By: Stephanie Pulido
Homelessness in St. Augustine is a phenomenon visibly seen by the public eye. But there is another dynamic of homelessness that often remains unseen: the close-knit relationships between these detached people living on the streets and police officers.
One year ago, the Family Reunification Program was established by the St. Augustine Police Department with the mission of reunifying loved ones within the local homeless community.
It was founded as one of the city’s only locally-funded programs with the goal of mitigating homelessness in the area by returning lost family members back home.
Officer Steven Fischer from the St. Augustine Police Department opened up about his outreach mission in the local community.
This program allows homeless people to approach the department and ask for a bus ticket to visit, and hopefully reconnect with, a family member or a friend in another city. To fund this transportation, the St. Augustine Police Department collaborates with Catholic Charities for the city.
“Catholic Charities administers the funds for the program and are reimbursed by the city. We figure out nearest bus routes out of Jacksonville, St. Augustine or Daytona and take them to one of the three stops” Fischer said.
The personal information of family member or friend must be given to validate that the bus will be taking them to an accurate location.
This personal information is required to ensure that there are no warrants or restrictions on these visitations.
It is also necessary for the city of St. Augustine to guarantee that dumping does not occur within other jurisdiction.
“We get dumped on from other surrounding cities as near as Daytona, Jacksonville, and far beyond” he said.
Fischer notes that the St. Augustine Sheriff’s Department is expressly forbidden to make someone homeless somewhere else.
“There’s a handful that have been here most of their lives,” he said. “Probably six or seven I have known even before I started with community outreach. Every two months, there are fresh batches of faces I have never seen.”
He proceeded to explain that the weather up north increases the shelterless population in North Florida.
St. Augustine also proves to be a popular spot for the shelterless due to the influx of tourists.
“We are a tourist town. Tourists bring money, and homeless people know that. When you’re on vacation, you feel more generous and are more willing to give than you are in your normal day-to-day life,” Fischer said.
Programs, such as the Family Reunification Program, motivate the impoverished by preventing them from making their current circumstances a permanent state.
“These projects serve as a means to get you back on your feet,” he said. “It’s up to you to keep it going.”
Most of the time, those that go home reunite with lost ties that ultimately assist in repairing their past and keeping them off the street.
“Homelessness will never go away completely because there are people that want to be homeless. They don’t want to live anywhere specific. They like to meander around due to mental illness or transient nature,” he said.
Fischer notes that, although the homeless community will never completely be erased, the Family Reunification Program is working to diminish the displaced population.
“That’s the issue,” Fischer said. “People don’t like to look at homelessness. They don’t like to be reminded of bad things. I hear them tell me all the time that they’re looked down upon as second-class citizens and can truly feel it. Unfortunately, they’re a reminder to everyone that we’re all a paycheck or two away from homelessness.”