Many think that life at the beach would be idyllic. For one section of the community in Jacksonville Beach living by the seaside is less about sunbathing and surfing, but more literal – the sands and environs are the closest they have to a home, it is their life. There can be few examples of the wide gulf in wealth within US society as strong as the differing experiences of people who populate “The Beaches” area of Jacksonville.
While a couple of miles down the A1A multi-million dollar homes nestle around the Ponte Vedra Golf Course (a few miles further and you encounter the exclusive and world famous Sawgrass Golf Club), at the other end of the social ladder homeless people sleep on the sands through necessity not choice. There is a mission house on Shetter Avenue which provides daily meals, showers, clothing and some medical assistance, but many homeless people find themselves without a bed for the night and gather on the beach instead.
During my six months in Jacksonville Beach my early morning bike rides would often coincide with small groups of homeless people awaking near the dunes and getting ready to make the journey to the Mission House for a meal. One man (pictured above) was a permanent fixture on the beach, his belongings in tattered plastic bags and a small suitcase that had seen better days. Whenever I saw him he was either asleep or more often indulging in a bizarre ritual of a dance-like shuffle making a small square shape motion in the sand while nodding to some kind of music. Whether it was from a mp3 player or just a tune in his head was difficult to tell. A walk along the beach yesterday once again included passing this dancer moving to to the beat of his own private world.
Another encounter was more involved. One evening back in July at the Ritz bar I had my camera ready for the space shuttle launch at Kennedy some 150 miles south, having been told the tail of flame could be seen from the beach on a clear day. As I made my way over to the boardwalk with a few other shuttle spotters, I met Rodney and Tammy, a homeless couple trying to earn small change by telling jokes.Spotting the camera Rodney told me to take their photo as it was their second anniversary, and I duly obliged. Three weeks later I bumped into Rodney again one morning as I locked my bike up outside Walgreens. “You do right to lock it up my friend, I had mine stolen a few days ago”, he informed me. We spoke for around five minutes during which time it became obvious he was local celebrity, nearly all those entering the store said hello to him. Rodney offered to take the shirt off his back to clean my bike wheels to earn $2. He got the money without the toil. I told him that I’d taken the photo of Tammy and himself a few weeks before and that I would print him a copy. Rodney was delighted and told me the two regular spots on the beach where they spent the night so I might find them to hand it over. On my rides I always carried the photo in my bag in case I saw Rodney again. In the end probably a couple of months passed before I did, spotting Tammy and Rodney walking along the very road Tina was driving us down to collect her children from their father’s. We pulled over, my initial shout startled and seemed to worry them. As I approached it was clear Rodney did not recognise me, his face wracked with concern, but a swift explanation and offering of the photo brought about huge smile, and a vigorous handshake. As we drove away Tammy and Rodney remained motionless, both holding the photo and peering at it in amazement. In the scheme of things a small gesture and certainly no answer to their problems, but I hoped it made their day and made them realise someone cared something about their situation.
While trying to research homelessness in Jacksonville Beach I came across this video report from First Coast News made in November 2009 just before I left the US. It contained some familiar faces. Police Clean Out Homeless Camp In Jacksonville Beach I have yet to see Rodney or Tammy during my latest visit to Jacksonville Beach so I don’t know if they are still in the area or have been moved on to another county, or worse, sent to jail.
The City Rescue Mission in central Jacksonville says that homelessness has increased 33% in Jacksonville and could increase another 10% to 20% in the near future. Below is a factsheet that City Rescue Mission has produced:
Federal officials say homelessness over all is expected to rise 10 percent to 20 percent in 2009.
Each year, more than 3 million people experience homelessness, including 1.3 million children. One-third of the homeless population is made up of families.
And according to national studies, even more Americans are at risk of homelessness. Millions of low-income American households pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent when estimates say the figure should be no more than 30 percent.
A missed paycheck, a health emergency, or an unpaid bill creates a crisis, pushing them out of their homes and in to homelessness.
While the number of homeless individuals in shelters was about the same as last year, the number of people in families increased by 9% to 516,700, suggesting that family homelessness was on the rise.
Approximately 40% of homeless men are veterans, although veterans comprise only 34% of the general adult male population. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that on any given night, 200,000 veterans are homeless, and 400,000 veterans will experience homelessness during the course of a year.
There were early signs that the economic crisis may have affected trends in homelessness nationally. Notably, a greater share of people accessing the homeless system in 2008 came from stays with friends and family and from places where they had lived a year or more, suggesting that people who had been stably housed were becoming homeless after exhausting their housing options.
The number of homeless families with children has increased significantly over the past decade. Families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In its 2007 survey, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population. These proportions are likely to be higher in rural areas. Research indicates that families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas.
Sources: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html, http://www.nlchp.org/hapia.cfm and http://www.ich.gov/