, could apply to Edwards’ case, but Elkind was doubtful.
“We really do not have any teeth in the current ordinance to solve this particular problem,” Elkind said. “Again, I’m loathe to draft an ordinance for one person or one situation, but I at least wanted to present that to you.”
Davis asked if the Baker Act could apply to Edwards, to get him into institutional treatment. DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger said Edwards has been held under the Baker Act several times, but he pointed out that the law provides for only a 72-hour hold in most cases.
“He’s not — and I hate to talk about somebody like this — but he’s not sick enough to be institutionalized against his will,” Elkind added.
Pleus echoed that sentiment.
“He has days, particularly when he’s taking his medication, that he’s perfectly fine, and then he has some bad days,” Pleus said.
“It’s not a lack of compassion or trying to work with the individual, but for a lot of the things that have already been discussed and mentioned, it’s become a problem for our community,” DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said.
The mayor pointed out the city’s efforts in trying to get help for Edwards.
“I’m compassionate about it; I’d like to find a solution,” Apgar said.
The mayor noted that Pleus had connected Edwards to The Neighborhood Center, and that Neighborhood Center Operations Manager Waylan Niece had tried to work with him. A day later, the mayor said, Edwards was back on the bench.
“I just think that I want to be fair and reasonable. I would certainly support some legislation that’s fair and evenhanded, but tries to address what’s become a difficult situation for everyone. And I don’t know what the answer to that is,” the mayor said.
Commissioner Chris Cloudman said the problem extends beyond Edwards and Downtown DeLand, and that he’s aware of people living at the bus stop at the Northgate Shopping Center.
In the end, a majority of the City Commission seemed to support the proposed ordinance, with Davis opposing it. She asked to get some input on what The Neighborhood Center staff has already done for Edwards or possibly could do.
“We will absolutely bring back a report on what The Neighborhood Center says, if they can do something,” Elkind said.
Until then, the saga of DeLand’s most prominent homeless individual continues.
Read about how many individuals have tried to help Earl over the years — and some words from the man himself — on the next page
Many people have tried to help Earl<img class="wp-image-804 size-large" src="https://www.beacononlinenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/8130dbaeac2b9a6d0ea420a9fba25ab1-scaled.jpg" alt="THE MAN HIMSELF — Earl Edwards, 58, sits on his bench on South Woodland Boulevard in Downtown DeLand on a recent afternoon. Edwards spoke to The Beacon recently about his circumstances, and a reporter also spoke with many of the people who have tried to help Edwards over the years. While there have been some temporary successes, nothing has yet worked long-term.” width=”696″ height=”928″ />
THE MAN HIMSELF — Earl Edwards, 58, sits on his bench on South Woodland Boulevard in Downtown DeLand on a recent afternoon. Edwards spoke to The Beacon recently about his circumstances, and a reporter also spoke with many of the people who have tried to help Edwards over the years. While there have been some temporary successes, nothing has yet worked long-term.
BY BARB SHEPHERD
Over the years, The Beacon has talked with several parties who have tried to help Earl Edwards, including a Downtown DeLand businessperson, members of his family, city officials, and a DeLand health care activist.
Their stories are similar. Someone signs up as Edwards’ representative payee, so that Social Security will release his monthly disability payments, and his health care, food and housing can be paid for.
Arrangements are made, but sooner or later, the helpful scheme falls apart. The latest to try to help, Voloria Manning, told The Beacon her story.
A measure of success
DeLand resident Voloria Manning, a former member of the West Volusia Hospital Authority, had some success trying to help Edwards.
Manning was contacted in March 2017 by a member of the Downtown DeLand business community, who asked if Manning could help with Edwards. He had been released from jail and was hanging out Downtown — again.
Manning found Edwards a place to live. She signed up with Social Security as his payee, a requirement so that Edwards could have access to his disability payments, which would cover minimal living expenses.
Manning paid Edwards’ rent, and made arrangements with a DeLand restaurant, so Edwards could eat there, and she would use his money to pay for the meals.
“Everything was set up for him,” Manning said.
Before long, it fell apart. Edwards no longer wanted to live in the house, no longer wanted his money used for rent, and began sleeping on a Downtown DeLand bench again, Manning said.
There was a shooting near her home, which Manning attributed to drug deals possibly involving Edwards. She began to feel unsafe.
Edwards told Social Security that Manning was stealing his money, and she was removed as his personal representative.
Manning realized she was putting herself, her reputation and her family in danger by trying to help, she said. She called the police to act as her witnesses, gave Edwards his remaining funds, and ended the effort, she said.
A family’s saga
DeLand resident Cynthia Edwards said her family has been trying for decades to help her brother, Earl Edwards.
“People don’t seem to understand,” she said. “They’re looking from the outside, thinking, why doesn’t his family do something? We have been dealing with this with Earl for 35 years.”
Cynthia Edwards said family members have all opened their homes to Earl to live with them, but had to back off for safety’s sake.
When Cynthia Edwards tried to help Earl Edwards, she said, he came to her workplace, demanding money, to the point that her employer had to call the police.
Friends of the family, she said, have tried renting her brother housing at very affordable prices, but ultimately ended the arrangements when they felt threatened.
At one point, Cynthia Edwards said, her sister managed to pick Earl Edwards up from his bench, take him to her home, feed him, wash his clothes, and let him take a shower.
As she drove him back to the bench, Cynthia Edwards said, something clicked. Earl suddenly became combative and his sister had to pull over and order him out of her car for her safety’s sake.
“For people to think that we don’t care, nothing could be further from the truth,” Cynthia Edwards said. “It breaks my heart to see him sitting on that bench. … We have not given up on Earl. We just don’t know what to do.”
The last time her brother was released from involuntary commitment to mental-health treatment, she said, she called the facility and asked what the family could do to get Earl into a permanent situation.
She was told, she said, that short of a court order that would take away his rights, Earl Edwards could not be made to live in a facility.
“If there was a piece of paper that I could sign, where my brother could be taken care of, I’d do it,” Cynthia Edwards said.
She said Earl Edwards was born and reared in DeLand. After high school, she said, he moved to New Jersey to begin work in health care.
“When he came back, his mind was gone,” Cynthia Edwards said. “We don’t know what happened. … He has a good heart, but he has a troubled mind.”
For years, she said, her brother lived in DeLand with their mother, who has since passed on.
“If there had been something that someone could do, my mother would have done it,” Cynthia Edwards said. “If anyone has a solution, please let me know.”
A word from Earl Edwards
Told that the City of DeLand was contemplating a law that would make him guilty of a crime for living on a bench, Earl Edwards described the hurdles facing him.
He needs a voucher, he said, to pay for a bus ride to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in DeBary, to obtain an identification card.
The card is necessary, he said, to get the Social Security office to release his disability payments to him. With access to his money, Edwards said, he could get a phone and a storage space for the belongings that cover the bench.
The Beacon pointed out to Edwards that he has been offered help, including by The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, which is within walking distance.
“It’s hard to talk to somebody when they’re trying to achieve a score,” Edwards said.
His problems are a private matter, he said.
Told that the city considers his living arrangements a public matter, Edwards said, “I don’t want to join that group. I don’t want to be a leader to expand somebody’s argument.”