JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the COVID-19 Shelter Taskforce announced details Wednesday of a comprehensive plan that will benefit the city's homeless population.
The new program, called Pathway to Home, will help people with no place to go find assistance with shelter, food and long-term options while keeping in line with COVID-19 prevention protocols.
It was met with a mixed reception by people living at a homeless camp near Union Street and Jefferson Street.
One homeless couple says they've been homeless since the pandemic began, and spent the night using thrown-away carpet to keep warm.
Sean and Amy say the pandemic has changed their lives.
"[It changed us] dramatically. I lost my job, she lost her job, we lost our home and it’s basically put us into survival mode, we haven’t been able to get back on our feet,” the couple said.
The two came to Jacksonville with nothing but clothes in their suitcases, on Wednesday they received information about the Pathway to Home program, which they plan to join.
"I think it’s a big step, it’s a stepping stone,” Sean said.
Launching at 8 a.m. Wednesday, the program will provide the following:
- Wednesday through Friday, providers will be offering people living in homeless encampments "dignified and respectful hotel rooms."
- Partner agencies will start the intake process for hotels Friday, encompassing eight to 10 different hotels across the area to avoid having everyone in the same lodging.
- Monday through Wednesday of next week, staff from homeless provider agencies will be transporting people to their hotels, including helping them pack up their belongings.
- Large duffel bags will be provided for people to have a dignified and respectful way to pack their belongings and take them to their hotel and then on to their permanent housing.
"There's outreach teams on the ground now," said Cindy Funkhouser, president and CEO of Sulzbacher Center. "It has been an extremely positive response. The folks there are grateful, they're excited, and they're ready to move into hotels."
Once people are moved off the streets and into hotels, there is a plan in place to ensure they are able to find a long-term resolution to homelessness.
"We hope within 30 days, utilizing an intervention called Rapid Rehousing, that we will get people actually into permanent housing," Funkhouser said. "Our goal is within 30 days."
Some people at the homeless camp disagreed with Sulzbacher staff saying there is housing available to help the homeless population.
Claudia Liner, who runs a group called Radical Aid Jax which raises funds to help homeless people, thinks the project won't work.
“It’s a quick fix, to put a band-aid on a broken window to make the city look good for 30 days, and then what?" Liner said.
Liner thinks the move is about optics.
"You come off the highway, interstate, and this is what people pass every day, this is what people know,” Liner added.
Dawn Lockhart with the City of Jacksonville says the program is about helping people, not good optics.
"It's a very dangerous area, and there’s a lot of traffic that goes by, so it’s really about restoring the public health and dignity of individuals experiencing homelessness,” Lockhart told First Coast News.
For people like Sean and Amy, they are grateful to get the opportunity.
“With the weather and everything, I think you’d be crazy not to [take it],” Sean said.
Rapid Rehousing intervention includes staff to help people find housing, short-term rental assistance and connection to any community service that might be needed for people to remain stable once they are in their permanent housing, Funkhouser said.
"When I declared our local state of emergency in March of last year, we did not know how long this virus would affect our community," Curry said. "We did not know how severely this virus would impact Jacksonville families, not only from illness, but also from the economic impact of shutdowns and restrictions on businesses."
The virus and efforts to ensure its mitigation posed challenges to providers of services to homeless people, from CDC recommendations that decreased capacity of local shelters by 50%, to fewer volunteers available to manage workloads and provide services. That decrease in services has led to many homeless people gathering in outdoor camps across parts of the city.
"These camps with so many people close together present a public health risk," Curry said. "That's why over the last few months, my team and our partners have been developing and launching solutions to help our most vulnerable citizens restore their dignity by providing a pathway to home."
The mayor said that since the inception of the Downtown Homelessness Taskforce in 2017, from 2019 to 2020, the city has seen a 7% reduction in total homelessness and a 39% reduction in chronic homelessness. Over the past decade, there has been a 52% reduction in total homelessness, including a 64% reduction in veteran homelessness, Curry said.
The program is a collaboration among the City of Jacksonville, Sulzbacher Center, Mental Health Resource Center, Changing Homelessness, Downtown Vision, JSO and many other homeless providers.
Starting Friday, city staff will be visiting unsheltered communities to provide storage, luggage and transportation assistance, and register people for a room at one of the partnering hotels.
So far, four hotels are being used while the city negotiates with 12 others.
The city estimates 40 to 50 people live at the camp, but staff say there is no limit on who they will help.
People who join the program will be assigned a housing case manager that can help connect individuals with employment services and access to applying for mainstream benefits including disability, social security or food stamps.
Hotel placement will begin Monday, Feb. 8, according to the city.
You can watch the task force's full news conference below.