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- 2013 - December - 11th -

Group taking new look at homeless issue

By Max Marbut, Staff Writer

Balancing the needs and challenges facing homeless people with the effort to create a more dynamic Downtown is getting a fresh look.

Dane Baird, Springfield resident and Sweet Pete's co-owner, assembled a group of social service providers and interested residents and business people Tuesday at City Hall to discuss different roles and responsibilities that each can play in developing a solution, and possibly new policies.

Baird said he was inspired to take up the issue after a homeless person who arrived in Jacksonville — thanks to a one-way bus ticket from South Florida — came into his store.

"I pestered a lot of people to find out what is our homeless situation. Homeless service providers want measurable results and they want to be part of Downtown redevelopment," he said.

Cindy Funkhouser, president and CEO of Sulzbacher Center, said increasing the number of people living Downtown could be an asset.

"A vibrant Downtown has lots of people. When you have a lot of people, the homeless don't stick out like a sore thumb," she said.

Shannon Nazworth, executive director of Ability Housing, said, "We need housing available at all price points."

City Council President Bill Gulliford agreed. He said on the JAX Chamber leadership trip to Charlotte, N.C., he learned that Charlotte has 15,000 residents in the urban core, about half who rent and half who own. Condominiums were available starting at $95,000.

Jerry Moran, owner of La Cena Ristorante along Laura Street, said some of his customers are wary of coming Downtown because they might be panhandled. The number of social service providers also is an issue.

"Downtown has become a center for homeless centers and social services. The city has to make an offer the shelters can't refuse to move out of Downtown," said Moran.

One of the conclusions Baird reached is that the No. 1 homeless shelter in Jacksonville is the jail.

Tara Wildes, director of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office department of corrections and moderator of the discussion Tuesday, said jail is not a therapeutic environment and being incarcerated can have little or no positive effect on future behavior.

"For some people, including some homeless people, jail is not a deterrent," Wildes said.

Andre Ayoub, sheriff's office assistant chief for Zone 1, which includes Downtown, said some members of the homeless population are repeat offenders and it's "impossible to arrest our way" out of the problem.

"We had 43 homeless people who were arrested 563 times in four years," he said.

Wilde said the sheriff's office has a vested interest in addressing homeless issues and wants "to be part of the solution."

Ju'Coby Pittman, CEO and president of Clara White Mission, said one of the challenges that has faced Jacksonville when it comes to the homeless issue is continuity through political administrations.

"I can't tell you how many times we've paid millions of dollars for plans," Pittman said.

Gulliford said he wishes the city could get back all the money that has been spent studying homeless issues over the years.

"We could put that money into services," he said.

Gulliford suggested the group schedule a meeting in January to explore possible directions to take toward solving homeless issues with the goal of taking action.

"The greatest results come when the committed and interested people in the community go out and do it. Let's make this thing a reality so it's not just another exercise in futility," he said.

mmarbut@baileypub.com

(904) 356-2466

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