• Joe Capozzi

A homeless man dies, a Lake Worth Beach community mourns

Updated: Oct 15



HE WAS AS much a part of Spillway Park as the trees, birds, squirrels and snook. Just after sunrise every day for the past 20 years or so, he pedaled in on a rickety bicycle and parked himself on a favorite bench beneath a towering oak tree next to the C-51 canal.


Over McDonald’s breakfast burritos or Union Bakery croquettes, he was content to just sit and soak in the morning serenity of the 4.5-acre public park on the north end of Lake Worth Beach.


Unlike some of the park’s other homeless, he didn’t drink, didn’t take drugs, never asked for money or handouts. He wore clean, sometimes fashionable clothes, sunglasses and a simple ball cap, all fruits of his afternoon thrift-store harvests.


He slept in a tent about a mile west of the park, a location he kept secret from the rotating cast of park characters who refer to themselves as the “Spillway Social Club.”


Quiet and reserved, he preferred being alone, which he wasn’t always able to do because of the kind, easy way about him, a gentle “Buddha”-like presence many park regulars found irresistible.


Fishermen, birders, dog walkers and their dogs, residents in the townhomes on the park’s west side: Almost everyone at the spillway knew him to some degree, even the city truck drivers who’d greet him with a honk-honk of the horn.


As he held court over the years from his wooden throne, strangers became acquaintances, acquaintances became friends and some of those friends became family, soul relatives who’d take him into their homes when hurricanes threatened, drive him to medical appointments when his sore legs acted up and help repair his bicycle.


So when he failed to show up at his bench on Aug. 3, concern spread through his extended family like wildfire. Before long, a flurry of text messages broke the news of a sad fate, summed up in a short online article.


Carlos Garcia

A man is dead after he was struck by a car while riding his bike on Tuesday morning, according to West Palm Beach Police. Investigators say Carlos Garcia, 69, was riding his bike on South Dixie Highway when he turned into the path of a Nissan Rogue.


Garcia was transported to St. Mary’s Trauma Center in critical condition and passed away shortly after midnight on Wednesday. Investigators said alcohol or impairment was not a factor, and no charges will be filed.


There would be no formal obituary, no funeral home visitation, not even a death notice in the newspaper, just a body in the morgue for the next 30 days, while authorities conducted a futile search for his next of kin.


None of that was acceptable to his Spillway family, who consider him so much more than just another of the estimated 1,500 homeless people in Palm Beach County


He was a man who touched so many lives and he deserved a proper, dignified send off.


It would be up to his Spillway friends to make it happen.


“Carlos was an angel among men,’’ said one of his close friends, real-estate broker Devin Cobb.


“I didn't want him to just be tossed away. He deserves better than that.’’


 

Carlos Garcia at Spillway Park in 2020 with "Onyx" and "Harlem," two of the many dogs he befriended at the park. (Devin Cobb)


He was born Carlos Alfonso Garcia on Feb. 24, 1953, in the town of San Nicolas de Bari on the southwest coast of Cuba.


What else is known about his life comes from whatever bits of information he entrusted with his Spillway Park family. The details are difficult if not impossible to corroborate. But the portrait they paint is both open to interpretation and widely admired.


His parents were wealthy, according to what he told a few friends. They owned a successful farm where they grew sugar cane and ran a cow-milking business.


But not long after the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro’s soldiers seized the Garcia family farm.


“He said shortly after that his dad and mother just lost their will to live and died a few months later,’’ said Jeff Campfield, a Lake Worth Beach carpenter who interviewed Mr. Garcia for a book he’s considering writing about Spillway Park’s colorful characters.


Orphaned Carlos was sent to live with an uncle in Miami. More than a decade later, he made his way north and established roots in West Palm Beach. He worked at a bait-and-tackle shop and a hotel on Palm Beach (some friends think it was The Colony) as a porter and maintenance man.


