Homeless for the Holidays

Being homeless is hard enough, but with COVID-19 and the holidays, it can be unbearable.

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Think back to March 12, 2020, the day Jacksonville marked its first case of COVID-19. The announcement came just one day after the World Health Organization declared the disease, caused by a newly discovered coronavirus, a global pandemic. A day later Mayor Lenny Curry declared a state of emergency in Jacksonville, and five days after that, Jacksonville reported its first COVID-19 related death. From there, restrictions ramped up at both the state and local levels including beaches, gyms, bars and restaurants closing, schools going virtual and companies ordering employees to work from home.

Remember the chaos and uncertainty of those early days of the pandemic? The stress and anxiety you felt about upending your entire routine, rushing to stock up on essential items and checking the news incessantly for information on new developments with the disease, changing restrictions and how your life might be affected next? 

Keep those feelings in mind, and now imagine you are experiencing homelessness. Fast forward to December and you’re homeless—in the middle of a pandemic—for the holidays.

That is the situation for Bianca Combs, a former corporate compliance analyst, who had already been “street homeless” for about a year when COVID-19 came to town. (Street homelessness refers to individuals who live on the streets or in clusters of encampments, as opposed to those experiencing homelessness while living in shelters.)

Even in the best of circumstances, living on the streets is an unimaginable challenge, but Combs had learned to adapt. Relying on public facilities and services, such as parks and libraries, to use restrooms and charge her cell phone, for example, was an essential part of her existence. 

And then, because of COVID-19, they were gone.

“We could not access any bathroom but the Rosa Parks Bus Station—or the outdoors,” she recalled. Electrical outlets at James Weldon Johnson Park and the site of Riverside Arts Market were shut down, she said, “so we could not charge phones to call the police if there’s an emergency. food was difficult. … It was scary.” 

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Bianca Combs
Bianca Combs

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These weren’t the only resources and refuges that dried up for Jacksonville’s homeless population. Local churches, charities and individuals who previously donated their time and assets to help homeless residents were prevented from doing so because of the forced closure of the city. 

Combs recalled how she and other street homeless individuals first coped with the loss of basic necessities. “Pastor Tone with The Well church in Riverside ... would bring his shower truck to Eighth Street and Boulevard [in Springfield], and we would shower out there. It’s a pretty good hike from Riverside and the Eastside or parts of the Westside and Northside. But a lot of us would make that walk.” Then, she said, Pastor Tone got “shut down” by police, as did several ministries that provided free laundry services. As a homeless woman, she had the added challenge of finding sanitary products.

Getting help during the shutdown was made even more difficult by what she described as a “blackout” of information.

“[We] had to figure out through the grapevine what was going on. Where can we go, where we can we get food, what’s the new schedule during COVID because you have nowhere to get online to find this out,” she said. “You would have to call all these services, and they may not know at the time because there was this gap there between the [mayor’s] mandate going into place and anybody knowing what to do in the homeless community.” 

Dawn Gilman, CEO of Changing Homelessness, a local non-profit dedicated to eliminating homelessness in our area, echoed that sentiment.

“Communication is vital, and it’s always something that we get asked to do more of and better just like everybody else,” Gilman said. “During that period [Bianca’s] talking about, we were figuring out what we were doing and trying our best to communicate that out to folks who are on the street.”

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Dawn Gilman
Dawn Gilman

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The gap between protocol, the implementation process and information dissemination left Combs and others in the street homeless population in fear. With the city essentially shut down, the streets were deserted and the ability to get assistance from passersby disappeared, Combs said. 

As a result, she continued, stealing from other homeless people, breaking into cars, burglarizing homes and businesses became a means of survival for many. “When this whole shutdown happened, we were all having this conversation. ‘We aren’t safe.’”

In response to the pandemic restrictions and safety concerns, the city of Jacksonville funneled support to local nonprofits on the frontlines advocating for and helping those experiencing street homelessness. City leaders put a plan in place to move the most vulnerable citizens off the streets whenever possible and assist them in rapidly moving into housing they could maintain, according to Dawn Lockhart, director of strategic partnerships within the Curry administration.

In addition to supporting the efforts of local nonprofits, the city created a second, temporary Urban Rest Stop. The first, located on Adams Street, was established in 2019, while the second opened at the Salvation Army Citadel Corps on Church Street. (The latter, however, closed by the end of summer.)

“This enabled more street homeless to have a safe place to be during the day while having enough space to social distance,” Lockhart said. 

Gilman agreed. “The best place to access a lot of these services remains at the Urban Rest Stop.” 

