Crippled by apathy, not compassion

The rising tide of homelessness in St. Johns County

By Cal Colgan |

It was a chilly Tuesday night as I fed the hungry men and women who came to Food Not Bombs. They quickly gobbled up the stir-fry and noodles as I sat down next to Troy, a newcomer to the homeless individuals who gather for the meal. Troy was a professional welder before his economic situation caused him to be turned out onto the street. As we thumbed through photographs of his family, I realized he had not been homeless for that long. Troy is a casualty of poverty, and the growing menace of homelessness in St. Johns County.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families’ Annual Report of the Homeless Conditions in Florida, from 2006 to 2007 the homeless population hiked from about 997 people to 1,238. Currently, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville is still compiling this January’s census surveys, but homeless advocate Mary Lawrence said that the recent count estimates that about 1,370 people are homeless in this county, a 10 percent increase in the last two years.

However, Lawrence doubts the accuracy of these figures.

Co-founder of People United to Stop Homelessness, a group whose primary goals are, in her words, “education, outreach, and advocacy at all levels,” city, county and national, Lawrence said the number of homeless in St. Johns County is much higher. She said that in the wake of the economic crisis, foreclosure rates in St. Johns County have risen by 130 percent, making an estimation of 2000 homeless people in the county seem more likely.

Both Lawrence and PUSH member and labor organizer Terry Buckenmeyer said the efforts to count the homeless in January were flawed. No one counted the individuals who live in the ramshackle camps along State Roads 312 and 16, and many of those outside of St. Augustine, like the migrants in Hastings, were overlooked. There were even instances where the desperate individuals looking for work at the labor halls were counted twice.

But even the average person’s conception of who is homeless in St. Johns County is flawed.

“Most [of the homeless in St. Johns County] have been residents for over seven years,” said Buckenmeyer. “The majority of the homeless are families that live in cars.”

Buckenmeyer said perhaps the biggest reason why these families go uncounted is the all-pervasive fear that if they did make their situation public, the Department of Children and Families would put the children into foster care.

And as more and more families are being forced out into the streets, the city is seeing more and more homeless children. The DCF reported that in 2007, there were approximately 251 children under the age of 18 in St. Johns County. Last November, Lawrence spoke with Raymond Randolph, program specialist for student services at the St. Johns County District School Board. Randolph informed her that there are currently 92 homeless children enrolled in the school district.

But at least the children have some semblance of security, however small. The situation of veterans in the county is far more severe. In 2007, the DCF reported that 217 veterans were among the homeless in St. Johns County, 14 percent of the overall homeless population. But Lawrence speculates that escalation of the war in Iraq has shot the number of homeless vets in this county to as much as 18 percent of the known homeless.

Buckenmeyer, a veteran from the Vietnam era, is especially concerned. “The nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, without any time for debriefing [the soldiers],” has resulted in an instance where there are an overwhelming amount of veterans coming back to the U.S. with post-traumatic stress disorder. And since they are discouraged from reporting their disorders to therapists and military officials, Buckenmeyer said, these veterans are receiving little, if any, treatment. Often, they find themselves among those whose home is a makeshift campsite in the woods or a bundle of blankets in alleyways, parks and plazas.

Such examples of abject poverty among our fellow citizens might compel you to think that St. Johns County has been taking the necessary steps to vanquish the hideous monster of homelessness.

You would be wrong.

The county government has done very little to promote any remotely effective program to end homelessness in its communities. Lawrence said in 2002, President Bush established an inter-agency council to stop homelessness. Counties throughout Florida were prompted to draft and implement comprehensive plans to stop homelessness in their communities. But although St. Johns County pledged to draft a 10-year plan in 2003, said Lawrence, the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County did not present the plan to the county government until three years later.

And although the plan outlined such important programs and services as “a Homeless Management Information System . . . to link all services, screen data for eligibility, and gather data needed to monitor progress of implementation,” and “development of a community-wide Housing First program that will provide permanent housing for all that are homeless,” to date, none of these services have been carried out.

In the past, our city leaders’ answer to curb the growing amount of St. Augustinians who do not eat three meals a day and do not have adequate shelter at night is to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. Often, this involves removing homeless individuals that frequent downtown. On nights with especially foul weather, the local churches will occasionally open their doors to the downtrodden, only to kick them back out onto the streets in the morning.

The most notorious comment about homelessness in this city was made by Mayor Joe Boles in the Oct. 9, 2007 issue of Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly: “The homeless, they’re scary, and they’re creepy. We want to be compassionate, but we don’t want to be crippled by compassion.”

With St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary fast approaching, Boles has tried to recant his statements through lackluster actions. Lawrence said Boles has since become friendly with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, and has appointed Holly Yelton as the chairperson of the commission to rewrite the ESHC’s 10-year plan.

Any city efforts to improve the homeless condition, however, have been mired by faulty reasoning and mismanagement.

Since transitional housing shelters are only an option for families, the only temporary shelter in all of St. Johns County for the chronically homeless is the St. Francis House Emergency Shelter and Soup Kitchen. With only 28 beds, the two-story building is hopelessly overcrowded.

According to Buckenmeyer, Boles held the city’s first forum on homelessness on September 3, 2007. Lawrence said $57,000 from the forum’s gala was slated to go toward the creation of a new shelter. The St. Francis House was looking to purchase a property last year, but $57,000 is nowhere near the $3.3 million needed to purchase the property, and although Boles organized another gala last year, participation on the project has since fallen through when it was discovered that any efforts to refurbish the property would cost an additional $3 million.

It is hard to think that homelessness in this county can be reduced, let alone eliminated, any time soon. But the purpose of this article is not to arouse despair and pessimism.

Programs and services can, and should, be put in place that would greatly lessen the problem.

Buckenmeyer lists a number of actions that the county can take to ensure that no one is forced to survive on the streets. Pointing to the increase in homeless veterans, he said soldiers being discharged from the military “need to have time for non-punitive un-training,” where they are essentially taught to behave more as civilians and less as soldiers prone to reflex killing. Buckenmeyer also believes that the county should extend its efforts in providing treatment programs for the homeless that are incarcerated by following up with them after they are released, and that adequate foster care should be provided to homeless children.

Lawrence said $252 million of President Obama’s proposed economic stimulus package is going to the state to address homelessness and homeless prevention. St. Johns County should use their allotted portion of the money to curb homelessness in its communities, she said.

Both Buckenmeyer and Lawrence agree that the biggest cause of homelessness in our communities is a lack of affordable housing.

“There are parts [of the city and the county] where there are no apartments,” Buckenmeyer said, explaining that as people lose homes, they are forced to rent apartments, and those who cannot afford the rent generally become homeless.

“Developers often decide the price range [of affordable housing],” said Buckenmeyer. “Their idea of affordable housing is not affordable for the average working person. We need to make changes.”

One change that Lawrence suggested is implementing the Housing First program that was mentioned in the original 10-year plan. “Most cities that have reduced the [homeless] problem by 30 to 50 percent—this is the approach they’ve taken,” Lawrence said.

It is clear that necessary steps can be taken by St. Johns County to douse the rising flames of homelessness before it grows to a subterranean fire that engulfs our communities, plummeting more and more working people into the misery of poverty. If we are to prevent any more of our citizens from ending up like Troy, we must abide by the words written by the man after which our city is named:

“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.”

It is time for St. Johns County to be ruled by the moral code of love, and to not be crippled by apathy.

2011 Gargoyle Anthology Award Winner: Grand Award

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