Two people are playing chess at a covered picnic table. Across the way a man and woman are leaving a computer lab, where they’ve received coaching to sharpen their resumes and land a job that will help them get an apartment.
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday at the Sulzbacher Center in downtown Jacksonville, the largest homeless provider in Northeast Florida. The dorms are empty and the beds are made.
The center sheltered 1,588 homeless men, women and families this past year. But it turns away about 50 people a day for lack of space.
Achieving self-sufficiency requires a balance between the person’s physical health, mental well-being, job skills and confidence, says Sulzbacher’s President and CEO Cindy Funkhouser.
“If they can’t work because of poor health, they can’t get a job,” she says. “If they can’t get a job and make money, they can’t afford to move out.”
As the Sulzbacher Center approaches its 20th anniversary, it has developed hundreds of partnerships that helped make it possible to move 580 people into permanent housing last year.
One of those collaborations involved the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a city of Jacksonville grant and private donors that helped Sulzbacher build an 18-bed veterans dorm and medical respite center two years ago.
Of all the homeless people who moved into housing last year, 151 were veterans. That’s a triumph for a group of people who often deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and substance abuse issues, Funkhouser says.
“Roughly 25 percent of the chronically homeless are veterans.”
While the Sulzbacher Center is grateful for funding that targets veterans and the chronically homeless, there are approximately 70 children living at the center on any given day, Funkhouser says.
Christina Dodds arrived at the center a few weeks ago. Her daily chores include sweeping, mopping or working in the kitchen, plus three life skills classes a week. She’s grateful for the job preparation and how Sulzbacher staff are helping her get furniture and money toward her first month’s rent.
“It gets you going,” Dodds says. “It has really helped me to move forward.”
The key is treating people with dignity and respect, helping them see their gifts and talents, and being a bit tough, too, Funkhouser says. “We need to empower people to do what they want to do. I can’t want it more than they do.”
Mission House volunteers chop onions, slice cake and sauté zucchini as dozens of wet homeless people – who have been caught in the rain or just taken a shower – line up at the back door.
The day facility on Shetter Avenue in Jacksonville Beach offers meals, showers, clean clothes and job and housing assistance to help homeless people get off the streets.
For them, dignity is a big deal.
“The number one thing they appreciate the most is the shower,” says Mission House executive director Lori Anderson. “Even though they’re homeless, they don’t want to smell like they’re homeless.”
Self-respect is important too. Jim, a military veteran who had been homeless nine years, says Mission House helped him see the value in resuming a schedule and dealing with his health and addiction issues.
Jim is now working and has his own apartment. He asked that his full name be withheld for privacy reasons.
“I just slowly got back on my feet,” he says, thanking his case managers for really caring about him. “What I received here was accountability and responsibility. I got that back, and I got more confidence.”
In 2013, Mission House helped 51 people move into permanent housing. In addition, its free medical clinic, open Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings, treated 2,400 patients and dispensed 4,500 prescriptions. The non-profit plans to add a second floor to the building to expand the medical clinic waiting area, and the room where job training is held.
Mission House was founded in 1997 by members of four churches who, for more than a decade, had fed and clothed the homeless from their halls, gymnasiums and the backs of station wagons. It continues to rely on churches and organizations for volunteers and operating expenses.
“We’re very small but very well supported by the community,” Anderson says. “They are the ones who help us do our job.”