The cat man of Biscayne Boulevard: Living in the wild with his feline family

They bound out of the thin line of trees and brush, tails aloft, when they hear him arrive—a dozen cats scampering toward the sound of their human caretaker. Until five months ago, he’d lived with them for nearly half a decade in the tangled woodland area behind a busy street corner in North Miami.

John Williams, the cat man of Biscayne Boulevard, sleeps at a nearby construction site. He returns every afternoon to the bus stop near Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus to be with his “babies.”

By Jesse Scheckner
South Florida Uncovered
@SoFloUncovered • Facebook • Instagram

“Twelve o’clock, it’s ‘Daddy’s home,’” said Williams, a scholarly looking 65-year-old. “I come here every day, I feed them every day and we play.”

Sitting beneath an umbrella on an assemblage of folded blankets and pillows propped against the bus stop’s glass wall, Williams is seldom far the folding metal cart containing the entirety of his worldly possessions: clothes, shoes, canned goods, a 10-pound bag of generic brand cat food, steel pots, copies of the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel–mostly for the puzzles, he said in a baritone voice.

Many community members pay weekly visits Williams and his dozen furry friends, often bestowing them gifts. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Many community members pay weekly visits Williams and his dozen furry friends, often bestowing them gifts. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

He sits for hours amid the hum of idling cars and buses and occasional outbursts from frustrated commuters. In lieu of cigarettes, he puffs on rolled-up scrap paper. The cats don’t judge him for it.

Together, they subsist largely by the charity of surrounding community members, he said, pointing to the sky to add, “He’s been very good to me.”

Williams said he talks to Jesus every day and regularly prays to God, the saints, apostles and archangels, though he’s yet to hear a response.

“Then I’d be certifiable,” he said. “[But] they take care of me, and people come by and give me a couple bucks here and there. That’s enough to take care of my kitties and take care of me.”

By his count, Williams now cares for 11 black cats and their grayish-brown matron, Mommy Mommy, who stoically supervises her progeny in his absence. All but two have been neutered or spayed with the help of local animal control volunteers, and all but two have names—the youngest, who haven’t yet earned monikers.

Among them are Fluffy, Little Mommy, DB (“dead balls”; the first to be neutered), Runt (the smallest of the litter), Nubs (who lost the end of his tail), Blinky (whose eye was scratched in a scuffle) and Beasel (whom Williams named after an old pet).

Their number had risen to 20, but some died or were taken—to good homes, hopefully, he said.

“Sometimes people come over to try and feed them and take them away, and I don’t know what happened to them,” he said. “Some have been hit by cars.”

Others, he said, succumbed to injuries from fights.

“There’s all kinds of wild animals living back here,” he said, gesturing toward the tangled thicket where, until Hurricane Irma inhospitably rearranged the topography, he’d lived in a tent for almost five years. “There’s foxes and raccoons and possums and stuff like that. If they get into a fight when they’re young, sometimes they don’t make it.”

But for their mother, Williams helped raise all the cats he cares for from infancy. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

But for their mother, Williams helped raise all the cats he cares for from infancy. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Sometimes they eat what he does—bread, sandwich meat, fruit. Often, it’s dry and canned cat food and milk he dilutes with water. He estimated that he spends roughly $23 per week to feed them, and he prefers others refrain from doing so.

His objection, he said, isn’t for fear of disloyalty or injury. He just doesn’t want them to get too fat.

“I don’t need a bunch of Garfields,” he said. “I feed them plenty. I brush them. They’re all taken care of.”

Williams and his cats are something close to famous to nearby students, commuters and passersby, some of whom visit the small square of grassland to drop off supplies, food or money. Ask anyone who frequents the area if they’ve seen the “cat guy” on the corner of 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard, and you’ll more than likely hear an emphatic yes.

Born on Oct. 31, 1952 in Stamford, Connecticut, Williams, one of five siblings, attended Western Connecticut State University in Danbury in his early 20s. A self-professed loner, school records show he left before earning a degree.

“He did not graduate, no record of clubs or anything like that,” WCSU Associate Registrar Carla Netto wrote in an email. “Looks like mostly [psychology] and [political science] courses.”

He moved to New Milford after school, joined a union, got married, bought a house and fathered two daughters. But the marriage deteriorated and, following an “ugly” divorce, he left Connecticut in 1987 for a new start on his sister’s horse ranch on Padre Island off the coast of Texas.

But he didn’t get that far. His dilapidated truck, one of the few possessions he kept from the divorce, broke down in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Before he became homeless, Williams was a career chef in Deerfield Beach for 23 years. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Before he became homeless, Williams was a career chef in Deerfield Beach for 23 years. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Stranded, he found work as a chef, a profession for which he discovered a natural talent. He relocated to Deerfield Beach in 1990 and accepted a position at Deer Creek Country Club, the first of several kitchen jobs he’d have in the area over 23 years.

