Hur­ri­cane floods home­less hous­ing in his­toric St. Au­gus­tine

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Ja­son Dearen

ST. AU­GUS­TINE, FLA. >> Days af­ter Hur­ri­cane Matthew sent flood­wa­ters surg­ing through his­toric St. Au­gus­tine, the county’s di­rec­tor of home­less ser­vices was pan­icked.

County of­fi­cials had or­dered peo­ple to stay in­doors be­cause of evening pes­ti­cide spray­ing to con­trol a post-hur­ri­cane mosquito scourge. Yet the town’s only home­less shel­ter was in­un­dated with wa­ter. With the au­tumn air turn­ing chilly, there was no place for home­less peo­ple to go.

“I know we’re close to Dis­ney, but we only have so much magic,” said Kassy Guy-Jo­hanessen, who dur­ing the spray­ing handed out hospi­tal masks and wa­ter so peo­ple could wash them­selves off if they were wor­ried about be­ing ex­posed.

Homes in many coastal coun­ties in the South­east sus­tained flood dam­age, but the loss of home­less fa­cil­i­ties used by dozens of work­ing poor ap­pears to have hit this vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion much harder here than in other ar­eas. Be­sides the loss of shel­ter, the hur­ri­cane also knocked out busi­nesses where some home­less peo­ple worked, leav­ing them even poorer.

The storm elim­i­nated nearly a third of St. Johns County’s shel­ter capacity of 327 beds: 88 beds lost in the main home­less cri­sis cen­ter and five more when a fall­ing tree took out a bun­ga­low that housed a home­less fam­ily, in­clud­ing three chil­dren.

A few blocks from City Hall, out­side the mul­ti­col­ored Vic­to­rian-style St. Fran­cis House that serves as the city’s home­less cri­sis cen­ter, dozens of peo­ple gath­ered re­cently at a makeshift kitchen for lunch. St. Fran­cis’s beds were al­ways full, but now yel­low cau­tion tape was strung across the porch and hand­writ­ten signs warned peo­ple to keep out.

“Right now, we have no shel­ter,” said Judy Dem­bowski, St. Fran­cis’ di­rec­tor, stand­ing in a room with a 4-foot-high band of muck on the walls.

The county boasts the state’s sec­ond-high­est me­dian in­come, but be­fore the storm, St. Au­gus­tine also had a busy home­less shel­ter used pre­dom­i­nantly by peo­ple who rely on the city and county for lodg­ing and food while work­ing lowwage jobs in the tourist in­dus­try.

Bob Veeder, 58, lived in St. Fran­cis House. He now sleeps out­side. He said St. Fran­cis’ staff mem­bers are his an­gels, giv­ing him a bike and a sleep­ing bag. The sleep­ing bag is es­pe­cially useful as it helps with the cold and pro­tects against mos­qui­toes.

Veeder said los­ing ac­cess to the shel­ter has been a night­mare.

“It’s more dan­ger­ous out here with more peo­ple sleep­ing on the streets. I lost ev­ery­thing, all my stuff got stolen,” Veeder said.

St. Fran­cis has in­sur­ance to help pay for re­build­ing, but it doesn’t cover the com­put­ers, food and fur­ni­ture lost in the storm, Dem­bowski said. It may be months be­fore the place is hab­it­able again.

Across town, a fam­ily of five liv­ing in a tem­po­rary tran­si­tional home man­aged by the Home­less Coali­tion was dis­placed when a tree busted through the roof of the small 1917-era bun­ga­low.

Tif­fany Jor­dan, 34, a mother of five who lives in a neigh­bor­ing bun­ga­low that was un­scathed, said the loss of such hous­ing is dev­as­tat­ing for fam­i­lies on the edge of ex­treme poverty.

“We’d be stay­ing in our car with­out this place,” she said. “This is a huge ben­e­fit in the se­cu­rity of hav­ing some­place safe to stay.”

Weeks af­ter the storm, the streets here are still piled high with moldy mat­tresses, discarded car­pets, tele­vi­sions and other de­tri­tus, and some pop­u­lar busi­nesses re­main closed. With­out the jobs those busi­nesses pro­vide, some home­less peo­ple have lost in­come as well as shel­ter, said Debi Red­ding, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Home­less Coali­tion, which man­ages the tran­si­tional fam­ily homes.

“Peo­ple are los­ing jobs be­cause the busi­nesses are flooded,” she said. At least one res­i­dent in the 18 homes she man­ages can­not work due to flood­ing. It’s un­clear when busi­nesses will re­open.

The coali­tion dropped in­sur­ance for the storm-dam­aged tran­si­tional house last year to deal with bud­get cuts, so Red­ding isn’t sure how they will re­build it. Her staff man­ag­ing the 18 tran­si­tional homes fell from nine em­ploy­ees to five af­ter bud­get cuts, so she’s not con­fi­dent re­build­ing will hap­pen any­time soon.

That means bad news not only for dis­placed fam­i­lies, but for those on the long wait­ing list for hous­ing.

“There’s noth­ing more heart-break­ing than telling a dad, mom and kids that we don’t have any­thing for them,” Red­ding said.

Now win­ter is ap­proach­ing, with tem­per­a­tures that can dip be­low freez­ing.

“My big­gest fear is some­one freez­ing to death be­cause we don’t have a shel­ter for them,” Guy-Jo­hanessen said.

JA­SON H. DEAREN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this photo, Bob Veeder, 58, stands out­side St. Fran­cis House in St. Au­gus­tine, Fla. Veeder, who is home­less, has been sleep­ing on the street since Hur­ri­cane Matthew dam­aged the only full-time home­less shel­ter in St. Johns County.

JA­SON H. DEAREN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Kassy Guy-Jo­hanessen, who co­or­di­nates ser­vices for the home­less in St. Johns County, Florida, stands in a small food pantry used by home­less fam­i­lies in St. Au­gus­tine, Fla.

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