Those living in shelters may rely on resources from any number of nonprofits including Trinity Rescue Mission, City Rescue Mission, the Sulzbacher Center and its assigns, Clara White Mission or others—especially important now during the holidays and when the temperature is dropping. 

“Nonprofit agencies serving the homeless were designated essential services and none closed, but all changed how they served people due to COVID-19,” Lockhart said. 

The City Rescue Mission, for example, limited its services due to protocols put in place in March. According to PR, Marketing and Events Manager Torey Vogel, CRM currently serves more than 550 people each night, compared to 800 pre-COVID. 

While the Clara White Mission has a significantly smaller housing imprint (42 people live in either transitional or permanent housing), programs serving both the clients who live at the mission and the street homeless population were also negatively impacted.

According to Ju’Coby Pittman, CEO/president of Clara White Mission and city council member for District 8, the Get Your Meals to Go program, which serves hot meals to the homeless, had to be revamped to accommodate social distancing and other pandemic-related protocols. The agency’s popular cafe, run by students in its culinary arts diploma program, was suspended temporarily, depriving students of critical hands-on experience in a real world setting. The availability of volunteers, who are vital to the agency, decreased significantly.

Fortunately, Clara White Mission is still able to accommodate the street homeless population needing to shower, wash their clothes and access computer services, but the overall loss of financial resources has been devastating.

“(The lack of) fundraisers has pretty much crippled us because we haven’t been able to raise the money that we need for specific programs that we have,” Pittman said.

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Ju'Coby Pittman
Ju'Coby Pittman

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Early in the pandemic, agencies serving the homeless population and the individuals experiencing homelessness themselves weren’t sure how they would survive. Fortunately, the city stepped in to provide some relief.

Funding through the CARES Act, a federal emergency grant through HUD, allocated an additional $2.9 million in a mix of state and city funds to Jacksonville’s homeless population during COVID-19. Gilman said the main focus of the funds has enabled agencies like Changing Homelessness to offer non-congregant shelter, such as motel rooms, and an intervention called rapid rehousing.

The non-congregant shelter program targets the street homeless population, including individuals like Combs, who don’t want to live in a group housing situation.

“I have spent the majority of my time out here sleeping outdoors,” Combs said. “When I go from sleeping outdoors to sleeping indoors, whether it’s in a shelter or on a friend’s couch, I can’t handle it anymore,” said Combs, referring to the stress and impact on her immune system.

“For the first time in a long time, people really noticed persons who didn’t have a home at night and realized how critical housing is to your health,” Gilman said. As her organization Changing Homelessness notes in their unofficial tagline: “Housing is healthcare.” 

  “Folks that are homeless ... don’t have a lot of resources to go out and rent apartments or homes or other rooms or whatever they choose on the open market,” Gilman said. “If you look at recent real estate listings—prices for both homes for sale and homes for rent—one of the weird ironies of COVID-19 is that those average prices have gone up even more.” 

That is why the city and local nonprofits are focusing their efforts on the non-congregant shelter program and rapid rehousing. According to Lockhart, the project will be doubling by the end of 2020.These programs will also be at the forefront of getting the homeless population vaccinated.

 “The Sulzbacher Clinic, the federally qualified health care clinic for the homeless, is working very closely with the health department in securing vaccine when it is available,” Gilman said. 

Combs still has concerns over the status of Jacksonville’s street homeless population during COVID-19 as cases spike and the potentiality of another lockdown looms. 

“I will get much louder if they don’t put something into place that is better than what happened last time and if they don’t communicate,” Combs said. “Those are the two biggest things, for our safety and that lack of communication.” 

To that Gilman said her organization will continue to “focus all of the resources to end each person’s homelessness but also the homelessness within our community.” 

Councilwoman Pittman agreed it is a responsibility of city leaders and the servicing agencies in our community to help not only those currently experiencing homelessness but those on the brink as well. 

“COVID is something that has taken over our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white, rich, poor; and together we are working to address these needs through relief funds,” Pittman said. “We have one out now that’s helping people who have evictions or are in foreclosure, also helping small businesses, those that had closed help them open their business back up.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the homeless population has become even more devastating during the holidays, when memories of happier days spent with loved ones intertwine with current feelings of hopelessness, despair and, as Combs expressed, outright fear. 

While life for Jacksonville’s homeless is especially difficult now, they can take some solace in knowing there are staunch advocates who are working tirelessly on their behalf. 

As Pittman said, “We them mobilize through the process of getting these relief sources to help them get their life back and get their family back,” which might just be the greatest gift of all.

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