He said he was married once and had two children. Some friends remember him saying he had daughters, others sons. They lived for a while in a house on Franklin Road, a few blocks north of Forest Hill Boulevard on the city’s south end, said Billy Marsh, a Spillway Park fisherman who said his father-in-law once worked with Mr. Garcia at The Colony.


When he was laid off from his hotel job, his wife and children left him and moved away. But Mr. Garcia stayed in the West Palm area, working odd jobs.


He managed to keep a roof over his head until the day came when his income, mainly monthly Social Security checks, left nothing for housing.


“He’s been on the streets a long time, at least 10 years,’’ said Campfield, who has mentioned Mr. Garcia’s plight in Facebook posts over the years.


“Most people who live out there, they're alcoholics or drug addicts. They've got problems. But he was just straight as a pin. A real straight shooter.”


For a while, Mr. Garcia spent nights in a tent under the Dixie Highway bridge that connects West Palm Beach to Lake Worth Beach. But after a chainlink fence went up years ago, he moved to a secluded spot on public land a mile west, where he pitched the tent among the roots of a massive strangler fig tree.



He tried to keep the location secret, refusing to share it even with his closest park friends. Cobb and two others found it a few days after Mr. Garcia died.


“It was very Carlos,’’ Cobb said of the secluded campsite. “He is very private and doesn't like anybody bothering him too much.’’


When holes rotted his original tent, a deacon and a volunteer from St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach drove Mr. Garcia to Target and bought him a new one, a red and gray Coleman Weathertec large enough for six people.


Mr. Garcia stocked the domed tent with a few comforts, including a battery-operated fan, a cooler and a cot, where he slept with a machete at his side.


Although he had offers to stay in friends’ homes, he preferred the tent, if for no other reason than to ward off the raccoons that sneaked in at night and ransacked the place if Mr. Garcia wasn’t around.


Anibal Perla, a St. Juliana’s volunteer, said he told Mr. Garcia about a St. Juliana’s program that provides housing and meals for the elderly at a church in El Salvador.


“He thought about it,’’ Perla said. “He just wanted to live his life the way he had for years. He was very humble.’’


Just as the Spillway Park regulars did, the staff at St. Juliana’s took a special liking to Mr. Garcia. Because he had no address, they allowed him to have his insurance papers, food-stamp applications and other essential mail sent to the church.


When he lost his cell phone, Perla bought him a flip-phone and paid for the monthly service. “I just added him to my plan,” he said.


Church volunteers made sure he had a hot lunch every day, delivering styrofoam shell containers of spaghetti and meatballs or chicken and rice to his bench at the park.


“We usually gave him extra,’’ said Deacon Miguel Munoz. “He was very well-liked by everyone. He was a most gentle person. He never asked for anything.’’


Charlie Gijsendorfer, Carl Schulte and Carlos Garcia at Spillway Park in 2017 (Contributed)


Mr. Garcia was religious and spiritual, but he never accepted Munoz's invitations to attend services at St. Juliana. He told one friend his parents were Jewish.


“He was very much a man of God,’’ said College Park resident Carl Schulte. “I’d always say, ‘Carlos, do you need anything? And he would point to the sky and say, ‘He takes care of me. I am fine.’’’

Mr. Garcia was compassionate but had little patience for homeless people who drank excessively in the park. If they approached him, he’d casually get up and find another bench. He once scolded a homeless regular named Juan for urinating in the tree line by the canal.

He had sad soulful eyes, but his face lit up when he smiled.

“He was just an elegant and wonderful person on so many levels,’’ Schulte said. “He was homeless but he was just like a role model. He would be that person who walks the walk.’’

He had a sly sense of humor, too.


He coined nicknames for his favorite park friends – “my hermano” and “Spillway Joe” and “Coronita,” for the fisherman known to knock back a few cold Coronas while casting for snook.


