‘Too much to lose.’ Why a Miami man moved into a backyard tent during coronavirus crisis

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — Rain dripped into in his tent and woke John Delgado before the sun.

Beneath a pounding rain, he quickly scrambled, careful not to trip into his backyard pool in the dark. He dragged the air mattress from his Coleman camping tent into the pool bathroom that acts as an airlock between himself and the rest of his family asleep inside their Homestead, Fla., house.

Delgado has spent the last two weeks living in this tent in his backyard to avoid the possibility of infecting his family with the coronavirus. He’s a frontline staffer for a food bank, Farm Share, where he oversees free groceries being handed out to thousands of people weekly at drop sites throughout South Florida.

But when he comes home from those food drops, he worries about the people at home: His 84-year-old mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s. His 48-year-old wife with a heart condition. His three teenage sons, including one with asthma. His 2-year-old grandson.

“I can’t get my family sick. I have too much to lose,” Delgado, 52, said, sitting on a chair outside of the tent on his pool deck, sipping a Heineken beneath a South Florida pink-sky sunset.

“I would rather take this on to keep my family safe,” he said.

Delgado doesn’t believe he’s doing anything particularly extreme or heroic.

Born in New Jersey but raised in Liberty City, he has dedicated his life to outreach, handing out clean needles to drug users in shooting houses, giving condoms to HIV patients and carrying bags of groceries to the homeless living under the causeways.

His work in food banks the last 14 years, the last seven at Farm Share, has shown him what it means for a person to count on having food. Children who go to school hungry are more likely to bully others and adults with food insecurity are more likely to turn to crime for food, he said.

“In order to keep the country calm, we have to let people know there are places where people can get food,” he said. “Eating is not a privilege, it’s a necessity. If there is panic and there’s nowhere to get food, qué tú crees is going to happen?”

He knows this from another life, when he got shot five times and nearly died while running with Miami gangs, spending several years in a high-security prison. Politicians from then-governor Rick Scott to U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson asked him to speak to other inmates in the years after his release.

His work takes him to Farm Share’s food banks and warehouses around Florida. On his flight back from Jacksonville two weeks ago, a flight attendant next to him had a hacking cough and a separate passenger whispered to a friend she thought she might have the coronavirus.

So when he got home, he called his wife, Barbie, and told her to open the back door.

He stripped off his clothes and put them in a trash to take right to the washing machine. He showered under the hose in the backyard.

That night at dinner, he pictured his breath as if it were a visible cloud, like in the pandemic movies, and he imagined his family sitting around the table inhaling it.

“If I was going to keep coming to work and being part of the solution, I had to figure out a way to protect my family,” he said.

So the next day he broke the news to his wife: He would sleep in a tent in their backyard rather than risk his family’s health.

Barbie, he says, was furious — and also scared. (She waved from the window inside her home but declined to be interviewed.)

She asked him to consider leaving his job or shifting to a role that doesn’t require him to deal with the public. Quitting his job, he said, isn’t an option.

“I need to pay my bills. I need to feed my family. I have to work or my family will be the ones in line waiting for food,” he said.

So on the morning Delgado awoke in a puddle, he showered in the bathroom, sprayed Lysol on everything he had touched, and dressed in the neatly folded pile of freshly laundered clothes Barbie leaves for him on the vanity.

He leaves his pajamas in a trash bag, which she will wash and leave out for him to find when he comes home.

“That’s like the magic door. You never know what you’re going to find when you open it,” he said.

Later that day, he drove from Farm Share’s headquarters in Homestead to a food drop an hour away in Liberty City. There, hundreds of cars had lined up for volunteers to drop bags of groceries into the trunks, so drivers wouldn’t have to get out, reducing the chance of coronavirus infection.

Beneath a wide-brim safari hat, he saluted his friend since childhood, Terry Elliott, who was distributing the food, from a distance. They recognized each other beneath their masks. Elliott knows John’s situation — but also his life experience.

“John is a very thoughtful person,” Elliott said. “He understands the value of life. And he understands sacrifice.”

His office back at Farm Share is redolent of Lysol as he finishes paperwork later in the day. Two employees sit masked six feet away from him in the 12-by-12 office with two window air-conditioning units blasting cold air.

“I tell him, ‘Don’t give any ideas to my wife because she’ll put me in a tent, too,” joked Farm Share staffer Alfio Ferrea.

“It’s rough, but he’s thinking about his family first. He doesn’t want to see his loved ones get sick,” adds Jose Betancourt, before leaving for the day.

Delgado lingers in his office as long as he can before heading home, when the sun is low and casts a long shadow back onto the Farm Share warehouse.

“I suck up that A/C. I need to enjoy the little things in life,” he said.

Eight minutes later, he’s home at the blue and white ranch house at the end of a cul-de-sac, where his sons shoot hoops in the front yard. At 7 p.m., though, everyone is inside, and Delgado slips in through a side gate, trampling over tall weeds, crawling vines and dandelions, careful not to trip over mango tree roots.

He turns a corner and he’s back home: The pool with salmon and cream coping stretches across the narrow yard, beneath a coconut tree. On a spit of concrete near the pool, where the house makes an L, his Coleman tent is waiting.

Delgado opens the frosted glass hurricane door to the bathroom and voila — a cold Heineken is waiting on the sink counter. Later, she’ll leave him a plate of homemade hamburgers with ketchup and mustard, the way he likes them.

“She always leaves me a cervecita or a little shot of tequila,” he said.

He strips to a sleeveless Nike T-shirt and khakis, and rests on a patio chair, watching the darkening sky go from coral to indigo.

And that’s when the mosquitoes come. They buzz and swarm, and he feels lucky to have visitors to absorb some of the blows on this day.

Most days he showers quickly, changes into his pajamas and dives into the tent. Thanks to a mesh screen on the side, he can look into his bedroom window and watch television with his family on opposite sides of the glass.

“Sometimes I tell my wife when she’s changing, ‘Oye, leave the blinds open. Give me something!’ “ he says, laughing.

But most nights, he turns in early. He tried bringing a television outside and staying up late, “but I just felt lonely. It makes my day go by faster if I just try to go to sleep.”

Instead, on clear nights, he pulls the rain slicker off the tent, and stares past the mosquitoes buzzing on the other side of the mesh into a star-studded evening sky, where a half moon glows overhead.

In those quiet moments, he fantasizes about the day he’ll hug his wife and children again, when the coronavirus pandemic has finally passed.

“I’ll tell Barbie, ‘Bake a cake!’ And then we’ll all have a good time,” he said.

He sips his beer in the still, cool night as a cloud of pot smoke blows in from a neighbor’s house.

Wild parrots squawk under the rustle of palm trees and a peacock in the distance calls like a banshee in dark.


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