There was a new voice in the discussion about resolving homeless issues and more ideas Wednesday at the JAX Chamber Public Policy Forum at the University Club on the Southbank.
The presentation was hosted by the Arlington and Downtown councils of the chamber.
Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition Executive Director Dawn Gilman moderated the discussion with Sulzbacher Center CEO Cindy Funkhouser, Downtown Vision Inc. Executive Director Terry Lorince, Sheriff John Rutherford and Elaine Spencer, who was appointed by Mayor Alvin Brown as chief of the City’s Housing and Community Development Division of the Neighborhoods Department.
Spencer is Jacksonville director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her appointment is being considered for confirmation by City Council.
Spencer said Wednesday was her third day on the job and that her job with the federal government was to travel the country talking to organizations that were tackling homeless issues.
The City will need “help and leadership from the business community” if Jacksonville is to improve its ranking of 14th among the top 100 U.S. cities when it comes to the size of its homeless population, she said.
“Leadership from the corporate community is what threads the needle and moves the issue forward,” Spencer said.
She called for collaboration to find ways to leverage resources and said the business community understands the impact of homelessness.
“We can deal with it on the front end or the back end. Either way, we’re paying for it. It’s cheaper on the front end,” said Spencer.
Lorince said DVI did research several years ago on how other cities are working to reduce their homeless populations. She said the research indicated the first need of a homeless person is a home.
A small apartment combined with access to support services can be provided to a homeless person for about $15,000 a year, compared to an average of $40,000 per year for incarceration and emergency medical care, Lorince said.
The national average success rate for eliminating homelessness by providing housing and services is 85 percent, she said.
“That’s the solution. The challenge is finding the money. We’ve got to figure out how to get on that train,” said Lorince.
Rutherford said the homeless population is not just a Downtown issue, it’s an issue all over the city.
Many people want to live in the woods and they are living in squalor, Rutherford said. The first step is to help a homeless person become what he called “service ready” and able to make the decision to take advantage of available assistance to leave the street and land a job and a stable housing situation.
“My opportunity is when they break the law,” he said.
When a homeless person is arrested for committing a crime, Rutherford said he or she is clothed, fed and placed back on medication, if applicable. When the person is released, however, “then we put them back into the community,” Rutherford said.
He reiterated his proposal to release homeless people from jail at a location away from Downtown and immediately provide assessment and access to the available services.
Funkhouser said “the face of homelessness” has changed based on the people who are applying for help at the Sulzbacher Center.
Before the recession, substance abuse and mental illness were the primary contributors to an individual being homeless, she said.
Since the recession, the primary cause is “crisis poverty,” losing a job or a home through foreclosure, and that affects many women, children and families.
The center is turning away an average of 65 people each day and there are 85 families on a waiting list for shelter, Funkhouser said.
Spencer said the solution to reducing the number of homeless individuals in the community “boils down to will and commitment.”
She said one avenue might be a program similar to an initiative that is successful in Miami that “built partnerships and collaboration with the business community.”
Specifically, Spencer said, a 1 percent tax was levied on restaurants and bars that went into a trust fund to address homeless issues.
Spencer said even though it’s an unpopular stance to advocate raising taxes, such a program could “raise an amount of money most of us dream about.”
“It’s our responsibility to the community to provide the resources that will make a dent in this insidious problem,” Spencer said.
“We have to be focused, we have to be intentional and we have to be committed,” she said.