“We would go to lunch pretty regularly. He always tried to pay,’’ said Cobb. “He loved going to the Pupuseria on Tenth Avenue. He would make me speak Spanish. He told them to only speak to me in Spanish.’’


Devin Cobb with Carlos Garcia at Spillway Park in Lake Worth Beach in 2021. (Contributed)


For a man with no home, he had a taste for fashion and style, evident by his many thrift-store scores — Dunhill smoking pipes, Air Jordan sneakers, an impeccable straw fedora, a George Foreman Grill.


“He’d show off a nice watch or sunglasses and ask me to look it up (online) to see what it's worth, and it was always worth a lot of money and he got it for like $2,” Cobb said.


Mr. Garcia kept many of his treasures in a rented storage unit.


“He was very frugal but he was always well-dressed, way better than me,’’ Schulte said. “I’d say, ‘Carlos, those are really nice shoes.’ And he’d say, ‘How much do you think I paid for these?’ ‘Fifteen bucks?’ And he’d be like, ‘Please. One, ninety-nine ($1.99).’ He was his own man.’’

Mr. Garcia kept company with a cat for a while, but he enjoyed the steady parade of mutts, shepherds and dobermans that raced through the park every day chasing squirrels or lounging beneath picnic tables.


One of Cobb’s two bulldogs, Onyx, preferred to just sit with Mr. Garcia, who often treated the dog to banana chunks.


“So many people might not have given him a second look because he was homeless,’’ said Michele Jones, a past president of the West Palm Beach Rotary Club, who met Mr. Garcia when she brought her dog to the park. “They missed seeing the kind soul that the rest of us did.’’


Because he was often clean-shaven, many park visitors never knew he was homeless and assumed he was “just an old guy who hangs out at the park every day,’’ Cobb said.


College Park resident Carl Schulte takes a selfie with Carlos Garcia at Spillway Park in 2019.


In the last year or so, he stopped shaving every day and grew a long ZZ Top beard that added to his mystique.


“I looked at Carlos like the Buddha. He would sit there on the bench and stare out into the trees,’’ said Valerie Vermeulen, a College Park resident who met Mr. Garcia when she started taking her dogs to Spillway Park.


On one of her first visits in 2012, she brought peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches to a small group of homeless men. They all thanked her, she said, but Mr. Garcia in particular “was so grateful.’’


A friendship was born. For a while, when her son was away at Florida State University, Mr. Garcia lived in a room at her house, insisting on paying $400 for rent.


“It’s strange that he was homeless,’’ she said. “He was smart and capable of work. He was just so content with having nothing.’’


When Hurricane Dorian took aim at South Florida in 2019, Cobb opened his townhome to Mr. Garcia for a few days. “He was a good roommate,” he said.


Carlos Garcia was a temporary guest at this Lake Worth Beach home (Contributed)

To those who knew Mr. Garcia, his ability to connect with people from so many different walks of life came as no surprise.


“Everybody knew his situation, but everybody was always welcoming to him and he was always welcoming to us,’’ said Billy Marsh, the fisherman Mr. Garcia called “Coronita.’’ “We were his family. He was just a phenomenal person.’’


“Spillway Joe” Duval remembers the day Mr. Garcia made a rare request — for help attaching a new basket to his bicycle. For 30 minutes, Duval and another park visitor worked their tools until they retrofitted the new basket onto the old bike.


“When we got it done, you could see tears in his eyes. He was so thankful,’’ Duval said. “Carlos would always put his hands together, look up to the sky and say, ‘Thank you God!’’’


In 2020, a few days before Christmas, Campfield posted a photograph of Mr. Garcia on Facebook, prompting some readers to head out to the park with gift certificates and modest donations.


“This is a genuine good soul that has been left out of society to live out his last years in obscurity,’’ Campfield wrote. “Merry Christmas Carlos!!”


 

After Carlos Garcia died, friends erected a memorial plaque on his favorite bench at Spillway Park in Lake Worth Beach.


