A place to call home in West St. Augustine
By Kimeko McCoy
If you look around West St. Augustine, you won’t find a sign outside of the campus of the Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County.
Instead, you’ll find rows of houses making up a neighborhood. There are two girls outside soaking up the last bits of sun before school starts.
It is a Thursday and the neighborhood is quiet while people are at work.
It is similar to any other suburban neighborhood and that’s exactly the goal of the coalition.
“You don’t see a sign here. There’s nothing to say we’re the Homeless Coalition, and that’s done purposefully,” said Debi Redding.
Redding, the executive director of the program, said she does not want to advertise that homeless families live on the campus in its transitional housing.
Redding believes the whole point of the campus and the housing is to help residents be able to assimilate into the community.
Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County is a private, non-profit agency that began in the late 1990s and provides transitional housing to families with children that have encountered difficult times and are in crisis, according to the agency’s website.
The campus of emergency services and transitional housing spans 18 houses on Chapin Street and surrounding roads.
Transitional housing, started also in the late ’90s, is meant to help get families in crisis get back on their feet.
Unlike an emergency shelter, transitional housing allows tenants to stay for two years, although the average stay is eight months, Redding said.
In every tenant’s home, the coalition provides furniture, toiletries and other necessities. Food is provided as well as after-school child care.
“We just give. Whatever we’ve got, we just give that to them,” Redding said.
In addition to physical necessities, the coalition helps residents bounce back through teaching them the importance of goal setting, saving money, work ethic and other skills.
“They’re all just one incident away from losing it all, even though they’ve gotten in here,” Redding said.
To help with those skills, the transitional homes require residents to pay a fee for the program although all of the homes are paid off with no mortgage payments.
“It’s smaller. It’s less than you’d be paying if you were living in an apartment,” Redding said, “but we also require that you get your lights and water in your name.”
For those who are in school, the coalition works with First Coast Technical College and its Fresh Start culinary program to ensure that residents learn a skill that will help them with their job hunt.
The college started the program in cooperation with St. Augustine’s St. Francis House. It is a four-week program that trains students in the St. Francis House’s kitchen through hands-on and classroom instruction.
Residents who have not reached college level education can receive a grant that’s offered to pay for a GED.
With so much to offer, the coalition asks for only one thing of residents in return, their effort.
“Once you get in, there are things you have to do to participate in the program that are required of you,” Redding said, “and if you don’t, well then you’re going to be given multiple termination notices to say, you know, you have to become responsible.”
Because transitional housing is a program, participants are expected to get a job or be in school.
There are eight case managers who check on residents weekly to be sure they’re meeting their obligations in the program.
“Part of the case manager’s role is to set goals with these parents and to make sure that they’re working,” Redding said.
Case managers check residents’ pay stubs as well as their homes to ensure an alcohol- and smoking-free environment.
Federal, state and county monies are employed in order for the coalition to be able to provide for its residents, but donations and service from the community also help.
The campus averages about 600 volunteer hours a month and there are about 50 regular volunteers, Redding said.
That may sound like a lot, but Redding says there is a lot that needs to be done.
The coalition distributes USDA food bags and usually, 30 to 40 bags are given out. Volunteers must do inventory, pick up the food, sort it and put the food bags together.
Volunteers also go through all donations that are received by the local community, including toys, clothing and other items.
Even bigger than that, the coalition helps residents when they move out and take the donated furniture with them.
“When a family goes to move out, we allow them to take with them whatever they want,” Redding said. “Because what good does it do to get a new apartment when you don’t have a bed to sleep on or a couch to sit on?”
Sharlene McDonald has been a resident of the campus since February. She has two children — a boy and a girl — and she watched her daughter play with her neighbor on the blacktop pavement outside of their home.
McDonald said she’d been evicted from her last residence and it was on her record, which prevented other housing complexes from accepting her and her family. McDonald said she offered to pay a month in advance, but was still turned away.
Here in transitional housing, McDonald watches her daughter wear her new sneakers that she just bought for school as she walks toward the house.
“I think it’s great,” McDonald said.
The program provides pretty much anything needed, she added.
When residents manage to overcome their crises and move on with their lives, they inform the coalition of their permanent address.
Any family that comes here, Redding said, when they leave, they go to permanent housing, and that’s whatever is permanent for them. The goal is to keep them from being homeless again.
“Part of our goal here, when a family moves out, they have to go into permanent housing,” she said. “We consider we’ve failed if we’ve put a family back out onto the streets.”
For the past 15 years, the coalition’s goal is to help families, which are just like every other family, get back to normal after a crisis.
“They’re people just like we’re people,” Redding said. “You know, there’s no difference between the two. Somebody’s had a crisis, and that’s why they’re here.”
Taken from The Record Aug. 16, 2014