His last workplace, Deerfield Country Club, laid him off in 2013. He was 60 at the time.

A year and a half passed. No one would hire him.

“I was too old,” he said. “Nobody wants to hire somebody my age at my rate of pay. I got depressed on it and kind of gave up.”

Taking what he could carry, he rode his bike southward until he spotted a grassy area obscured by high-climbing flora thin enough to traverse but thick enough to provide him privacy. He pitched his tent and called it home.

Shortly after, a small, dun-colored feral cat began turning up during dinnertime. He laid out food for her, first 30 feet away, and worked inward, gradually coaxing her to sit by him as he ate. She eventually let him pet her.

They soon fell into a routine. She’d stay with him in the evening and in the morning, as he made his coffee on a wood fire and cleaned up the area around his tent. He’d leave for his morning rounds to shopping center parking lots and alleyways, and she’d be there when he came back with what he could procure for them.

Then she disappeared. He searched, called out to her, but she was nowhere to be found.

Two weeks later, she reappeared, emaciated and with a broken leg.

“She had obviously been hit by a car and kept herself over on the side for a couple weeks and made it back to me,” he said.

Like the biblical figure, Saint Jerome, Williams, a hermit, helped an injured cat, Mommy Mommy, who became loyal to him. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Like the biblical figure, Saint Jerome, Williams, a hermit, helped an injured cat, Mommy Mommy, who became loyal to him. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Williams nursed her back to health and, a few months later, she mated with a tomcat, “big and black, with a head the size of a softball,” and gave birth to the first of two litters of kittens.

The cats, he acknowledged, were something of a lucky accident, their presence attracting positive attention to a man who might otherwise be invisible.

“People see the cats and they bring people here,” he said. “There’s a lot of cat lovers out there in the world, and they see me feeding them and taking care of them.”

For almost half a year, Williams has been displaced from his makeshift home. The area, prone to inundation from nearby drainage backups, has been unlivable since Irma struck in September. Eager to rejoin his feline family, he’s come up with a solution: a 1-foot high square wooden platform, 12 feet across, that he can place his tent upon.

“If I can get myself a foot off the ground, then I don’t have to worry about flooding out,” he said, adding he’d already determined the materials necessary to complete the modest project.

Williams occasionally reads about successful online crowdfunding campaigns like GoFundMe but said he lacks the computer literacy to start one himself. Any help, he said, is welcome.

“That would be absolutely wonderful, but I don’t want umpteen dollars; I’ve got it figured out: It’s about $400 for the materials and I’ll be good,” he said. “That gets me the materials, a small saw so I can [cut the wood], a level so it’s level, and that’s all I need.”

There’s one other thing he could use help with, he said. In August, he’ll become eligible for full social security benefits. The problem is, he has no identification.

He could find help at one of the several homeless shelters in the area, but doing so would mean leaving his cats to live for an indeterminate amount of time in group housing while shelter employees find his past identification, birth certificate and process his paperwork—a scenario he finds repellent.

John Williams, 65, said taking care of his cats is a major reason he’s remained on the corner of 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard for almost five years. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

John Williams, 65, said taking care of his cats is a major reason he’s remained on the corner of 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard for almost five years. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

“I like being by myself,” he said. “I don’t like being in a place with 30 people. I’m kind of claustrophobic and I like the outdoors and I kind of like the way I am.”

Even with help from a shelter, Williams will find restoring his legal status challenging, according to Camillus House Marketing Vice President Sam Gil. Doing so without help, however, would prove even harder.

“In his case, it would be difficult for him if he doesn’t have any IDs to establish his identity,” said Gil. “He could do it, but it could take some time.”

For the most part, though, Williams said he’s happy and in good shape, having held up remarkably well despite his prolonged exposure to the elements. And aside from a few dental issues, he appears healthy and spry, if moderately malnourished. If he were to get his paperwork in order, he could apply for Medicare, though he sees little reason to.

“I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” Williams said, adding he doesn’t drink or do drugs. “I’ve never really needed to do that.”

And, of course, he said, the cats keep him youthful and optimistic. He’d given up hope, but in their company and affection, he’s found purpose.

“These guys make me laugh, and they make me smile,” he said. “I come over here and they all come running. How can you not be happy with that?”

The Panther Press published this piece on Feb. 19, 2018. Interested in having low-cost, timely and professionally edited work for your news organization? Read about us here and contact News Director Dan Evans at daniel.evans@fiu.edu.