As Mr. Garcia got older, he started slowing down. He’d been hit by a car a few years ago, Schulte said, and he complained about a sore back and pain in his legs that at times forced a limp in his walk.


Some friends said he appeared feeble and frail this year. Cobb said he took him to the chiropractor once or twice, which was an accomplishment since Mr. Garcia didn’t like doctors.


Although some wonder if the discomfort he was experiencing may have caused his bicycle to swerve in front of the vehicle that struck him on Aug. 2, others remember him as a careful rider.


“It’s hard to imagine him swerving in front of a car,’’ Schulte said. “He never rode on the road. He rode on the sidewalk.’’

Mr. Garcia was struck as he was pedaling south in the last block of Dixie Highway on the south end of West Palm Beach, just before the Lake Worth Beach border, an area within view of his bench at Spillway Park.


Some who were in the park that morning remember turning their heads toward the rescue sirens, unaware that the person paramedics were pulling off the pavement was their friend.


As news of Mr. Garcia's death spread, many Spillway Park regulars gathered around his bench for a vigil.


“When I told my wife, she broke into tears,’’ Duval said. “She wanted to come here right away just to be here.’’



A day later, a slab of wood with a cheerful yellow message was bolted to the back of the bench: “Carlos Garcia, RIP, you will be missed,’’ next to a tiny painting of three sunflowers.


The mourners took turns with a black marker, covering the rest of the makeshift plaque with personal tributes.


Mr. Garcia's body stayed in the morgue at the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's office for a month while officials conducted a fruitless search for his relatives. The body was released to funeral home and cremated on Sept. 6.





About 20 people attended a mass for Mr. Garcia at St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach on Oct. 15. It was followed two hours later by a service at at Our Lady Queen Peace Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach, where his ashes were interred.


Through the No One Buried Alone program with Palm Beach County, Our Lady Queen of Peace has a “compassion crypt” devoted to the ashes of indigents. The ashes of 56 indigents were interred there in 2021, a higher number than the usual yearly average of 30 that county officials attribute to the pandemic.


Deacon Miguel Munoz of St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach holds a box containing the ashes of Carlos Garcia (Joe Capozzi)


But Deacon Munoz said he was able to secure a separate crypt for Mr. Garcia’s ashes.


“He deserves that. He will have a dignified resting place,’’ said Munoz, who presided over the mass and service.


Mr. Garcia's crypt is at the top of a mausoleum in the shade of an orange geiger tree overlooking a brook. Water in the brook is fed from a manmade lake that gets it water from the C-51 canal, the same body of water Mr. Garcia enjoyed watching from his bench at Spillway Park.


"He was such a sweet gentleman,'' said Leigh Shinohara, who dropped of flowers at the crypt.


Deacon Miguel Munoz (right) follows Devin Cobb, who is carrying Mr. Garcia's ashes to a crypt on Oct. 15, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)



A memorial service at Spillway Park is in the works, too. It will be informal and take place around Mr. Garcia's favorite bench beneath the oak tree next to the C-51 canal.


More than two months after his death, Mr. Garcia is alive and well in the memories of his friends, many of whom continue to refer to him in the present tense.


“He is a fixture of the community, and there he is,’’ Cobb said with a laugh as he zoomed in on his smartphone at Mr. Garcia’s blurred figure in a Google Maps photo of the park taken nearly a year ago.


Mr. Garcia might have been homeless with meager finances. But if friendships are currency, he died a wealthy man.


“He was a happy man, humble,’’ Perla said. “I think we will remember him for a long time.”



Cemetery workers places Mr. Garcia's ashes into a crypt on Oct. 15, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)


Leigh Shinohara leaves flowers at the base of a crypt holding Mr. Garcia's ashes. (Joe Capozzi)



Carlos Garcia (contributed)


(This story was updated on Oct. 15, 2022, with details of Mr. Garcia's funeral service.)


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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.






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