GREEN COVE SPRINGS – It was overcast and cool the morning of June 7 at the Governor’s Creek Boat Ramp. The grass was wet and mud sloshed underfoot on the trek under the Orange Avenue bridge. There were several distinct piles spread out on the concrete – black trash bags tied closed, blankets, a bicycle, water bottles. A woman slept, bundled in a sleeping bag. By the look of it, she shared the space with several others.
The bridge is a popular spot for the city’s homeless, according to Wynema Lovell, director of the Food Pantry of Green Cove Springs. There is a portable toilet and the bridge provides shelter from rain.
Lovell delivers food and other supplies under the bridge, leaving them in plastic tubs to keep out rats and other critters. Volunteers at the food pantry put together special packages for the homeless, including soap and toilet paper along with the usual food items.
During the day, Lovell said, the homeless often go to the Green Cove Springs Library, about a mile away from the bridge. The library has public computers so they can access the internet and use email.
Branch Manager Jennifer Parker said many businesses require job applications to be submitted online.
“Most people, regardless of their circumstances, need that access. That’s part of what we do,” Parker said.
She said the homeless don’t bother her or other library patrons.
“We really don’t differentiate between people. They come in, they ask to use a computer, we give them a pass, and that’s it,” she said. “We try to help people as best we can to the resources that they need.”
Lovell said she thinks the homeless population in Green Cove Springs is low. However, throughout the county, estimates vary.
The Jacksonville nonprofit Changing Homelessness found 84 homeless people in Clay County during its January survey, according to Chief Executive Officer Dawn Gilman. However, Gilman said, the organization’s annual survey is only a snapshot of one point in time and probably did not include every homeless person.
A better number, according to Mercy Support Services Executive Director Patrick Hayle, comes from the school board. Hayle said at the end of April, the school board reported 944 students without a permanent home address. There are many possible reasons for that, he said, but it is likely that many of those students are living in hotels or bouncing between family or friends’ homes because their families can’t afford their own place.
For every student without a permanent address, he said, there may be parents or siblings who are too young for school who are not included in that count.
Hayle said another way to gauge the number of homeless in the community is by the demand for affordable housing. All government-assisted housing facilities in Clay County are full, he said. Though it may be difficult to know the exact number, Hayle said that demand shows there is not adequate affordable housing in the area for everyone who needs it.
Clay County does not have a homeless shelter, including Green Cove Springs.
Hayle said many people struggling to find housing are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to cover all their bills every month. He said those people need affordable housing with low rents they can pay. However, in addition to housing, they may need help in other areas, such as food, clothing and medical care. And for long-term help, they will also need help either finding a higher-paying job or applying for public assistance.
There are many local organizations in Clay County working to aid people in need. According to Lovell, they all work together, and there is no competition, even among similar organizations. She said she shares supplies with the other food pantries in the county.
Craig Van Gundy, coordinator of the Food Bridge at Middleburg United Methodist Church, said organizations that help the less fortunate must have a sense of unity and collectiveness to tackle the issue.
Lovell has been a part of the food pantry since 1989. Since she become the director, the organization has grown and now has nearly 100 volunteers. Clients can only come to the pantry four times a year, although they may fill out a form to request to come more often, if necessary.
Parker said the library’s summer programing may help homeless teens or families by providing a safe space for young people.
“We also have a teen initiative for any teens that may be homeless. We have a teen life skills series this summer,” she said. In the past, she said they have taught resume help and other life skills, such as how to change the oil in a car.