Words by Mallory Pace
For many, November indicates the beginning of the holidays, meaning family gatherings with a table full of food, giving thanks. For others, it’s the beginning of a cold, unforgiving season full of hardships. November is National Homelessness Awareness Month, and it’s a growing issue in America and in our own backyard. This month, counting our blessings takes on a whole new meaning when we take a step back to grasp the harsh reality of homelessness in our community.
As of January 2023, a total of 1,247 individuals were classified as homeless in Northeast Florida, according to the 2023 Point-In-Time (PIT) count conducted by the Northeast Florida Continuum of Care (CoC). Of those 1,247 people, 851 were considered sheltered and 396 unsheltered. Florida has the third largest homeless population in the U.S. below California and New York.
Each year, the Northeast Florida CoC joins with community partners, elected officials, staff and volunteers to conduct an annual PIT count, a one-day snapshot of Jacksonville’s homeless community on a given day and night. The count spreads across Clay, Nassau and Duval counties.
“While it is just one day, it is anchored and focused on real people and the summation of this data should never minimize that we are person-centered and most dedicated to the people experiencing homelessness and not the number they represent,” the report said.
Homelessness takes on different disguises. One can be considered homeless while being sheltered, meaning they reside in an emergency shelter or transitional housing temporarily. Being unsheltered means someone is sleeping in places not meant for human habitation — cars, streets, tents, etc. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness in four categories: (1) individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, which includes a subset for those exiting an institution where they have resided for 90 days; (2) individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence; (3) unaccompanied youth and families with children who are defined as homeless under other federal statutes; (4) individuals and families who are fleeing or are attempting to flee domestic violence, sexual assault or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions.
This year’s analysis compares data to 2020 findings, which represents pre-COVID data. Given this, the report wrote found “both 2021 and 2022 were significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic, and the community was focused on implementing solutions to sheltering and housing people.”
Compared to data from 2021, the PIT count shows a decrease of 295 in homelessness in 2023, considering both sheltered and unsheltered. Although the pandemic may contribute to a skew in individuals counted, the report shows a 25 person increase from 2021 to 2023. The total number of persons experiencing homelessness in Northeast Florida decreased by 55% from 2013 to 2023 and 19% from 2020 to 2023.
Of the 1,247 person count, Duval County made up 1,176 of those numbers, while Clay County totaled 16 with 55 in Nassau County. Considering the overwhelming difference of population sizes between the counties, these numbers might be expected. Even so, they’re staggering.
Individuals ages 45-54 represent 30% of the 396 identified as unsheltered, while ages 25-34 make up 15%. The gender ratio is approximately three males for every one female. As for the 851 sheltered, 22% are under the age of 18. Ages 55 and older represent 25% of this population. The gender ratio is closer to one to one with 56% being male.
The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that roughly 1.3 million children experience homelessness in the United States each year. The Florida Department of Education reported that there were 79,949 homeless children attending public schools, including those who were “doubled-up,” as of September 2020. Experiencing homelessness as a young person takes a toll on the individual in many ways. Studies show that suicide is the leading cause of death for unhoused youth.
The Jason Foundation is an organization dedicated to the awareness and prevention of youth and young adult suicide through a series of programs aimed at recognizing troubled individuals and providing help. Brett Marciel, chief communications officer for The Jason Foundation, explained that a lack of safe and stable housing is a significant risk factor for why someone might consider suicide. Young people who experience homelessness are more likely to show symptoms of depression and other long-term mental health conditions. In addition, these individuals are two to three times more likely to abuse substances, which leads to a high risk of suicidal behaviors. Marciel explained this occurs for a number of reasons, including the use of substances to cope with stressors or trauma or as an alternative to mental health services they often cannot access.
“Regardless of the circumstances leading up to homelessness, a young person without stable housing experiences daily stressors that can be traumatic, such as a worry about where they will sleep the next night, where they will find food, whether they will experience violence in their daily life, and whether they will be judged by their peers for their housing status,” Marciel said.
The organization focuses on training educators and school staff to identify suicidal behaviors or risk factors in students, especially in those experiencing homelessness. They believe that awareness is the first step to prevention as they strive to educate communities on the magnitude of suicide. Marciel said that just like there is a stigma surrounding conversations about mental health and suicide, there is often a stigma around homelessness, so National Homelessness Awareness Month is crucial to breaking down those walls.
“Devoting a time to speak about homelessness and listen to those experiencing it helps to inspire compassion and empathy in those who do not know about the struggles housing instability can cause,” he said.
Marciel added that some people may be unaware how prevalent homelessness is in our society and communities. Many individuals facing housing instability live in motels, cars or temporarily with friends and family, and although they’re not as visible to the public as someone forced to live on the streets, they still experience homelessness. Marciel concluded that by recognizing Homelessness Awareness Month, people can broaden their definition of what it means to have unstable housing, which allows more room for innovative solutions to the problem.
Being a helping hand in a cruel world
Data shows a downward trend in homelessness over the last 10 years, but any number is too many. Jacksonville’s Downtown and Beaches remain scattered with unhoused people, sleeping on cardboard or under bridges. It’s easy to walk past and continue with your day, I’m just as guilty, but taking a step back reveals the cruelty and inhumanity of this reality. People forced to live on the streets are someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, and they deserve to be treated as humans. Sometimes the systems set in place to help those in need, fail them. Sometimes people make choices; sometimes choices are made for them. No matter the reason or circumstance under which someone experiences homelessness, one thing’s for sure — everyone deserves a bed at night.
This November, consider spending some time helping those in need at the various homeless shelters across Jacksonville. Put this Thanksgiving to good use and give back to the community if you’re able to do so. The St. Augustine St. Francis House welcomes individual and group volunteer opportunities. Jacksonville’s Trinity Rescue Mission accepts all kinds of donations, like food, clothing and other essentials. Serving the homeless and needy in Northeast Florida since 1946, City Rescue Mission accepts donations and offers a variety of volunteer opportunities. Mission House in Jacksonville Beach, Sulzbacher, Clara White Mission, the list goes on.
American novelist Toni Morrison once said, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” As a community, we must look out for one another and help those in need when possible. A community without support is simply a population of inhabitants, and Jacksonville is so much more than that. During this season of thanks, let’s recognize our fortune and be a helping hand in a cruel world.