While participating in the Jax Book Festival, enjoying the coolness of the Jacksonville Public Library, I could not help but notice the number of homeless people coming in off the street to carouse through the aisles, strike up conversations with the authors, or casually saunter along aimlessly. Perhaps, being a writer, I was always curious as to what stories hid behind the often-sullen faces of these souls. I knew there would be stories that I predicted as well as tales that surprised me, but the general knowledge was not enough. I wanted to know their personal stories and, if only for a moment, walk with them on their journey.
When the book festival wrapped up, a library employee that I would not recognize today, helped me to my car. I was still new to the book festival scene and was quickly learning that a cart was a necessary purchase. I expressed to him my desire to write a book that would allow each person an opportunity to share the circumstances that led to their situation. This stranger excitedly said, “You have to do that.” I left, empowered and confident. Yes, I would write their stories. Well, time passed, and my confidence dwindled. How was I to go about getting the stories of people that had no reason to trust me with their secrets?
At least a year later, I revisited my idea with a friend and aspiring author, Dorri, and was thrilled with her excitement for the project. Together, we played with some ideas, but again without specific actions that would move our project forward. Then one day, I saw a neighborhood post about collecting items for the homeless. The first step was finding a connection, and I hoped maybe this was the very person we were looking for to get us to our destination. I messaged the woman and told her about my project, and as if I was swept up in a gust of wind, I was suddenly back in that library, sitting with people that may have very well passed me by the first day the idea struck me. What I thought would be an overwhelming task took off almost on its own.
I have asked myself, why this project? What made it continue to call to me and whisk me off to places outside of my comfort zone? As a Christian, I believe when we take our hands off the steering wheel, we will be directed where we are meant to go. I wasn’t sure of all the steps ahead of me, but I had a calling and insisted to myself that I must follow it, which led to me sending that small message through social media. My meager response, my small amount of saying that I’m willing, just show me the way, opened the necessary doors.
To sufficiently understand the homeless issue, Dorri and I researched not only the details about Jacksonville’s homeless rates but the nation’s as well. Many statistics were shocking. According Doorways for Women and Families: The Facts About Family Homelessness, more families are homeless in the United States than in any other industrialized nation, and within that homeless population, the most common scenario is a mother with two children. A staggering 1.6 million youths experience homelessness each year, with 40% being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Another statistic that sounds impossible is that one in thirty children experience homelessness with slightly over half of them being five and under. One of the significant consistencies with homeless women is that they have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse, 92% of them to be exact.
In downtown Jacksonville alone, there are at least 400 chronically homeless people on any given day according to the Downtown Jacksonville Blog. For a person to be considered chronically homeless they need to be “high-utilizers of emergency services” and to be in and out of shelters, emergency rooms, and jails.
We might believe that homelessness is due to people’s lack of desire to work, but this is not always the case. Often, it is due to the lack of affordable housing. Working full time at minimum wage or slightly above is not enough to pay the rent for many of the housing options. Once a person has no place to keep their clothes, shower, or get a good night’s sleep, it becomes difficult to hold down a job, and a vicious cycle begins. As scary as it sounds, many people are only a few paychecks away from running into serious issues paying their mortgage and other bills. A few months pass very quickly when one is watching their savings dwindle and the life that they took for granted deteriorate.
In fact, the desire to have a job is part of why the homeless community is as large as it is at present in Jacksonville. Many people, 25% of our homeless, came to Jacksonville chasing a job and found themselves homeless and living on the streets.
Another 25% are veterans, some of them suffering from PTSD. The condition makes them shelter averse, meaning that staying in shelters is nearly impossible for them due to the crowds and chaos. Other facts shared by the Downtown Jacksonville Blogare as follows:
“The cost to arrest and jail a homeless person includes $884 for booking and $62 per day to house them. The average cost of a single chronically homeless person is $50,000 per year. That includes jail time, emergency visits, social services, and other costs. It costs between $12,000 and $24,000 to provide a permanent supportive housing solution for that same individual. So, by providing affordable housing, these programs can save the community up to $30,000 per individual housed.” Also, according to the Downtown Jacksonville Blog, an organization named 100 Homes Jacksonville has housed over 500 individuals in this area since 2012.
There is some good news, according to The Florida Times-Union. In Clay, Duval, and Nassau counties, the homeless rate has dropped 32% in the last ten years as of the article’s publication date, which was May 18, 2019. These numbers show a dramatic decrease in homelessness among veterans, and those considered to be chronically homeless. These statistics come from the lead homelessness-prevention agency for the three counties mentioned above.
According to Jacksonville-based Changing Homelessness, as written in the Florida Times-Union, with the ongoing efforts of the area social service agencies, national nonprofits and government support, it is likely that the veteran homeless population will reach “functional zero” by the end of 2019 predicting there will be enough capacity to place every homeless veteran in available housing.
There is real optimism when it comes to being able to house the homeless through organizations already working diligently on their mission. Donations to help battle homelessness can be given by going to the following sites: changinghomeless.org, sulzbacherjax.org., and abilityhousing.org.
In the following months, Dorri and I will interview a select number of homeless people that we will often refer to as “street friends,” trying to give a fair representation of the most substantial issues leading to homelessness. We will interview people that have succeeded in getting off the streets, as well as interview organizations that are in place to help our homeless community.
Our goal is to raise awareness and understanding for people that are possibly not that different than ourselves. We hope that you will go on this journey with us with open minds and caring hearts, and perhaps together, we can make even the smallest of changes in perception and, if we are truly fortunate, make a change in the conditions that lead to a life on the streets.