1 year ago

J Magazine Fall 2017

The magazine of the rebirth of Jacksonville's downtown

There‘s not much worse

There‘s not much worse for a downtown trying to revitalize its image than being cast as someplace where transients loiter, waiting to accost visitors or simply sprawling on the sidewalks. For years, that’s been the picture of Jacksonville’s Downtown: Shabbily dressed people drinking beer out of paper bags. Panhandlers roaming the blocks of Downtown, asking people for money and drugs. People sleeping on broken-down cardboard boxes under Downtown bridges. Some are homeless. Some are mentally ill. Others are simply out of work. They all depend upon Downtown as a place to socialize and access services. Make no mistake, the vast majority are not dangerous, but they can frighten. More than one person admits it’s a little scary braving the streets of Downtown in search of restaurants and entertainment. For some people, it’s also a reason to just stay away. Why even go Downtown, one woman reasoned, “There’s nothing there except drunks and bums.” The challenge Downtown movers and shakers are faced with today is how to shed that image. It’s absolutely clear that Downtown is never going to become a destination for sightseers or fun-seekers or a healthy environment for businesses to grow when it’s dominated by people perceived as alarming. It’s not a problem that hasn’t been tackled. For decades, Jacksonville’s collection of wonderful nonprofits and humanitarians have worked hard to help the poor, homeless and disadvantaged in the city center and elsewhere. These generous individuals Scenes in and around Hemming Park and the Main Library. 80 J MAGAZINE | FALL 2017

possessed compassionate hearts and toiled diligently to make a difference. But they can’t find solutions alone. The real trouble in Jacksonville is that city leaders have stubbornly refused to step forward to help solve the problem. Business leaders have bemoaned the fact that Downtown has an image problem. City government leaders have contributed resolutions and dire words. It hasn’t been nearly enough. And it’s not that we don’t know some of the steps that need to be made. Cities like Orlando, Cleveland and Salt Lake City have made enormous strides toward solving not only their problems with their city centers, but in solving their homeless problem in general. The key to all these efforts has been that everyone in the community must be deeply involved in seeking solutions — together. The hearts of the nonprofits and humanitarians aren’t enough. Faith leaders are required to join the effort, as are those from government and business sectors. Everyone who sees Downtown as a diamond in the rough must be on board to polish its image. That has begun to happen here. As J magazine went to press, a diverse group of community leaders from all walks of life began to talk, brought together by Dawn Gilman, the executive director of Jacksonville’s Changing Homelessness. This kind of collaboration will be essential if Downtown’s to progress. “Agencies talking among themselves doesn’t move the needle,” Gilman says. “The more (everyone) starts talking about how we truly change homelessness in our community, the better it will be.” Indeed, that was the approach taken by Orlando several years in Central Florida with the formation of an extremely dedicated working group of homeless advocates and faith leaders as well as city and business representatives. They decided their goal would be to decrease the population of homeless people who used city center streets as their beds each night. Much like in Jacksonville, city planners and others were nervous that their strategies to pump up the vibrancy of Orlando’s center would be hampered by the number of people who hung out on urban corners and in parks. The city had already spent millions of dollars to improve and build downtown entertainment venues, and businesses were ready to come in with millions more in retail stores, offices and restaurants. But would there be anyone to patronize these establishments if they felt threatened? The charge to decrease transience on Orlando’s downtown streets was led in part by Andrae Bailey, then-CEO U.S. CITIES WITH the largest homeless populations IN 2016 While the total homeless population has fallen almost 14% since 2010, there are still close to 550,000 people in the U.S. who don’t have a fixed abode. of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. He gathered together leaders and compiled volumes of data, then guided the group toward a discussion of solutions and population targets. The target seemed obvious: The city’s urban center needed to be able to become a destination, so the group decided their focus would be on HOMELESS CITY POPULATION 1. New York 73,523 2. Los Angeles 43,854 (includes Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County) 3. Seattle 10,730 (includes all of King County) 4. San Diego 8,669 (includes San Diego City and San Diego County) 5. District of Columbia 8,350 6. San Francisco 6,996 7. San Jose and Santa Clara, California 6,524 (includes San Jose and Santa Clara City & County) 8. Boston 6,240 9. Las Vegas 6,208 (includes Clark County) 10. Philadelphia 6,112 SOURCE: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development downtown for both humanitarian and economic reasons. Using that logic, Bailey’s group decided to target one group of people who seemed to be the most problematic. These were the individuals who often attracted much of the public criticism — the chronically homeless who often also have mental and physical health problems. It wasn’t hard to find them, Bailey says. A survey at one downtown Orlando shelter showed that of the 36,000 nightly stays over the previous year, a mere 111 people had accounted for 18,000 — or half — of those stays. Certainly not all these people presented a problem for downtown visitors, but many did. “Not everyone is created equal when it comes to their impact on others,” Bailey says. “What we found was that these chronically homeless folks didn’t have the capacity to get a job. These folks were the ones who needed (help).” In Jacksonville, and especially Downtown, the same thinking may hold. Bailey lauds the city for decreasing its homeless-veteran problem by 75 percent during a concerted effort and believes it’s a good sign. “So far, Jacksonville has done a great job helping its homeless veterans,” he says. “The next step is to get the chronically homeless into housing. You’d be taking out the scariest people. That would make a huge difference.” The Orlando team funded its effort by cobbling together state and federal programs and grants and private donations, including $6 million from Florida Hospital, after the group gathered data showing that rapid re-housing could make a difference. In the three years Bailey led the effort to tidy up Orlando’s streets, homelessness in the city was reduced by 50 percent. He now leads a national initiative, Lead Homelessness, focused on recreating nationally the approach that worked so well in Orlando. Key to the success of Orlando’s approach was the active involvement of the entire community, he stresses. “Good intentions don’t cut it when you have a complex problem. You have to work through partners. You have to get people to work with you or you can never push the CONTINUED ON PAGE 91 FALL 2017 | J MAGAZINE 81