By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
It was during a hot August mission trip to Haiti in 2010 that Lisa Harris fully understood the incredible power of clean water and the ability to take a shower.
“We had to keep our eyes and lips closed tight because we were using dirty water,” said Harris, a Ponte Vedra Beach resident. “We could not fully shower up, and we were just disgusting by the end of the trip.”
Harris showered a lot once she returned home, something she realized everyone takes for granted.
“After the shower, I felt like a new woman. That external act had an internal impact that was so profound. In that moment, I knew that I would provide the homeless with access to showers,” said Harris, who resigned from her job with a large veterans organization in June to pursue this goal full-time.
Known as Free Flow, Harris calls the mission a “huge passion project” that came to fruition when she moved to Ponte Vedra Beach in 2017. She noticed the large homeless population in the Jacksonville Beach area and reached out to then co-workers Kristina Rice and Beth Whitman who fully embraced the idea.
“I am a believer. I sat on this idea for eight years and never felt a call to do it. I think that there is an anointing time and an appointing time. When I relocated to Florida from Atlanta, I knew that it was time. I am in love with this area, and I want to improve and support it,” said Harris, who has worked most of her life in the nonprofit sector.
A lot of time and energy was spent on paperwork for Free Flow to become a 501 C3 non-profit, develop a mission and vision statement and attract donors and volunteers, she said.
And then the pandemic hit.
“We are of the mindset that just because of the virus, the homeless do not cease to have needs. They still need showers and resources,” she said. “And, sadly with so many people losing their jobs right now, we anticipate the need to increase. We really want to be proactive.”
Step one is to restore dignity, she said, which is why the mobile showers and laundry unit has to be the first purchase. Free Flow is currently seeking donations to make this a reality as soon as possible. This unit (four private stalls, two for women, two for men and one out of the four ADA equipped) will cost $76,000, and it will include five sets of washers and dryers. All services provided to the homeless will be free, and Free Flow will concentrate on Jacksonville Beach first and then branch out. Volunteers will be busy washing clothes while the homeless shower in a safe and secure environment where they will also receive a “drop bag” full of personal hygiene items and clothing.
Ultimately, the goal is to create a “Mobile Care Village” across the area that would also include two more mobile units – a Bicycle Repair and Trade unit and Job and Education unit. The order of purchase for the mobile units is intentional and with a purpose, said Harris.
Board member Kristina Rice agreed.
“Being clean changes your whole outlook, and it creates a feeling of dignity and respect,” said Rice, who has been working with veterans and active duty military members for five years. “We want to work together as a community and stand in those gaps and bridge them.”
Board member Beth Whitman said she first felt a desire to help the homeless during her first job out of college when she worked for a community action organization.
“We are all one bad decision away from being in this same situation,” said Whitman, who has an accounting background. “There are a majority of homeless people that have been employed, who want to be employed and are capable but simply fall on hard times for whatever reason. Many can’t find employment due to their inability to bathe or wash their clothes.”
Harris said the public’s image of the homeless is unintentionally flawed.
“It is not always who you think it is or just what you see,” she said, referring to someone standing streetside asking for money. “It is also the woman fleeing a domestic violence situation who literally has nothing. It is a person who is living paycheck to paycheck and just lost their job. It is someone just released from foster care with no family. It is someone’s sister, mother, father or brother — folks just like me and you.”
Harris has been canvassing the area to better determine the needs of the homeless while giving out drop bags (made possible through current donations). She said she hears repeatedly from the homeless that they can’t always get to a shelter in time for a shower, that it is too far away or that they have an interview the next day, but nowhere to go to clean up.
Volunteer and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Bill Brunscheen said he sees the need and thinks Free Flow will be very helpful to the homeless community.
“My role is whatever they need,” said Brunscheen, who hopes to get others from his church, Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church, to also volunteer. He volunteered in July with Free Flow at Serve Day 2020 to help assemble drop bags during the event hosted by Roots Church and held at Ponte Vedra High School. Serve Day is a global effort that provides churches with a chance to serve their local communities, and Free Flow was one of five nonprofits invited to attend.
Harris, Rice and Whitman underscored their plan to complement other homeless services that currently exist and to work together to meet the needs of the community.
Visit www.free-flow.org to volunteer, learn more or to donate.
Photo courtesy Lisa Harris
Free Flow board members Kristina Rice, Lisa Harris and Beth Whitman.