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If you ask most Jacksonville residents about how homelessness affects their city, they’ll probably start telling you about downtown and the surrounding areas.

Indeed, the highest concentration of homeless Jaxsons can be found roaming the streets of downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. But those who assume that this means downtown Jacksonville has a homelessness problem may not be looking at the bigger picture.

Bill Hoff, a licensed social worker and Springfield resident, has worked with the homeless population in Jacksonville for around seven years, and thus offers an insider’s perspective often missing from discussions about homelessness in Jax.

Hoff explains that, contrary to popular belief, Jacksonville is tackling homelessness relatively well.

“Because there are so little substantive homeless resources in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia outside of Jacksonville,” Hoff explains, “people struggling elsewhere are often funneled to Jacksonville, specifically Downtown Jacksonville, for assistance.”

This means that more homeless people end up in downtown Jacksonville – rather than in more suburban areas like Mandarin or Orange Park – simply because that’s where the resources are. Northeast Florida’s three most prominent organizations aimed at helping homeless people are located within the urban core.

For some residents, it doesn’t matter why the homeless people are gathered downtown. They just want it to stop – but it’s not that simple. As Hoff explains, the societal issues that contribute to people becoming homeless to begin with – such as classism, addiction, or mental health issues – are the same ones that cause society to turn their backs on helping.

    Additionally, those who do wish to help aren’t always informed enough to do so in proper ways. While it may feel good to organize a meal giveaway at Main Street Park, it could have unintended consequences.

    “There are many opportunities for free meals, clothing, hygiene items, et cetera, at the existing, established resources around the urban core of Jacksonville,” explains Hoff. “Planning your own pop up event for this purpose only subtracts resources from the most effective organizations, and deters homeless from engaging with those organizations who also have other valuable services too.”

    So how do those who truly want to help the homeless population of Jacksonville do so without interfering with the resources that are already in place to help them? There are two possible paths to follow.

    One is to donate to one of the prominent homeless centers. Changing Homelessness, Sulzbacher Center, and Clara White Mission all have donation pages available on their respective websites. Money is always at a shortage for these organizations, and is almost always what’s most desperately needed.

    The other way is to volunteer with any of these organizations. Sulzbacher Center offers opportunities for volunteers to assist with toddler care, tutoring, career development, medical services, and meal preparation. At Changing Homelessness, you can volunteer to participate in annual surveys of the homeless population aimed at determining what resources and services are most critically needed. Clara White Mission offers a calendar of upcoming volunteering opportunities on its website.

    So next time someone tells you that homelessness in Jax is out of control, or a lost cause, take the time to educate them. The reality is that it’s neither – but eliminating homelessness won’t happen overnight, or without the help of the community.

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    The Coastal
    The Coastal is Jacksonville's newest magazine, founded in 2015 to provide news, reviews, and things to do for young people on the First Coast.