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Rupert Heard, 55, gives a tour of his camp fit for three. As camp leader, he manages his group’s finances and stocks up on daily supplies.

Rupert Heard used to sleep with a knife by his side.

With no one to watch his back while he lived in an abandoned building off Southwest 13th Street, he wanted to be prepared in case he needed to defend himself.

Stuck alone in a place that wasn’t his, he felt trapped in a lifestyle he never expected.

“I felt overwhelmed, like I didn’t have any other options,” Heard, 55, said. “There was a sense of hopelessness.”

For about a week he drifted, hungry and alone in the November cold, until he followed up with a friend who recommended Dignity Village, a homeless tent community of about 150 off of NE 39th Avenue, near the Gainesville Regional Airport.

Now, Heard ends each night around a small fire, breaking bread with his closest friends.

He wakes up in his neon yellow tent, resting for a second before he uses the camp’s old kettle to brew his famous cup of coffee.

“A toast to Gainesville,” Heard says over his raised coffee cup before reciting a daily prayer.

Although he never expected to be homeless, Heard said providing for his fellow Dignity residents gives him purpose. After arriving at the camp about eight months ago and after three months living there, Heard was voted the new leader of his group of three.

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Heard smiles in front of his new tent, donated earlier this month by UF Christian Campus House.

 

Heard fetches firewood when it gets cold to keep his friends warm. In the summer, he waits in line for ice. Each day, he makes the short journey for food, water and gas for the camp grill from Grace Marketplace, a homeless shelter.

He manages finances, fixes plates of corn beef hash and turns on “Mike & Mike in the Morning” for others to get their daily fix of UF sports.

“I was actually terrified when I first came out here,” he said. “Now that I kind of settled into my role, I feel pretty good.”

Residents of the campgrounds, which are set up outside of the Grace Marketplace, often band together and form their own self-governed groups, clustered in a circle around the marketplace.

Within his camp, Heard is the first to greet visitors, walking up with a bit of swagger and a toothy smile. He fills silence with stories about the day or his laughter. Even residents outside of Heard’s small camp visit. One friend, Steve, jokes he comes by every day because Heard has a better living room, and a good ceiling fan.

“I love him because he takes care of my friend,” said Steve, who declined to give his last name.

Steve’s friend Mike Burnette, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran who says he plans to stay at Dignity until he dies, is one of the two other members of Heard’s camp. Wheelchair-bound and suffering from gout in both feet, Burnette relies on Heard to help him survive.

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Dignity Village resident Rupert Heard, 55, from Toledo, Ohio, uses a cooler to keep perishable items from going bad, and plastic bins to store unrefrigerated items. He uses a grill to cook for himself and a few neighbors in his camp.

 

Burnette trusts Heard with the camp’s money supply, his monthly veteran’s benefits check of $1,074.

“He helps me every day, and I appreciate it, really do,” he said.

Heard moved into Dignity around the time the camp’s previous leader, Pete, was about to be “voted off the island,” Steve said. Pete would waste all of Burnette’s money by the tenth of every month, blowing it on liquor instead of groceries.

As Pete ignored his responsibilities, Heard started taking care of the camp’s chores. Heard said he was upset seeing how Burnette was being abused.

Even the people who are often forgotten about need someone in their corner, Heard said. It was important for Heard to help Burnette when he needed it.

“They’re out here and nobody cares,” Heard said.

Bob Gailey, the director of Christian Campus House, visits Heard and others every Wednesday evening, passing out bananas and peanut butter sandwiches with volunteers.

Gailey has been coming out since Dignity opened in 2014, and said the visits almost always run smoothly. Alachua County and Putnam County together had an estimated 844 homeless people in 2016, according to a report from the National Homeless Information Project.

But about two weeks ago, Gailey parked his van and told his group to stay put.

People were shouting and pointing fingers, accusing each other of stealing from another’s pile of firewood.

At Dignity Village, small disputes can turn ugly — knives, baseball bats, sticks, or fists are pulled over a few owed dollars, Steve said.

Just last month, police responded to 47 calls at the camp, Gainesville Police Department spokesperson Ben Tobias wrote in an email.

That night, however, police weren’t called. Instead, Heard intervened.

“He comes in as kind of the peacemaker,” Gailey, 58, said. “And that’s a difficult place to do that, because you’ve got alcohol involved, you’ve got who knows what involved.”

Heard’s life was upended about a year ago when he lost his job at Earth Fare grocery store, replaced by a younger employee in the meat section, he said. He couldn’t afford his monthly rent and was evicted.

When that happened, it was as if all his past troubles, including his history of substance abuse, became overwhelming. Heard said he started to lose hope.

Now, he said he hopes his legacy can be the positive things he’s doing for his camp and neighbors.

He gives socks to Brian next door without being asked. He keeps an eye on Kenny, who has epilepsy. When the camp gets items donated — which isn’t nearly enough, Heard said — he makes sure everyone gets their pick.

“I’m not out of the game yet,” he said. “This isn’t the place where I plan to stop. I’m going to continue to be who I am, the fabric of my personality, and the way that I was raised up.”

Contact Elliott Nasby at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @_ElohEl.

Elliott Nasby is a staff writer who covers UF's administration.