Initiatives to help the homeless in Flagler County are getting a boost.
Just 10 minutes, by car: That’s all it took for volunteer Margaret Baker to be transported from her comfortable suburban existence to the local cold-weather shelter for the homeless, and all the privation it encapsulates. Ten little minutes. The first time she went, last week, Baker found that jarring.
“I was struck totally by the fact that there is such a need, so close to home,” she said after helping ladle out food to about half a dozen local homeless people who showed up at the shelter Jan. 18. Now Baker, her three home-schooled daughters, ages 15, 12 and 10, as well as a handful of other families with the Flagler Christian Homeschoolers, hope to become regular volunteers.
“We’ve done some volunteer work with a food pantry, but we’ve never done anything like this,” Baker said. “We were quoting in scripture this morning out of the book of Matthew, when Jesus is saying, ‘Whatever you did to the least of these ... you did to me.’ And I was saying, ‘We could do this once a week, just to make ourselves available to the needy.”
The cold-weather shelter, called the Sheltering Tree, is run out of the First United Methodist Church in Bunnell, behind Terranova’s Italian Restaurant and Hansen’s Furniture on U.S. 1 just north of its intersection with State Road 100.
The Flagler Christian Homeschoolers, an association of local families that meets twice a month to plan field trips and other events for their home-schooled children, has brought children to volunteer twice at the shelter after a member heard that the shelter needed volunteers.
“We want (the children) to understand that there are people in need that they can help,” Flagler Christian Homeschoolers Administrator Cathy Anderson said. “It is a type of learning experience for them. We want them to be people who are sensitive to the needs others. ... Not only is it a matter of Christian education, it’s also a matter of good citizenship.”
Anderson’s two grandchildren, 10 and 12, were among the nine children who helped at the shelter Jan. 18.
Sheltering Tree plans for new location
The Sheltering Tree will have opened eight nights so far this year by the end of the week.
It opens any night the weather is projected to drop to 40 degrees or below, and usually about 10-12 local people come in needing a warm place to spend the night, said Sheltering Tree Director Carla Traister.
On Jan. 18, six had arrived by about 7 p.m., eating a dinner served by volunteers at the church’s kitchen and setting bags containing their belongings next to the rows of cots laid out before one of the church’s stained glass windows. A few played Monopoly with volunteers.
Most of the people who come in needing help are over 40, Traister said; younger people are more likely to be able to couch surf at friends’ homes for a night or two.
One man who showed up Jan. 18 was newly homeless, unsure of how to access services or where he’d go after the shelter closed in the morning.
“It’s very scary to be homeless. There’s no place to go,” Traister said. “I don’t know where he’s going to go when our shelter’s not open. He doesn’t know where he’s going to go.”
The weather was projected to dip into the upper 30s in Bunnell Jan. 18.
The shelter is open an average of about 28-30 days a year, Traister said, and this year, its board is considering new locations and raising money for a projected move.
For now, it leases space from the church on a nightly basis.
“It takes a lot of money to open an establishment, it really does,” Traister said. “It’s a hard thing to find a place where the neighbors will not say, ‘Not in my backyard.’”
The organization also isn’t yet sure how many square feet it will need, because a planned local initiative to place chronically homeless individuals in low-cost housing in the community — modeled on a similar Salvation Army-led initiative to end veteran homelessness in Flagler County — might affect the amount of space the shelter needs.
So might an initiative by the Flagler County Family Assistance Center, the same organization that runs the cold-weather shelter, to help prevent people from falling into homelessness by covering expenses like security deposits or a month of rent or a missed water bill.
That effort began in the summer of 2015 and has helped about 20 individuals in seven families avoid homelessness so far, Traister said.
Salvation Army to expand rapid rehousing program
As the Sheltering Tree searches for a new location, the local Salvation Army branch is settling into its new home at 703 E. Moody Blvd. in Bunnell.
The new office, which includes a food pantry, is helping with the Salvation Army’s effort to end veteran homelessness in Flagler County through a program that pledges to place homeless veterans seeking assistance in shelter within 48 hours, and in permanent housing within 21 days.
It housed four veterans in the past month, Salvation Army Volusia/Flagler Development Director Joni Casillas said, and handed 10 other cases. Right now the office is helping 22 families with things like food, rent and utility assistance.
“It’s going quite well,” Casillas said. “We have a food pantry there that’s being accessed quite frequently, so we know we’re helping those who are at risk of homelessness with that, and we’re helping with utility bills and things of that nature. ... It’s open five days a week, and it’s busy. … We have a computer that was donated to us where we help people access food stamps onsite, and help them improve their budget. As, more and more, the word gets out that we’re there, probably that number will go up.” (The office is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.Monday through Friday, but individuals who need help and can’t come in at those times can call 437-0029 to make an appointment for a time that works for them, Casillas said.)
Last June, the Salvation Army declared Flagler County free of veteran homelessness after working with the Homeless Solutions Task Force Flagler County and the Volusia/Flagler Homeless Coalition to house 70-80 formerly homeless veteran families with money from a Veteran Families Program grant.
Now its trying to keep veteran homelessness in Flagler County at a “functional zero,” while planning to use a similar strategy to house chronically homeless people who aren’t veterans, Casillas said.
“It’s being put to the test as we speak in Daytona Beach,” she said. “We have a number of homeless people that we are working the rapid rehousing model with right now. It seems to be working well.”
The initiative in Daytona involves about 50 homeless people and started Wednesday, Jan. 13.
It will use money from a $64,400 Housing and Urban Development grant administered through the Florida Department of Children and Families that came through on Friday, Jan. 15. That money will be split between Volusia County and Flagler County.
The initiative in Flagler County will begin sometime after the annual Point-In-Time Count, when organizations help to count homeless individuals over the course of 24 hours to get an idea of how many there are in a given area. The count is slated for Jan. 26-27 in both Volusia County and Flagler County this year.
“We are going to broaden our scope to achieve zero homelessness for all residents, not just veterans,” Casillas said. “ ... It can be a major illness or the death of the provider for the family that throws people into a tailspin, and most folks just need a hand up, not a handout. And that’s what we really try to provide, is a means for people to get back into the fabric of the community.”