On a warm, sticky afternoon in Downtown Jacksonville, Christopher Goetz entered Chamblin’s Uptown bookstore and café. He wore a mint-green top and sandals and carried a bag. He’s a Navy veteran and a University of North Florida student, so you may never have guessed he was once without a home, out on the streets. And because he was once homeless, Goetz has taken a keen interest in studying how homelessness works and why it’s a recurring phenomenon for some individuals. Due to knowledge gained while in pursuit of a degree in psychology, Goetz has been able to look at the homeless community and the issue of homelessness itself through a psychological lens. He claims that, among other things, it comes down to social psychology.
Goetz, who declined to be photographed for this story, told Folio Weekly that after losing his job a decade ago, he couch-hopped from place to place for a while until, with nowhere left to go, he found himself on the streets of Jacksonville. For three long years, he roamed the alleys and avenues, getting tips from other homeless people on places where it was safe to set up a tent and how to avoid getting in trouble with the police. Goetz tried to not cross paths with those members of the homeless community who relied on drugs to self-medicate and to make a living. “[I] lived under the wooden bridge on Riverwalk,” he said.
Currently, Goetz lives at Liberty Center, where he dedicates himself to learning everything he can about the psychology behind homelessness.
He says the cycle of homelessness for some individuals is caused by “prolonged adolescent syndrome,” a term he uses to describe “the desire to express personal independence while hoping that someone will make the bigger decisions.” Goetz believes that a portion of the homeless population being served at shelters and receiving goods and services are being enabled by these actions, in essence, an unbroken circle of need/receive, with no effort required by the person receiving the services.
“It becomes really bad because everything is coming to you,” he continued. As described by Goetz, this repetitive behavior of acceptance and stagnancy rewards individuals who are continuing to take advantage of the cycle of homelessness. “[People say] I’m going to justify what got me here,” he said.
He is overflowing with ideas on how to make the condition of homelessness less devastating and how we can tailor efforts to the low-income community of Jacksonville.
Specifically, he believes that the idea and perception of homelessness has to change first, before anything else can happen. “The wording of everything that has to do with homelessness is negative … We have to change the language,” he said.
By way of example, Goetz says, volunteers often come to missions with good intentions, but it seems to him that volunteers incorrectly see themselves as above and opposite to the people they serve. “It shouldn’t be two groups; it should be one group [whose members are] looking … at each other,” he said. “Sometimes two groups together can hinder instead of help. [These two] groups have to meet as equals … The groups that come to help must understand how their actions are perceived and play into the current and future attitudes of the clients. Although neither side will traditionally trust each other, the change in attitude is necessary,” he added.
Goetz mentions the cliques and subgroups that exist within the homeless community, such as addicts who sell prescriptions to buy other drugs, or those who are “coming into [the homeless community] as a ‘normal’ person and are being introduced to abnormal people.” He explains the subculture as a sort of hierarchy in which some form alliances with others to share food stamps, drugs, money or living space on the street, in shelters, or shacking up together in motels. Just as in any culture, some want a better life and some are content to stay where they are. Goetz said, “In my 10 years within the homeless, low-income community, I have found that many [who] deeply wish to change their circumstances tend to stay away from many of the opportunities that are presented and with no good reason.”
Another pertinent issue that Goetz says is a part of the homeless subculture is that individuals see homelessness as a never-ending cycle. “[We] have to look at homelessness as a life event.” In order to see homelessness as something less daunting, Goetz suggests, “[We should] take the idea of the five stages of grief therapy and use them [in the study of] homelessness.” As a psychology major, Goetz believes mental health is at the center of most, if not all, events, relationships and issues and believes implementing counseling services and psychologists for homeless individuals could only be beneficial.
Not only does Goetz have a few ideas about improving the quality of life for the homeless, he has some thoughts on how to improve local infrastructure for those in the low-income community. His suggestions include building a bike path across the Mathews Bridge, adding a pedestrian bridge from Riverside to San Marco, extending the Skyway, upgrading and repairing sewer and water systems, constructing micro-apartments and creating housing for those with major psychological illnesses. Additionally, he has an idea for the Laura Street Trio buildings. “We should convert them into a homeless [and] low-income welcome center. This would include facilities for the Duval County Health Department to assess [needs]. It would also provide a facility to [see to the] basic psychological needs of clients … and create appointments as necessary.
“My own experience shows that every homeless client should have access to mental health [services] in order to understand themselves within the current situation and work toward the desire to quit any addictions.”
In addition to his ideas about providing counseling and renovating infrastructure, Goetz believes simple logistics changes could greatly benefit the homeless community.
“[We should] make one program responsible for the feeding of homeless living on the streets.” He said that the schedules for meals provided by multiple Jacksonville missions are confusing and jumbled, especially for people who are newly homeless.
During his time on the streets, Christopher Goetz became something of a student of homelessness, learning and absorbing much about his environment and circumstances. This, along with his natural intellect and curiosity, led to one of the workers he’d befriended at the Clara White Mission to urge him to better himself. He relates how the worker, Rhonda Henry, said to him, “You need to go to school.”
And so, helped by grants and student loans, Goetz has been able to attend UNF, where he has discovered his calling. He hopes to someday find a benefactor to help him pursue a PhD in psychology and economics so he can work to find a way to halt the cycle of homelessness. Many who have experienced homelessness may want to just forget, or view that time of their lives in a purely negatively light. Not Goetz.
“It is a learning opportunity. It is the opportunity to stand on one’s own and know an individual’s true worth. I can walk down North Laura Street and know who I am … I don’t need material goods.”