By Marissa Donnelly
Most come on foot, some on bicycles and even a few with a dog in tow, but all will leave the dirt lot tonight with a full stomach and a couple of hardboiled eggs in their back pockets.
Many Americans make plans to fly, drive or walk next door to visit family and friends over the holidays. Nearly 1,500 people in St. Johns County spend the season homeless. But they don’t have to be hungry. Dining with Dignity is a nightly homeless feeding on the corner of Bridge and Granada streets in downtown St. Augustine, Fla. And it’s just one of the many feedings available. Come rain or shine, Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, a group of concerned citizens arrive without fail. Shepherd’s Haven, Inc., a nonprofit organization, feeds anywhere from 50 to 100 hungry stomachs every Wednesday evening. Also present is the Wildflower Clinic, a free medical and dental clinic that serves the uninsured, low-income adults of St. Johns County.
Shepherd’s Haven, Inc. is owned and operated by couple Tom and Bobbie Terry. Running on around $100 worth of donations a month, they’re two run-of-the-mill people who manage to do extraordinary things on a shoestring budget.
“God provides,” Bobbie Terry said, when asked how that could be possible. Second Harvest of North Florida is a food distributor to nonprofit agencies of 17 counties within northern Florida. Providing the bulk of their meats, Shepherd’s Haven, Inc. receives an acute discount as one of their agencies.
Terry and her husband’s signature dish is a batch of chili, coveted for the protein found in the beans. They cover all the major food groups, including sweets, and also provide vegetarian options with donations from the Knights of Columbus and St. Anastasia Catholic Church. On the third Wednesday of every month the Sisters of St. Joseph join the team, preparing and serving a batch of soup.
Even Calypso, the white mutt tied up next to the trash bin, is sent into the night with a gallon-sized bag of dog food. “God has put all of these resources together,” Bobbie Terry said. “His blessings are crowding me out of my house,” referring to the amount of donated goods they receive.
Help can, and does, however, come from unexpected avenues as well. In lieu of birthday gifts, a lady on Anastasia Island, who was turning 100 years old, asked for canned goods to be donated to the homeless. Second Harvest, Inc. was the beneficiary.
The cathedral group from The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine pioneered the homeless feedings. Originally held downtown in the Plaza de la Constitucion, the group eventually decided to end its run. “We said OK, let’s pray about this,” Bobbie Terry said. And Shepherd’s Haven, Inc. picked up where the group had left off. “We were moved to do so. It’s been awesome.”
It’s all very inconspicuous, but for the past three years members of the community have arrived every evening without obligation or a hidden agenda. On Wednesdays, at 5:30 p.m., the otherwise vacant lot is transformed into Tom and Bobbie Terry’s dining room. Volunteers erect the white tent, carry collapsible tables and mismatched chairs from the onsite shed and company comes over for dinner. First lead in prayer by Bobbie Terry, hungry bodies line up alongside the weathered fence to be handed what may be their only meal of the day.
“Usually we get ice cream on Wednesdays, but since it’s chilly I guess we’re having cake tonight,” Maggie said, her purple sleeping bag tied up and resting at her feet. A Green Bay, Wis., native, Maggie was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, asthma and degenerative disc disease. She moved to St. Augustine four and a half years ago, no longer able to handle the harsh northern winters.
“Yeah, we got wet last night sleeping in the woods and all I had was shorts,” she said, squeezing mustard onto her hotdog wearing a “Life is Good” T-shirt. “We’ve got different spots but you don’t tell which part of the woods you go to. Then you’ll get some idiot showing up.”
The amount of people fed in an evening depends heavily upon how late into the month it is. For the first few weeks some 50 to 60 diners stroll onto the lot. Social Security and Medicare checks are distributed at the beginning of the month, many using those checks for eating at restaurants until it runs out. By the end of the month, nearly 100 bodies line up in a single file line with a plastic foam plate in hand. And so the cycle continues.
According to Volume I of the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, since 2007 Florida has had the largest increase in the rate of homelessness. More than 7,000 Floridians experienced homelessness in 2012 than in 2007, a 14.8 percent increase. In addition, during the same period, homelessness decreased 5.7 percent nationally.
Of the nation’s homeless population, 8.7 percent live in Florida, the third largest homeless population in the country after California, 20.7 percent, and New York, 11.0 percent. Florida also has the third highest rate of unsheltered homeless persons at 64.1 percent. The unsheltered include those who live in places not meant for human habitation, including the streets, abandoned buildings, vehicles or parks.
“The homeless here are the ones who have been so for years, and a lot of them really don’t want to be anything but homeless. It’s their life,” Caroline Volk said, the Wildflower Clinic’s community outreach and healthy lifestyles nurse. “Not all of them are necessarily homeless. A lot of them live in the neighborhood but are very poor.”
It’s not just a hot meal that Wednesdays with Shepherd’s Haven, Inc. provides. With the help of some regulars, Tom Terry leans out of the window as he backs his pickup truck into the lot. Attached at the hitch is a red trailer, a clothing store on wheels. And they have the best deal in town; everything is free.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Bobbie Terry yelled from inside the trailer. Dangling from wire hangers, the sizes of hand-me-down jackets, closed-toed shoes and jeans are called out and given to eager hands to try on. Just weeks ago they were handing out short-sleeved shirts and shorts, a sign of the changing of seasons.
