By Anne H. Oman
May 10, 2018 7:08 p.m.
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh, yeah, I’m gonna fade away.”
“Gimme Shelter,” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones
On January 24, volunteers from the Coalition for the Homeless of Nassau County combed the area to take the annual census of homeless people. The total: 92.
Until recently, about a dozen homeless people—men and women –lived in the county’s only homeless shelter, which was run by the First Assembly of God Church on South 14th Street. But on April 30, the shelter shut down.
According to church employee Kim Crout, the closure was due to the retirement of the church’s long-time pastor, Rev. Edwin Schick.
“He was the operator—no one else was willing to take it over,” she said. “We couldn’t get a candidate for the position of pastor when they heard there was a homeless shelter.”
Reverend Schick cast a slightly different light on the story.
“That’s just an excuse,” he told the Observer in a phone interview. “They didn’t want to be bothered. They were talking about closing the shelter long before I retired.”
For Reverend Schick, the call to “Gimme Shelter” came on a cold night back in 1988.
“It was really cold, and a couple of kids – 18 or 19 years old – knocked on my door,” he recalled. “They’d been sleeping in sleeping bags on the beach. I let them use the house next to the church. The word spread.”
Over the next thirty years, hundreds of people were housed at the shelter – men and women in separate quarters.
“The house was stripped – there was no plumbing or anything,” said Reverend Schick. “I bought materials, and the residents fixed the place up – even put in air conditioning. There were a lot of talented, hard-working people who came to the shelter.”
Residents who could afford it paid a “program fee” of $200 a month. Others did odd jobs, such as lawn mowing or painting for 15 to 20 hours a week. There were no outside volunteers or staff, but Reverend Schick said he could always find trustworthy clients to act as resident managers.
“I felt it was my Christian duty,” said Reverend Schick, explaining why he took on the task of running a homeless facility. “And it was the most satisfying part of my ministry. I wouldn’t have been there thirty years if it wasn’t for the shelter.
What happened to the shelter’s last remaining residents?
“They had been telling people they were going to close it, so the numbers had dwindled down to 10, maybe 8,” said Reverend Schick. “They told them on a Sunday morning that they had to be out the following Monday.”
“When we heard the shelter was closing, we sent some case managers over there,” said Linda Ellis, the Chief Program Officer at the Barnabas Center. “Most of the people there were holding out until the last minute. They did their own thing, knowing that they had our support, and it’s my understanding they all found places. Three of the ladies found a place in Yulee they are sharing, and one of them now has two part-time jobs. There was one 71-year-old gentleman we were able to help quite a bit. He had been living there for a number of years and had no income. We got him a telephone interview with Social Security, and, since he had a work history, he was eligible for benefits. We helped arrange for the benefits to be direct-deposited in a local bank, and we got him an ID and food stamps. He’s now looking at places to live, and there are several possibilities.”
So with the closing of the county’s only residential shelter, what facilities exist to serve Nassau’s homeless population?
There is Micah’s Place, a shelter specifically for victims of domestic abuse and their children, which operates at an undisclosed location (for the safety of residents) in the county. The Barnabas Center provides crisis assistance, a food pantry, and health care. Gracie’s Kitchen, in Yulee, and Hope House, in Fernandina Beach, provide hot dinners several nights a week. And the Day Drop-In Center, operated by volunteers in a building on South 14th Street provided by the Fernandina Beach Church of Christ, operates three days a week from 9 am to 1 pm.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Richard Coleman, a volunteer from St. Michael’s Catholic Church, showed a reporter around the facility.
“We serve 15 to 20 clients every day that we’re open,” he said. “People sign in, and we ask how we can help them. We just bought a new washer and dryer. They can do their laundry and take showers. We serve breakfast, and a hot lunch. We have a computer to help them find jobs. We also help them establish residency by letting them receive their mail here, so they can be eligible for other services.”
The Center also gives clients backpacks, blankets, sleeping bags, tents and toiletries. Volunteers from local churches staff the center on a rotating basis.
“The wonderful thing is that the Protestant and Catholic churches and the Jewish community work together on this,” said Mr. Coleman. “I’m old enough to remember when they were at each other’s throats.”
Despite the wall display of an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew (“For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me……”), Mr. Coleman said that the volunteers don’t preach or proselytize.
“If they ask, we refer them to a church,” he said.
The Cold Night Shelter, which used to operate in the same space and opened on nights when the temperature dipped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, also closed this year. According to a statement by The Coalition for the Homeless, “due to lack of participation, there is no Cold Night Shelter in 2018.”
The Coalition attributed this lack, in part, to the success of the Day Drop-In Center.
“In 2016 and 2017, we believe that due to the distribution of supplies through the Day Drop-In Center and the fear of losing their belongings should they leave them behind to visit the shelter, this shelter was only utilized by two individuals on one night, and there was not enough participation to continue the program,” the group said in a statement.
Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley told the Observer that the closing of both the Assembly of God shelter and the Cold Night Shelter has had an impact on the community.
“We have certainly seen an increase in activity around businesses that remain open 24/7, convenience stores, laundromats, etc., by those we know had previously stayed in the shelter, and we have seen an increase in homeless people “camping” in wooded areas within the City,” he said in an email.
The Chief added that another result of the closing is that fewer homeless people are being transported to the island from I-95 and elsewhere. Instead, they are being taken to Jacksonville, where facilities are available to accommodate them. The Department has two detectives who act as liaisons with the homeless community. There is also a General Order on Homeless Persons which, among other things, directs that “officers that encounter homeless persons camping or living in their vehicles should evaluate the total circumstances to determine if enforcement action is appropriate or if assisting with services may be a more suitable recourse.”
The order also specifies that “the personal property of homeless persons shall be respected” and that “officers may not destroy or tear down homeless camps.”
According to Patricia De Jesus, an Army veteran who has been volunteering since 2010 as a Benevolence Ministry Leader for the Fernandina Beach Church of Christ, the Cold Night Shelter may reopen.
“We have a church that’s interested in operating it,” she told the Observer in a phone interview. “We’re negotiating now. It would be located in the same space – a building belonging to the Church of Christ. We will probably know next month.”
Ms. De Jesus estimates that there are 65 to 70 chronically homeless people on Amelia Island.
“The chronic homeless usually fall through the cracks,” she said. “These are people with mental health or addiction problems.”
But even if the Cold Night Shelter reopens, there may not be a residential homeless shelter in the county for the foreseeable future.
“We do not have any plans to open a shelter,” Katrina Robinson Wheelee, President of the Coalition for the Homeless said in an email.
But Reverend Schick, who still lives in Fernandina Beach, does have a plan for a shelter.
“I’m trying to get some investors to help me buy some property,” he said. “We could put some mobiles on it until we can build a house.”
Said Patricia De Jesus of Reverend Schick: “That’s a man with a heart of gold, and if he wants to do it, it might just get done.”