Rotten Luck

He was cheated by the lottery, he says. But the sad state of homeless care may be the real culprit.

click to enlarge CHEATED? For the last seven years, David Castellano has been camped out on Sheldon Road claiming he won the Pennsylvania Lottery. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
CHEATED? For the last seven years, David Castellano has been camped out on Sheldon Road claiming he won the Pennsylvania Lottery.

This unusually hot October day is like any other for David Castellano of Tampa.

He wakes up in his makeshift bed in the thickets off West Hillsborough Avenue and treks down Sheldon Road, pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon filled with plastic jugs of water and several pieces of white poster board. Once Castellano reaches a patch of worn-down grass between the 7-Eleven and an apartment complex, he leans his hand-scrawled signs against his wagon, unfolds an olive green Coleman lawn chair and plops down. He'll be here all day.

To the fast-moving vehicles zooming past, the heavily bearded Castellano and his signs probably look like a one-man antiwar protest. But a closer inspection reveals a more puzzling manifesto.

"I WON THE LOTTERY ... PAY UP!" declares one placard.

"I WANT TO GO HOME!" is scribbled on the other.

Castellano is furious with the Pennsylvania Lottery. For the last seven years, he has camped out on Sheldon Road with his signs claiming he won Pa.'s 1981 $83 million jackpot.

But his ire does not end there.

Castellano is also angry at the states of Alabama and Tennessee. And the local Veterans Administration Hospital. And the FBI, Winn-Dixie and the taxi cab drivers that blow past him each day. And after I introduce myself as a reporter, he's not quite sure about me either.

Castellano says his plight began in 1981, when a family member stole his winning lottery ticket while he was visiting Pennsylvania. But his problems likely started years before that.

Born in 1951 in Pennsylvania, Castellano moved to Tampa when he was still an infant and lived with his mother and father. In 1969, he enrolled in Hillsborough Community College, but soon dropped out. Six months later, the Army drafted him to fight in Vietnam. Castellano says he never saw combat, but was injured during a training exercise. During his hospitalization, Castellano says his commanding officer suggested he might have mental health problems and discharged him.

After returning to Tampa, Castellano moved in with his parents and started a handyman business. But once he began protesting his winning lottery ticket in 1981, Castellano says the government went after him. Strangers stalked him. The FBI bugged his phone and evicted him from his house. That's not even counting the rods in his leg controlled by the FCC.

"These people insist I have a mental illness," Castellano says. "They're trying to say I need a doctor, but I think they're trying to keep my mouth shut."

According to the Hillsborough County Coalition of the Homeless, 23 percent of the 9,500 homeless men and women in the county have persistent or severe mental illness. Court records show Castellano has been in and out of the county's mental health court since the mid-'80s. He admits that he's been bounced around several mental health facilities over the years. And yet Castellano will tell you he doesn't need help — unless you can procure his jackpot winnings.

While we talk, a middle-aged man pulls up in a white SUV. "I've passed by you for three years taking my daughter to school," he says. "I don't have a lot of money, but my church can help."

He leaves his number and says he'll return. But after he drives off, Castellano tells me the man cannot be trusted.

"These businesspeople come by all the time," he sneers. "It's a hoax. It's just a bunch of malarkey."

Castellano's paranoia keeps him eating packaged food from the gas station and avoiding the local restaurants that line West Hillsborough Avenue, which he blames for poisoning him.

"So I wrote them bills and sent them bills," he says, taking out a neatly folded piece of notebook paper addressed to a nearby fast-food joint:

Billed.

100 x 100 trillion dollars. Non-negotiable.

David Castellano

Castellano is a familiar face to the outreach team of Mental Health Care Inc., a Tampa nonprofit serving children and adults with mental illness.

"He talks very little," says Jenine LaCoe, program manager for MHC. "One of the toughest areas is when you know someone who probably needs medication and has not taken it, maybe for years. It takes a very long time to convince them it will help. Sometimes it takes them years to trust one person."

For these "chronically homeless" individuals, advocates say, the best hope lies in programs that put them into housing first and then treat their illness. If you place them in housing before they're stable, LaCoe says, "you usually have a better outcome of them wanting to take their medicine and get off of alcohol and drugs." It's an approach called Housing First, and it's had some success in other large cities. But Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Coalition for the Homeless, says the money is just not there for Tampa.

"[Housing First is] not something we've been able to fully implement," she says. "We have not had the resources."

So Castellano remains on Sheldon Road, waiting for someone to take up his cause.

"This is why I put these signs up," he says. "I know someday, there is going to be someone able to help me."

Dr. Sam Tsemberis, who developed the Housing First model of homeless care, speaks at the first annual Florida Coalition for the Homeless conference held Oct. 25-26 in St. Petersburg. Visit flshc.net for details.

For more details about the circumstances that led to David Castellano's homelessness, see Alex Pickett's Oct. 24 post on Creative Loafing's blog, blurbex.com. 

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