In January 2020, an estimated 27,487 people in Florida were homeless on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As Jacksonville residents, we often come across individuals experiencing homelessness, especially Downtown, but what do we actually know about them and how did they get there?
Living at the beach and working downtown, I am quite used to running into makeshift beds on sidewalks and seeing people with their entire life shoved into a backpack. We exchange a quick “hi” or maybe I offer a small smile, and I am off to the next thing. I’ll think of how they’re doing a couple of times that day maybe, but how many of us ever take the time to understand what they are dealing with? How did this happen to them and was it avoidable? These questions run through my head quite often, so I took some time to educate myself.
A.W. “Al” Barlow is a local attorney and chairman of the Housing for the Homeless Campaign, aimed at finding permanent housing and assistance for the homeless. Barlow spends his days visiting homeless camps and those on the streets to try and assist them with their immediate needs.
“We give them clothing that people donate, feminine products for the women, things like that; those are their immediate needs. The campaign is to try to help them get some permanent housing that’s long-term,” said Barlow. One of the common themes Barlow notices among the homeless population is the impact of drastically increasing rents often raised with little notice, causing tenants to look toward the streets for shelter.
Barlow connected me with a temporary Sulzbacher Center resident, who wished to remain anonymous, to talk about his current situation. He was quick to say moving and rent expenses were large contributing factors to his being homeless. Whether it was shelters struggling to accommodate the newly homeless, especially at the height of the pandemic, or having to eat food that was barely edible, he found it hard to find appropriate shelter and accommodations when so many things were out of his control. It wasn’t until he was accepted at the Sulzbacher Center that he was able to get a hot meal and adequate assistance. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in his struggles.
Ms. Betty, an elderly homeless woman, has been on the streets for over two years. Barlow would see her when he passed Jefferson Street sleeping on the sidewalk, rain or shine, in the heat or cold. Thanks to donations to the Housing for the Homeless Campaign, Barlow was able to give her a tent, sleeping bag and gift card to purchase essentials.
She found herself on the streets after the property where she lived fell under new ownership, and they immediately raised rent. Ms. Betty could no longer afford her home after years of residing there and had to resort to sleeping on sidewalks.
People experiencing homelessness constantly fight uncontrollable scenarios. Being homeless carries a stigma. The general public often compares them to addicts and are unwilling to offer help thinking they’ll use any money on their vices.
It’s time we drop the stigma and educate ourselves on how to better our community, and it starts with helping the homeless. Downtown Jacksonville constantly talks about “cleaning up downtown” and making it a place for people to want to visit and enjoy. Yes, that’s all good and well, but shouldn’t we be focusing on those who need help before building more attractions and hotels?
We should be helping people like William. He was put out on the streets a little while back after falling very sick. William was diagnosed with cancer and diabetes, among other issues, but was unable to take his medication any longer. He ended up homeless and pleaded with the community to offer assistance and permanent housing to people experiencing similar struggles. While the city does work toward offering “affordable” housing alternatives, people like Betty and William cannot even afford that. Shelters offer some help, but they aren’t always accommodating and oftentimes are not open during the day.
Those staying in shelters usually come in for a cot and a meal at night but have to leave first thing in the morning. Whether these shelters assist them or not, they are still put out on the streets each day. Barlow insists city parks should remain open and gates shouldn’t be closed to the homeless. This would allow them to still engage in social activities and have a somewhat normal day despite the horrors they face.
So the next time you see someone sleeping on the street or panhandling on the side of the road, try to understand they have been dealt cards we cannot imagine. We, as a community, need to work toward a better system for the homeless and those who no longer can afford day-to-day life. Let’s take a page from Barlow’s book and educate ourselves on their struggles and what we can do to help truly make Jacksonville a great city for all of its residents.