This week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours riding with the Sulzbacher Center’s HOPE Team. Consisting of an outreach worker, a trained emergency medicine technician and a psychiatrist, the team seeks out those who are living on the streets and in the woods and builds relationships and trust with a population who have frequently lost trust and hope. The HOPE Team’s goal is to connect the chronically homeless with services that can enable them to become fully function members of society again.
While many people think of the homeless population as the folks you see hanging out all day in urban parks or wandering aimlessly Downtown, the truth is that this small population does not even scratch the surface. According to the outreach worker, “Every day you meet somebody new.”
We found people camped in the woods near a creek—an unexpected bucolic setting near Downtown—who despite living without running water, electricity, or a solid roof, did not consider themselves to be homeless. We met Mel, a friendly veteran who has been living in the same wooded area for more than 17 years. He described the serenity of the woods and the joy he experienced watching the sun rise through the trees. He said he had done “the homeless thing,” staying in shelters, and he was pretty happy where he was.
We also met Marcea, an older woman who lived on the streets in the Southside of town. For the past 13 years, rather than living in the woods hidden from view, she’s lived on the streets with her belongings in shopping carts. She is frequently moved by the police and was described as being very resistant to seeking services. Nonetheless, the HOPE Team continues to visit her, ensuring that she has a meal and knows that someone cares. Their hope is that someday Marcea will change her mind and come in off the streets.
What does this mean for Downtown and Hemming Plaza in particular? The HOPE Team believes that a very small percentage of the folks you see hanging out in Hemming Plaza are actually homeless; rather, they have homes, but lack structure in their lives. Additionally, a significant proportion of the chronically homeless have mental health and/or substance abuse issues, even though they may not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, or being “Baker Acted.”
There is a need for outreach to ensure that people can be connected to mental health and other services; however, it was pointed out that Florida ranks 49th in the amount of per capita funding for mental health services. There is no straightforward or easy solution for eliminating homelessness because there is no single cause of homelessness.
In the meantime, we have caring and persistent folks like those on the HOPE Team who keep up with the chronically homeless, build trust and provide basic needs in an effort to ultimately get people off the streets and out of the woods and back to being contributing members of society.
If you know someone who is living on the street and needs help immediately please call the HOPE team at (904) 568-8343.