St. Francis Director helps homeless through tough love

Renee Morris, Director of the St. Francis House

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Upon first glance, the St. Francis House, a light green, two-story townhouse bursting at the seams with color, appears more like a bed and breakfast than a refuge for the homeless. The differences aren’t only skin deep.

Director Renee Morris, like the St. Francis House, proves that appearances can be deceiving. A petite, well-dressed woman with an assertive, to-the-point demeanor, Morris can be intimidating to a stranger. Closer examination reveals an individual with a profound passion for helping others.

In a time when homelessness and poverty are widespread, people like Morris can make a difference. There are an estimated 663,782 homeless individuals in the U.S., according to the Housing and Urban Development Department. Florida ranks third in the nation, with an estimated 58,000 homeless, according to a 2011 Council on Homelessness report.

“I love our people here, I love them, but I have to do a lot of tough love,” Morris said. “I’m not going to hold anyone’s hand while they’re thinking that they’re getting over on me.”

Morris, in her time as director of the St. Francis House, has set out to make the St. Francis House as different on the inside as it is on the outside. She has focused on changing its reputation.

Changing the reputation of the St. Francis House has been no easy feat. At the time that Morris became director in 2007, it was considered to be a center for drug activity and crime.

“A lot of the community blamed St. Francis House for all the crime that was in this area,” Morris said. “When I took over I said, no, no more. I have really cleaned up the streets.”

The Residents

More than merely providing food or a roof over one’s head, the St. Francis House aims to rehabilitate and reinvigorate a homeless population that is increasingly comprised of poverty-stricken families and educated, accomplished individuals who have fallen on hard times.

Many residents, such as Rachel Ludwig, find solace because of the presence of individuals with similar situations.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt a lot of support from the staff members,” Ludwig said. “There’s always people here that you can talk to. You can relate to them. They have similar stories.”

The St. Francis House tries to do things a bit differently, especially when it comes to helping individuals become financially independent. Some of these initiatives, such as providing dress clothes for the homeless seeking jobs, have proved successful.

“We give them not only the clothing, but the attitude that goes with it,” Morris said. “It’s amazing when someone goes out of their comfort zone. They grow 10 inches taller. They have more confidence. They’re able to go out there and people remember them.”

Sometimes, the successes of Morris’ residents surprise her. Morris says their success is a testament to the effectiveness of the St. Francis system.

“There was one young man who I remember thinking ‘oh, he’s not going to make it’. By golly, he dressed up, cut his hair and the same day, he got a job,” Morris said. “The system really does work if you work it.”

The St. Francis House does not just encourage residents to go out and find employment. Sometimes, residents and former residents find employment closer to home.

Morris’ staff members, including her receptionist and the two chefs who provide over 380 meals a day to St. Francis residents and visitors, live in transitional housing. Some of them, like receptionist Mary Cooke, 60, did not initially get along well with Morris.

Mary Cooke, who was formerly homeless, works as a receptionist for the St. Francis House

Mary Cooke, St. Francis House receptionist

When Cooke, who has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for most of her life, came to stay at the St. Francis House, Morris was convinced that Cooke was not serious about rehabilitation.

That changed, however, after a long, frank heart-to-heart between Morris and Cooke. Morris set forth several requirements for Cooke remaining in the St. Francis House, including attending substance abuse meetings regularly.

Cooke has since worked towards remaining sober, repairing relationships and becoming independent. She now works 30 hours per week helping Morris with day-to-day tasks.

“She has done absolutely everything she can to help me,” Cooke said. “Just to be given a chance and to be trusted has been wonderful for me.”

As Morris says, everyone deserves a second chance. Many St. Francis residents use that second chance to give back to the community.

“Everybody here, case workers, staff, residents, we all work together to make our community better,” Morris said. “We want to be that shining example of what a productive, happy citizen is.”

From Iowa to St. Augustine, with love

Despite Morris’ success in helping many St. Francis residents gain employment and self-sufficiency, becoming its head was the last thing on her mind six years ago.

In fact, Morris was planning to retire from her job as a St. Augustine police officer when she was asked to become the director. Although she had volunteered and served on the board of directors at the St. Francis House since 2001, the next step didn’t seem to be in the cards.

Her initial ‘no’ would not hold up for long. The decision to maintain an institution like the St. Francis House was one Morris did not take lightly.

“After talking with my pastor, friends, my family and doing a little soul-searching, I said yes,” Morris said.

Morris’ personal background influenced her desire to help those in need. Although she is now on the administrative side of combatting the struggles against poverty, she knows the hardships faced by the homeless firsthand.

Originally from Iowa, Morris has been homeless herself. She uses that experience in her day-to-day approach with St. Francis residents and staff members.

“I know, in my own life, that if I didn’t work for what I have, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do. I too have been homeless. I’ve been homeless twice in my life. I know what it’s like to be without. I know what it’s like to not have a support system. I know what it’s like to be scared half out of my gourd not knowing what tomorrow’s going to bring,” Morris said. “I know too that I didn’t want to be in that situation. I crawled my way out of it to become a happy, productive citizen.”

Changing the face of homelessness

Partly due to her unique life experience, Morris has a desire to change the perception of what homeless is. The archetypical street beggar, according to Morris, is not the sort of resident that seeks the help of the St. Francis House.

Many of the homeless that come to the St. Francis House for sustenance, shelter and a helping hand are individuals who have fallen victim to the economic climate or illness. Some are technically trained, have college educations or even Master’s degrees. There are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, children and veterans.

“People normally think of the homeless as those stinky people on the corners begging and I’m here to tell you that those people don’t even want to come here to get services from us,” Morris said. “They know we have a strict program here. They know they can’t come here intoxicated. They know they can’t come here and just get a handout.”

The ones who succeed in the program are the ones who, like Morris, are willing to pull themselves out of a bad situation—no matter how difficult that may be.

It’s a clear, beautiful morning in St. Augustine, and on Washington Street a handful of St. Francis residents have elected to sit out on the deck. Inside, in the St. Francis office, Morris jokes with Cooke, who she affectionately calls “her biggest knucklehead.”

Although Morris is a staunch advocate for tough love and personal responsibility, it’s moments like these when her true compassion for her residents shines through. For Morris, it’s not just the successes or failures—it’s about the journey of helping others in need.

“You can’t help everybody. You can’t love everybody,” Morris said. “You can give them tools. You plant the seeds. We have had a lot of success with so many people here.”

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