The OTHER Side of St. Johns County

St. Johns is a county of contrasts. With a median household income well above the national average, it’s Florida’s wealthiest county. But beneath the veneer of abundance lies the plaster of paucity.

This year, following a January point-in-time homeless count that produced a number more than two times lower than 12 months earlier, a hurricane that spurred allegations of shelter discrimination, and a panhandling uptick that split the community, St. Johns County is grappling with an issue that appears to be underfunded, misconceived and outright uneasy.

Florida’s homeless population–close to 24,000 on a single January night in 2016–is the nation’s largest behind California and New York, according to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. (Other counts put the total above 30,000.) While the tally has fast declined in the past several years, the state still contains 7 percent of the nation’s homeless, many trekking to the Sunshine State from colder regions. More than 50 percent are without shelter.

These trends resound on a local level in St. Johns County. In 2016, it ranked third in the state for homeless people per 100,000 individuals–or 540, according to a report by the National Homeless Information Project. A recent survey of St. Augustine’s downtown dwellers, which City Manager John Regan presented to the city commission in early November, indicated that some 40 percent of the homeless arrived in the city from out of state, the majority by bus.

Some six years ago, Paul Coombes, who is the homeless prevention specialist at Home Again St. Johns, followed a similar path, relocating from up north to St. Augustine. Bad decisions paved his way. “It was loss of job, stretching myself too thin,” he said. “It caused relationship issues and everything just collapsed.”

Coombes went without a home for a year. Today, he still sees familiar homeless faces from that time more than five years ago. Driven by a slew of issues–from joblessness to health problems to addiction to family spats to out-of-reach housing options—most of the county’s homeless live on the streets.

“There is generally not enough funding to be able to help everybody,” said Carl Falconer, president of the board of directors for the St. Johns Continuum of Care (CoC), a league of organizations that serve the homeless. The 2017 Homeless Report of Florida’s Council on Homelessness reports that St. Johns CoC, through its lead agency, Home Again, received about a half-million dollars, comprising a blend of state and federal funds, to tackle homelessness. This is in addition to the approximately $65,000 the city of St. Augustine allocates, according to Regan.

The same report shows a drastic drop in the January point-in-time snapshot of homelessness in St. Johns County. The count came shy of 500, less than half the figure from the previous year. It is an understatement, said Falconer. Such is the nature of the single-night count, where factors such as weather can affect the accuracy.

Counter to the data, some agencies on the ground note a recent surge. The number of homeless youth, between 18 and 24 years of age, has gone up, said Ellen Walden, executive director of Home Again, which provides wraparound services, showers, laundry and hot meals for approximately 120 people every month.

So has the count of homeless students–up to 800 in 2015-’16 from 580 in the 2011-’12 school year. That number provides cues to the shifting dynamics of family homelessness.

“A lot of the people think that everyone [who is without a home] is a drug addict, doesn’t want to work or they are an alcoholic,” said Walden. “That just is not so.”

For some of the homeless in St. Johns,the source of their bane seems to be the very boon of the county. In the city of St. Augustine, where tourism shapes a considerable chunk of the economy, blue-collar workers–teachers, firefighters, waiters– struggle to make enough to keep up with the price of homes, whose median value was close to $300,000 in 2016.

“You see a lot of new subdivisions coming up here to support those who are earning a higher wage,” said Debi Redding, executive director of the Emergency Services & Homeless Coalition (ESHC), “but what we don’t see are new subdivisions to support the working class. They work here but they cannot afford to live here.”

The service industry comes with an additional drawback–part-time employment. It often inflates housing expenses to above 50 percent of earnings. In 2015, around 7,000 low-income households–or 8 percent of the total–shouldered the financial burden of this ratio, according to the Florida Housing Commission. Homelessness is often the outcome of exorbitant costs. Once they’re without a roof over their heads, families as well as individuals have limited options for refuge.

Some venture into the woods, where illicit homeless camps provide seclusion, if little else. The risk of trespassing lurks, ready to bring charges that may make it hard to escape homelessness. St. Augustine boasts tough no-camping rules, but has limited ability to accommodate people for the night, when crimes against them intensify. The city has a mere eight beds, but plans are to soon triple that count.

“No camping is the easiest thing we can do to improve the homeless condition,” said Regan. “Never tolerate someone sleeping on your property–it is good for you, for the homeless, for our community.”

A few lodge at St. Francis House, which is the county’s sole overnight shelter. Since Hurricane Matthew flooded the organization’s main quarters in downtown St. Augustine, however, it operates at reduced capacity, with space for four families, 12 women and 12 men.

“The people who come to us for shelter want a place to live, they want to be independent and they want to get back on with their lives,” said Judith Dembowski, executive director of St. Francis House, which also provides case management.

Around a mile west of the St. Francis shelter, the ESHC houses 18 families, and runs a wait list for its dwellings where the maximum length of stay is two years. Most there, however, spend an average of eight months before moving to permanent homes.

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) postulates a goal of a mere 30 days in transitional homes. “Now, that is impossible here,” said Redding, “we do not have the housing stock.”

The nonprofit relies on a HUD rapid rehousing fund to secure 12-month leases for its residents. The upfront price tag reads $3,000 for first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. Allocated annually, federal money runs out before year’s end and the ESHC scrambles to help families cover the initial cost.

