Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Getting Homeless out of the Woods

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Getting Homeless out of the Woods

Article excerpt

Byline: Tonyaa Weathersbee

In St. Johns County, people could find it easier to ignore the homeless than to help them.

That's because there's lots of room for them to hide. Acres of it, in fact.

The suburban county is filled with undeveloped land. Land where homeless people can sleep in tents, cook food and live where their struggles and their misery is concealed by piney woods and palmettos.

"I think there is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude out there," David Hoak, executive director of Home Again St. Johns, told me.

"We have had a significant homeless population here for decades. St. Francis House [a shelter in St. Augustine] stays full. We really don't have the beds that we need to house homeless people, and as a result, there are a lot of homeless camps ..."

"We hear word that there are even camps in Ponte Vedra."

But since 2008 Hoak's group - a coalition of organizations committed to helping homeless people - has refused to let their invisibility be an excuse to ignore the plight of the homeless.

So two years ago, Home Again began the arduous work of making it easier for them to come out of the woods.

And recently they finished the first step of that work: They began wrapping up negotiations with the Salvation Army to lease more than 13 acres off Florida 207 to build a facility where homeless people can get a place to stay, or connect to help in their struggles with drug addictions, mental health problems or other impediments that keep them on society's margins.

Hoak said the project took a while because when it comes to assisting homeless, it's tough to find a site where someone doesn't have objections.

"St. Francis wanted to relocate and the community resistance was nasty," he said, referring to the time in 2010 when the St. Johns County Planning and Zoning Board turned down the shelter's plans to expand. …

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