Helping, or Hiding, the Homeless?

The homeless are a lightning rod for those trying to revitalize downtown. They point to the homeless gathering in public places as a reason that more people won’t attend more downtown events.

About 4,000 homeless people in Jacksonville each night are looking for shelter, according to the City Rescue Mission. That’s a 33 percent increase in Jacksonville over the past year. CRM says more than 400 homeless people walk the streets of downtown.

Mayor Alvin Brown has made reversing the cycle of homelessness a priority. He announced last week that the City of Jacksonville and City Rescue Mission are partnering for a one-year pilot project to host a daytime resource center for homeless people. Private donations will fund the $70,000 needed to build the center within the existing 3,000-square-foot facility at 234 W. State St., known as the New Life Inn. It will serve about 200 people during business hours three days a week starting in January. Plans include Internet access, showers, washers and dryers, office space, telephones with community voicemail and mailbox access. The center will provide temporary respite from bad weather and there are plans for an outdoor space that might approximate the atmosphere of Hemming Plaza.

The purpose of the center is to provide centralized access to workforce skills training and transitional housing services. City Rescue Mission’s downtown campus already offers emergency shelter and serves hundreds of people daily. CRM also runs a thrift store and a women’s center. Its LifeBuilders Recovery Program is an 18-month Bible-based, residential and regeneration program.

City Rescue Mission CEO David Bugher said there are a lot of details to iron out for the day center including staffing and needed construction. One city staff member will be assigned as a liaison to the center, but operational costs and duties will be handled through private donations and the efforts – both paid and volunteer – of homeless people benefiting from the facility. Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Northeast Florida helped pull together more than three dozen agencies to work on the idea.

The homeless are often referred to as a large, faceless problem — not as individual people. But the authors of one project want to change that. “Word for Word, Homeless Voices” was written by UNF students with Pam Monteleone, UNF associate professor of English and drama. A community-based Transformational Learning Opportunity grant allowed students to interview homeless individuals and those who work with them at the Sulzbacher Center and at Hemming Plaza.

Before the interviews, the students learned about documentary playwriting where all the dialogue is taken directly from interviews or documents. They researched local homelessness and some of its causes such as unemployment, mental illness and drug abuse. After completing 20 interviews and the laborious task of transcribing them, they started writing.

Monteleone recounted one man in Hemming Plaza who said he only had 15 minutes, but more than an hour later they were still talking. He said he had no idea why he stayed that long. She said, “I think because you wanted someone who would listen to you.”

Meredith Raiford, a 26-year-old English senior, said an interview with a man who had worked in kitchens for a long time taught her a lesson about changing behavior. The man said, “My mom told me if you always cook with the same recipe, you’ll always get the same dish.”

Raiford said many of her classmates were terrified at first about going downtown and encountering homeless people face to face. “Such a large percentage of my peers had this fear; I can only imagine what this fear is translated to in the large scale of Jacksonville.”

But she once had to face her own fears. When Raiford first received her driver’s license, she wanted to drive to Riverside from her house in Arlington, which meant driving through downtown. Her mother, grandmother and father all told her to lock her doors as soon as she crossed the Mathews Bridge. And she did. “It could have been someone with a briefcase or someone with a shopping cart, I reflexively locked my door.”

As she grew up, she started frequenting downtown locations such as Chamblin’s Uptown, the library and MOCA. She stopped worrying about locking her car doors. “I can’t even begin to explain how silly I think I was.”

Raiford said the anxiety her classmates had about downtown has diminished as they became acquainted with the real people and the facts. “They are less afraid of the situation they were unsure of because they are no longer unsure.”

Andrew Potochnik, a 24-year-old multimedia journalism and production senior, had experience interviewing people. But the interview he conducted at Sulzbacher was completely different. “It’s almost like a therapist. You almost don’t say anything; you’re just there to listen.”

The man he interviewed had only been homeless for a few months as a result of economic issues. He had sent out 250-300 job applications in the last few months. “I had this feeling of helplessness. I just wanted to help him and see him get back on track.”

Potochnik said he’s lucky because if his life took a bad turn, he could depend on his family. But he knows people in school who aren’t as fortunate. “You can see how people become homeless. It’s not as dramatic as we make it out to be. It can be as simple as having bad luck, or having a medical illness or losing a job. They’re not that different than us.”

About 150 hours of research and more than 30 hours of recordings have been condensed into a 75-minute play set in Hemming Plaza. Actors and some of the students will perform a staged reading without costumes or sets. “We can maximize our message by minimizing the rest,” Raiford said.

Some of the homeless individuals interviewed will attend the Dec. 6 performance, which will be followed by a discussion and feedback. Monteleone said she hopes the performances provoke changes in attitudes like the ones she saw in her students.

When Monteleone asked one of her students why he was afraid of the homeless, his response spoke volumes. “If I allow myself to see all the problems in my community are real, then I’m going to have to do something about it.