With city officials, residents and business owners decrying a panhandling problem in downtown St. Augustine and two hurricanes having further diminished the county’s already low stock of affordable housing, those tasked with providing services and relief to the area’s homeless are once again reorganizing to help the most vulnerable find stable housing.
While many are hopeful that progress can be made, some say there is still plenty of work to be done.
“The big challenge that a lot of us have is: ‘Can we find an empty bed?’” Bill Lazar, executive director of the St. Johns Housing Partnership, told The Record on Friday while discussing the work he and others do trying to find shelter for those displaced either by Hurricane Irma or other life circumstances.
St. Augustine City Manager John Regan is looking for a few beds, too.
With the St. Francis House — the only shelter and homeless service provider in the downtown area — still recovering from damage sustained in both Matthew and Irma, the city has a hard time enforcing its ordinance against “camping” or sleeping in public spaces because it requires offering those who are sleeping a place to go, Regan explained in a Thursday phone interview. The St. Francis House supplies those beds — there are eight for the city and the county — but they fill up quickly, and more are needed, he said.
That is one of the factors that Regan sees contributing to the number of homeless who are seen lining St. George Street and other areas of downtown.
But there are others.
“One, and a big one, is that the courts in Florida and across the country have been making case rulings that panhandling is First Amendment protected activity,” he said.
That has been at the heart of much of the discussion surrounding homelessness as far as the city goes.
But Regan, who plans to present his plan to help with the panhandling situation at Monday night’s city commission meeting, said he understands that the segment of the homeless population he and others are encountering in the “urban core” aren’t necessarily representative of who else is living without a home in the county.
“Most of the homeless we don’t see,” he said.
He said it’s difficult to define homelessness when trying to talk about it in general terms because different agencies — many of which hold the all-important purse strings — define it differently. Some, for instance, say a person has to be living outside, with no shelter, to be considered homeless. But that, Lazar argues, doesn’t account for someone living on a friend’s couch.
People in such situations, often living paycheck to paycheck, are at serious risk for homelessness themselves.
“If you can’t put your name on a lease or a mortgage,” Lazar offered as a litmus test, “you are close to being homeless.”
All of this has been exacerbated by the recent hurricanes, he said. Not only did the storms displace additional people, they forced the displaced into hotels and rental accommodations that often provide shelter for those living on that thin edge.
That increased demand is not only being felt by service providers throughout the county who offer shelter to those in need, but it has also driven up prices, exacerbating the problem further.
“Rents are through the roof,” Lazar said.
That creates a choke point in the housing system (Lazar likes think of it as a “continuum”) for those who move from some sort of emergency housing into a more independent rental situation and then, perhaps, ownership.
In a county already feeling the affordable housing crunch, Lazar, who stays in regular contact with many of those who provide housing for various populations in need, said the storms have made the whole situation a good deal worse for those trying to take that first step toward renewed independence.
“They will all tell you that they are either full up or they have someone looking to transition out,” he said, explaining that those who are ready to move on have nowhere to go. “So that whole continuum kind of bottlenecks.”
The group that coordinates the efforts of all the service providers in the county in order to provide assistance for those who are trying to move, or transition, to stable housing is the St. Johns County Continuum of Care.
It is a sort of umbrella organization made up of county officials, homeless advocates and representatives from various service providers.
Reorganized nearly two years ago, the group finds itself, again, in a bit of flux. Flagler Hospital is taking over as the Continuum’s lead agency, leaving Home Again St. Johns, the old lead, to focus on building a services campus at its property on State Road 207.
John Eaton, Flagler Hospital’s director of community health improvement, acts as a liaison between the hospital and the Continuum.
He said Friday he sees the hospital’s job in its new role — which begins officially Dec. 1 — as one of support. That includes securing and divvying up grant money, as well as managing the massive database, known as HMIS, for Homeless Management Information System, that keeps track of the care and services individuals are receiving — another job that the hospital took on for the Continuum last year.
“We can focus 100 percent of our effort on the administrative oversight,” Eaton explained.
That will leave the service providers, like the St. Francis House and Home Again, to focus on their missions, he explained.
Eaton acknowledged the shortage of beds and shelters, but said he thinks there are enough resources out there, provided they are managed and coordinated properly, to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I’m excited to see the progress we can make,” he said.
Regan likely is too.
He said he sees the St. Francis House, particularly when it is repaired and back to running at full capacity, as not only an important part of the city’s overall solution, but to the Continuum as a whole.
The Washington Street shelter and soup kitchen, Regan said, is often a first point of contact for those homeless who are new to town. If the city can work with the St. Francis House to increase the number of beds available so that officials can better enforce the camping ordinances, that helps the city and those in need, too.
“It helps the homeless because it forces them to go the St. Francis House,” he said. “(It) gets them in contact with the service providers.”
And from there, at least in theory, they can find more permanent shelter and then address any other underlying cause of their situation, be it financial or mental health or substance abuse related.
That is at the heart of what the Department of Housing and Urban Development calls the “Housing First” approach to solving homelessness. It is also the core of why Home Again is trying to build not only a service center, but housing at its S.R. 207 property.
The idea is that, once in housing, providers can “wrap” services around those in need to stabilize them and then get them back to living on their own.
It works, Lazar said, provided both sides of the equation are there to help a person.
“There’s got to be some funding to pay for the social safety net that goes around them,” he said.
And even if that is there, it could be for naught if there is no affordable housing available for the transition up and out.
“But if you put those pieces together you have a chance to get back to a normal lifestyle,” he said. “”But if you are missing one or the other it is very lopsided progress.”