Homeless count finds lackluster living conditions

By Cal Colgan | jcolgan@flagler.edu
Photo by Cal Colgan

PHOTO CAPTION: A homeless camp on the outskirts of St. Augustine has living quarters, a food tent and an outhouse. While this is one of the more elaborate camps, members of People United to Stop Homelessness say most homeless people’s living conditions are minimal.

As I walked through the woods behind the grocery store towards the campfire light, I was met by a man who asked, “What’s with the camera?”

The man was Stevie D., a 44-year-old carpenter and college graduate who had been homeless for six months. Stevie has been a resident of the county for 19 years, but now he lives in the camp behind the store with his friends T.J. and Mack, who are between their late ’60s and mid-’70s. Because the manager of the store harassed them in the past, Stevie is cautious about letting strangers into the camp.

Mack and T.J.’s old age also makes Stevie overprotective. He is the main provider of the camp, scrounging for food and other supplies for himself and his friends.

“They’re older than me, and they don’t get around so well,” Stevie said. “I’ve just about devoted my life to taking care of them because I love them. They’re my best friends.”

Stevie, Mack and T.J. are three of the approximately 600 homeless people surveyed in November by People United to Stop Homelessness, a homeless advocacy group in the county. PUSH volunteered to conduct an independent homeless census after there were allegations that the Emergency Services Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County, the agency in charge of the census every two years, mismanaged their count last year. PUSH member Terry Buckenmeyer said that when the ESHC came up with fewer homeless than they did two years before, they doubled the amount of people they counted.

Jean Hardin, the outreach coordinator of the ESHC, disagreed with Buckenmeyer’s claim that the count had been botched.

“We do the best we can on our counts,” she said. “We have to go by (the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s) guidelines.”

PUSH’s Web site said that the University of North Florida’s Center for Community Initiatives will publish a more comprehensive report on the data which will be included in PUSH’s final report on the count.
Regardless of whose count is right, both organizations agree that homelessness remains a problem in this county. The only shelter in downtown St. Augustine is the St. Francis House, which according to its Website, can only hold 21 men and eight women.

The shelter’s Web site admits that the county needs at least 100 emergency beds to meet HUD’s standards for accommodating the homeless. The Web site said the shelter has no emergency beds available to homeless families.

Because of the city’s lack of services, many homeless are forced to sleep outside, in condemned and abandoned apartment complexes, entrances to office buildings and in the Plaza de la Constitucion. Many homeless panhandle for change when they cannot get a meal at the St. Francis House, from groups that serve food in the Plaza or in the nearby churches. The constant presence of the homeless around Saint George Street and other major tourist areas downtown has led many local business owners to complain to the City Commission.

Unlike some of the homeless in the city limits, Stevie, Mack and T.J. have a consistent place to live. But the living conditions of their camp are far from ideal. The smell of burning plastic fills the air when the three men cook food on a crate from the store. Their camp has a makeshift shower and a table to hold food and drinks, but even those luxuries will not shield them from the outdoors.

“These are people who are exposed to the weather, even in sheltered places,” Buckenmeyer said, about camps like Stevie’s. “Extremely hard rains will flood any camp. The wind and the cold are always present.”

Although Stevie, Mack and T.J.’s camp has sleeping bags and tents that provide some protection against foul weather, it is so far away from the St. Francis House and other places in downtown that provide homeless services that it is hard for them to get food without foraging for it themselves.

“Mack (is) 76 years old,” Stevie said. “For him to go to (the St. Francis House), it takes him three hours, and then three hours back. And that’s basically his day.”

PUSH thinks that the county’s lack of services makes conditions like Mack’s typical. PUSH member Mary Lawrence said that in 2003, St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles joined members of the United States Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness, a group set up in 2002 by the Bush Administration. Lawrence said that Bolles and other city and county officials said that the county should come up with a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness.

Among the provisions in the plan is the Housing First model, which would provide permanent housing for the county’s homeless and also give them services like substance abuse treatment, healthcare services, and job training. The healthcare part of Housing First would especially help Mack and T.J., who both have serious injuries. Mack has wounds around the upper part of his body from being attacked by teenagers, and T.J. has a head wound from falling.

“(T.J.) was just standing there and he went down,” Stevie said. “I was holding him in my arms, and there was blood on the ground, and there was blood on me, and there was blood on him, and I’m telling people, ‘Call 911! Call 911!'”

PUSH volunteers treated Mack and T.J.’s wounds, checking over Mack’s bruises and wrapping a large cloth bandage around T.J.’s head. With his camouflage jacket and long grey-and-white beard, the volunteers joked that T.J.’s headband made him resemble Osama bin Laden. The humor helped take his mind off the severity of his condition.

Injuries like T.J.’s are why PUSH emphasizes the need for a 10-year plan. But Lawrence said that so far, the ESHC has done nothing to implement it. After contacting the agency, she received a document with the publication date of May 8, 2007, even though the ESHC was supposed to start the plan in 2003.

“(It) wasn’t a plan at all,” said Lawrence. “There was no timeline, no budget, no goals, no benchmarks.”

St. Johns County Commissioner Ken Bryan said that one of the reasons why the county cannot provide such services is because it does not have enough money to help the homeless. Bryan said the down economy has created a limited budget for the commission.

“(In 2009) alone we had a little over an $11 million shortfall,” Bryan said. “(This) year, we’re looking at a $14 million shortfall. When you have taxpaying individuals in a community like this that expect legislators and officials to provide basic services, you can’t redirect those services from those individuals just to accommodate the homeless.”

Bryan said that the commission subsidizes nonprofit organizations like the EHSC in order to provide homeless services, but they “can’t just write a check just to go towards housing for the homeless.”

Buckenmeyer said that the county commission should not view individuals with homes as more deserving of services than those without. “We’re all citizens,” he said. “I think the Constitution said something about providing for the common welfare, and part of that means making sure that everyone has their needs met.”

Stevie’s camp might not be able to wait until the Commission can ensure that every resident of the county has their needs met. Stevie said that although he thinks he can eventually get a job, he doubts that Mack and T.J. will survive without him.

“I hate to say it, because I love them both,” he said. “But I have to face reality, so at the same time I have to watch and I have to see.”

Cal Colgan is the Co-editor in Chief of The Gargoyle. He also works with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, an international grassroots network that gives basic necessities like food and clothing to the homeless and the working poor. While he has worked with PUSH volunteers in the past, he was not a participant in their count, and he did not provide any services to the homeless during his interviews with them.

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