“Woo-hoo! Now it’s a party!” someone yelled as Tom Terry carried a Jose Cuervo box from the trailer. The box was filled with clothing donations, not the world’s best-selling tequila as many were displeased to learn. Though socks will keep them warmer far longer than two fingers of tequila would.
Sounds of unfastening Velcro straps can be heard off in the distance. Wednesdays at Dining with Dignity are rather popular. Not only is Shepherd’s Haven, Inc. the caterer, but blood pressure checks and medical advice is also available from the Wildflower Clinic.
Serving the uninsured, low-income adults of St. Johns County, the Wildflower Clinic provides free medical and dental services six days a week to individuals falling at least 200 percent below the poverty line, the equivalent of $1,900 a month for a household of one.
“By sitting them down and having their blood pressure taken it’s a chance to engage them and to find out what their medical needs are,” Volk said, with a soft and comforting British accent. She described the scenario as if she were a traffic controller, directing patients to the nearest location they can find help.
Some only approach the table for the free goodies, nonchalantly rummaging through the plastic bins for toothpaste, shampoo and disposable razors. Volk has found, however, that many do care about their health, and depend on having their blood pressure monitored weekly. They are interested in learning how they can access the clinic and what other services are available to them. And what’s even better is that they’re beginning to trust the clinic staff and its volunteers.
Once a volunteer herself, Volk is now one of the few paid employees of the Wildflower Clinic. She, along with volunteers, has arrived every Wednesday evening for Dining with Dignity since January 2013. However they are limited in what they can do on site. Aside from reading blood pressure levels and handing out toiletries, they must rely heavily upon engaging and informing those who are eligible for treatment to pay a visit to the clinic.
Donning a turquoise, unbuttoned shirt with a map of the Caribbean Sea printed on it, a middle-aged white man was finishing off the rest of his hotdog while seated in cuffs. Nancy Seyler, a nurse, was detaining the bare-chested man in a blood pressure cuff, questioning him on his health history. She seized the opportunity to inform him of his eligibility to receive medical and dental services at the Wildflower Clinic. “130 over 80” Seyler said, reading him the results. He was soon released from custody with a pink card explaining blood pressure levels, a few sample-sized toiletries and a brochure for the clinic.
The Wildflower Clinic is located off West King street at 268 Herbert St., only a mile and a half from the feeding site. Though close in proximity, few from Dining with Dignity have gone on to visit the clinic. “I’ve seen about three or four patients from here, which is a good number,” Katrina Leonard said, the Wildflower Clinic’s medical coordinator. “It’s three or four more than we would have seen.”
Using the opportunity to conduct demographic research, Volk has patients write down their information, including their gender, race and age. During the last 11 months she has found that more than 75 percent of those who come to the feeding are white males between 45 and 60 years old with no health or dental benefits.
Volk believes most people who come for the feedings do not feel safe walking to the clinic because of the area it is situated in, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. And they have no other means of transportation. “Most of the criticism from the homeless comes from them not knowing when the clinics are open and how they can access them,” Volk said.
Visits to the clinic are often the result of a pain or discomfort, like a toothache. Volk was adamant that checking blood pressure levels on a weekly basis was a step in the right direction in encouraging people to be accountable for their health. Often there are no signs of high or low blood pressure, other than a headache, but it can be serious enough to cause an avoidable death.
After several weeks of making routine appearances, it was clear to Volk that many of those coming to the feedings were going to need follow-ups. St. Vincent Hospital’s Mobile Medical Clinic now arrives on a quarterly basis, the Wildflower Clinic providing its own medical practitioners. Complete with an onboard pharmacy, the clinic’s staff is able to prescribe and refill prescriptions, as well as administer flu and tetanus shots.
Johnny sat down to have his blood pressure checked. A regular, he inquired about the condition of his friend David. “He’s a lot better now ain’t he?” Johnny asked. Volk, without disclosing any information, said she had advised David to go back the emergency room, as his condition had gotten worse. “It’s not contagious,” Johnny said. “I told him. I said, ‘you can’t just get drunk and fall out into the streets. The skeeters gonna eat you alive.’”
Volk had been monitoring Johnny’s pressure for weeks, at one point it had reached 185 over 90. “They saved my life,” said the elderly white man with a proper Southern drawl. “I had a mini-stroke my blood pressure was so high. She finally got me on the bus and they put me on 100 milligrams a day of blood pressure medicine.”
Now finding himself in yet another quandary, Johnny said the medicine keeps him up all night going to the bathroom. Volk told him the diuretic in the medicine pulls fluid from the blood vessels, lowering his blood pressure. “It’s pissing me off, that’s all I can say.” But beneath his mustache, as white as a bone bleached by the sun, was a hint of a smile. “Stubborn this one is,” Volk said shaking her head, both hands tucked inside her floral scrub top.
And with a tip of his old, weathered, Stetson-styled hat, Johnny donned his guitar case, hollered “God bless y’all,” and headed home on foot, wherever that would be for the night, with hardboiled eggs in his back pocket.