Homelessness: How St. Johns County compares to rest of the U.S.

By Holly Hearn

Anyone walking through downtown St. Augustine is likely to notice that homelessness is an issue locally, whether it’s on touristy St. George Street or most out-of-the-way locations in town that people do not see every day. 

Locally, the St. Johns County Homeless Coalition has noticed a 30-40% increase in the past year, which pairs with the general increase in population in the county due to people moving here from other places. According to a count from the St. Johns County Continuum of Care Network, the total homeless population rose to 466 in 2023 from 349 in 2022.

It’s not just a local problem, as nationwide homeless population reached 653,104, the highest it had been since 2007, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

“The single largest trend here in St. Augustine is that the lack of affordable housing has become even more severe and has resulted in more people with full-time jobs finding themselves homeless,” Flagler College professor Sandi Gehring said, who has taught a class called “Unsheltered: Homeless and Voiceless in St. Augustine.” “We are talking about people who work in the hospitality industry and other fairly low-paying jobs, but simply cannot afford to live here.”

This is an issue seen across the country, as the amount of available low-income housing is limited. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are 11 million households that have extremely low incomes, but there are only 7 million low-income housing units total in the country.

Of those 7 million units, around 3.3 million are occupied by households with higher incomes. In terms of low-income rental properties, there was a shortage of 7.3 million in 2023, up from 6.8 million in 2019, an 8% increase. 

“We’ve had more people from other states who have moved to Florida coming in and using our pantry services,” said Sharron Green of the Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County said. “There have been many people moving here from the North. They may not necessarily be homeless, but they have moved from other places thinking it’s cheaper and better here. They haven’t realized the cost of things here compared to where they were from. They thought it was going to be way cheaper, but it’s not.”

According to a 2023 study from Smart Asset, St. Johns County is the third most expensive county in Florida, only behind Monroe and Collier counties. Best Places scores St. Augustine at a 110.9 in terms of average overall cost of living compared to the national level, which is 100.

This has been a major reason for homelessness locally, as financial burdens have become too much for many people. 

“Financial homelessness is something that has been on our radar for quite a while. Those would be folks who are primarily experiencing housing insecurity due to rising costs, not being able to maintain livable situations with what they are currently being paid, jobs and benefits falling through the cracks,” said Casey Bridges, St. Johns County Continuum of Care Coordinator. 

These financial burdens are felt by many, but a population that has had a rising rate of struggles with it is the elderly, defined by the St. Johns Continuum of Care as adults aged 55+.

The cost of living including anything from housing to groceries seems to be constantly increasing. According to Bankrate, the Cost of Living Adjustment had gone up to 8.7%, the highest in almost 40 years, although it has since gone down to 3.2% in 2024. 

The elderly population is particularly affected by this due to the fact that they get their Social Security checks on a monthly basis. The amount each individual gets on a Social Security check varies from person to person, but according to an article by the Wall Street Journal, as of September 2023, the average check was just under $1,707, and the maximum one could receive was $3,627 if they made over $160,200 annually during their career and retired at full retirement age.

For someone who was not able to accumulate a sustainable retirement fund, this would cause lots of financial struggle and could lead to homelessness. 

The elderly face many struggles that could contribute to homelessness. Social Security is one, but also those who are widowed and those who are too old to work or work a livable number of hours. All these reasons are causing an increase in the elderly population facing housing insecurities. 

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