By Martie Thompson
editor@floridanewsline.com

The Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County is a true coalition, according to executive director Debi Redding, and it works with a lot of different agencies to provide its services — but its main focus is on homeless families and bringing them to self-sufficiency. Back in June 1998, several groups that were concerned about homelessness in the county as well as mental health issues came together and co-founder Jean Harden (along with husband Jim) came up with the idea to help homeless families.

“It was a big eye opener that homeless families existed in St. Johns County,” Redding said. “The group formed a 501 c 3 organization and a board of directors in November 1998.”

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Those very first board members all signed the mortgage note and bought the Homeless Coalition’s first house on West King Street to be used for transitional housing. In 2001, the coalition purchased a block of seven homes in West Augustine that had been condemned. Again, the board members all personally signed the mortgage notes. Redding said through donations and hard work from the community, they were able to renovate these homes and ultimately buy more homes and vacant land in the immediate area as it became available. Today, the Homeless Coalition has 23 houses for use by families with minor children.

Redding said the coalition receives its referrals from St. Johns Care Connect (Flagler Health+), which determines the most vulnerable families after an assessment process. 

“Families that come to us are either living in a place not suitable for human habitation, including the woods, or living at St. Francis House or Betty Griffin Center,” Redding said. “When they get to us they don’t have anything, which is why all of our homes are fully furnished, down to the dishes, linens, and personal hygiene products, all from community donations.”

As a housing first provider, the Homeless Coalition will refer individuals that come to them to appropriate agencies to address the barriers which led to their homelessness — like mental health issues or substance abuse. 

Much help and assistance is given, but expectations are high. After giving the new residents a month or so to settle in to their transitional homes, the work begins to get them back on their feet.

“They must get a job, they must work to get out of the situation they are in,” Redding said. “We help with resume building and referrals to staffing and employment agencies. We also work with them on budgeting and parenting. We try to make it as painless as possible, but we have to see results.”

The estimate is about 18 months for the clients to spend in the transitional housing. By that time, Redding said they should be on their way to self sufficiency. She said the Homeless Coalition has an 80 – 85 percent success rate. When the client is able to leave, they may take all of the items from their transitional home, including furniture and household goods, so they can set up their new permanent home. Since they had the utility bill in their name from the onset, they have built up credit. Once a family moves out, the Homeless Coalition works with community donors to clean and re-outfit the house and then a new referral moves in.

The Homeless Coalition has just four employees and relies heavily on volunteers, particularly groups from area businesses and churches, to do things like sort food pantry items and clothing donations, as well as help with home repairs, landscaping and general upkeep of the five-acre campus. A group of volunteers from Longleaf Church signed up to volunteer on a recent Saturday. Pastor Jeff St. Clair, who has volunteered a few times at the Homeless Coalition, said some of the things he has helped with include organizing a storage shed, painting a porch, folding clothes and some basic landscaping.

“I was introduced to the Homeless Coalition in December 2020,” St. Clair said. “The Homeless Coalition is a powerful outreach to the St. Johns community and is a great way for a family to get involved in serving their community and to help empower those who have recently gone through tough times find a way to greater stability.”

The Homeless Coalition is always looking for donations of items to furnish and outfit its transitional homes, as well as clothing, personal hygiene items and games and toys to put in the children’s rooms. Redding asked that those wishing to donate or volunteer call or email first to ensure that the items are needed at that time as storage space is limited. 

“We have a very generous community,” Redding said. “And we are thankful for everything they do.”

Visit http://homelesscoalitionstjohns.com, call (904) 819-0059 or email homelesscoalition@comcast.net for more information.

Photo courtesy Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County
Pastor Jeff St. Clair of Longleaf Church volunteered on a recent Saturday.

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