Coombes, Home Again’s homeless prevention specialist, knows how tough this can be. When the opportunity for an apartment presented itself, he didn’t have the money to pay, though he had secured a job. His boss came to the rescue, lending him $600. “That is what ended my homelessness,” he said. “That’s the type of compassion that’s out there.”

Not everyone is as lucky. Often, when HUD aid dries up, moving in drags out. But even in the months when funds are available, families wind up in properties outside St. Johns County, said Redding. Affordable housing, with a monthly rent between $700 and $900, is simply hard—often impossible—to come by.

Bill Lazar, executive director of St. Johns Housing Partnership, deals with the travails of developing low-cost housing first-hand. “I am trying to build a small apartment complex right now—just six one-bedroom units—but I cannot afford to build it for the cost of what it takes to construct it and still rent it out affordably. You have to go out and find a grant program that will pay for the cost of building so you can lower rent, and there’s not a lot of that.”

On the state level, the largest source of money for affordable housing is the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund, which carries its own legislative restrictions and political mismanagement.

Replenished through a portion of documentary stamp taxes, fees on real estate transaction, the fund has regularly been siphoned to the state general budget. “The legislature has stolen half of that every year for the last 10 years,” said Lazar. “If they had left that money alone, that would be a sizable impact.”

Not so much on new developments, though, as the largest share of the Sadowski Fund supports home rehabilitation and loan programs. Only roughly 20 percent could finance the construction of affordable residences. This limitation translates into approximately $200,000 a year for St. Johns county, Lazar said. With an average building cost of $70,000 per apartment, “that is a far cry from what we need,” he said.

A respite of sorts, however, might soon come. Home Again is raising a housing and service complex off State Road 207. Its cost has been assessed at $13.3 million but as of yet no federal funds have passed to the county. Still in its initial phase, it is to house up to 80 chronically homeless individuals, or those who have a disability and have gone without a permanent address for a year or have experienced at least four bouts of homelessness in the last three. Currently, the county has no such facility, but the need for it seems acute. The survey by the city of St. Augustine pinned the average period of homelessness among downtown drifters to be four years.

The blueprint of the project has undergone a tweak, so that the edifice, which is to rest on higher grounds than flood-prone central St. Augustine, can serve as an emergency shelter in the event of a hurricane. For the years to come, this adjustment might alleviate the tensions that appear to swell during natural-disaster evacuations.

In September, only days after Hurricane Irma swept through Florida, allegations of discrimination against the homeless at Pedro Menendez High School, which served as an emergency shelter, surfaced. Dembowski delivered a memo, penned by homeless advocates, to the Continuum of Care. The memo suggested that the emergency staff handed yellow wristbands to the homeless in an attempt to segregate them from the general population, who were given bands in other  shades. Dembowski told the St. Augustine Record that though she delivered the memo, it was not from St. Francis House.

The incident grabbed the attention of national news outlets like NBC and U.S. News & World Report. Yet disparate accounts have been difficult to verify. When asked, Dembowski declined to comment, while city and school authorities contest the accusations.

Walden of Home Again offered, “I cannot speak personally, as I didn’t go to see it myself, but our clients [who were transported to the school shelter] said they were treated with dignity and respect and they had no problem while they were there.”

Misconceptions might as well have arisen from the hurricane shelter’s shortage of staff from the organizations that know and serve the homeless. Providing personnel during emergencies is no small chore, particularly since many of the nonprofits are undermanned.

The initial apprehension has now translated into a task force of community and homeless leaders, who are seeking to enhance their services together.

“I think what we need to do is talk about concerns about certain behavior regardless of whether people are sheltered or not,” said Megan Wall of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “For example, if the behavior that I am demonstrating when I come to an evacuation site is that I am agitated, I am hearing voices, I am going into withdrawals, that shouldn’t matter whether I was previously housed or not. I think that those kinds of behaviors are special needs and they need to be dealt with and that is difficult at an evacuation site.”

While Irma revealed service gaps that are now being examined, it also overwhelmed the unsheltered individuals who weathered the storm out in the open. Infections shot up, Walden said. But so did damaged documents. The downpour drenched IDs and social security cards, she said, dissolving them and creating an additional strain for the working homeless. It also flooded homeless camps in the woods, which months after the hurricane remained sludgy, mosquito-breeding swaths. Some people migrated into St. Augustine, but few emergency resources came their way.

The Federal Emergency & Management Agency (FEMA) does not provide assistance to those who did not have homes before a disaster struck. Homeowners and lessees, however, can receive financial aid to repair, replace and rent.

“Even FEMA would do anything to house the previously housed because, God forbid, you lose your house in a disaster,” Wall said. “But for people who live that every day already, their struggle continues. They are already so abandoned by their nation that they are not on our radar anymore.”

The larger community of St. Johns County cares, homeless service providers agreed. A recent St. Augustine city commission meeting on the spike of panhandling in the historic district downtown, though, provoked contrasting comments from the public. Some said the meeting was premature without clear guidelines, others expressed fear of loiterers. Still others drew a distinction between the homeless and professional vagrants.

St. Johns County might roil in a fusion of stagnant wages, affordable housing dearth, homelessness and panhandling—but so does the nation. The safety net that last century would catch those who’d fallen on hard times has today disintegrated across America, Wall said. “And that is a question everyone needs to answer—whose responsibility is that? Are we willing to take care of that and pay for it? Do we want to help those who cannot afford the service themselves? What type of country do we want to be?”