Downtown ‘rest stop’ for homeless can aid transient population in historic neighborhoods

Downtown ‘rest stop’ for homeless can aid transient population in historic neighborhoods
The theme of the grand opening of the Urban Rest Stop was “Spread the Love,” and many organizations were there to give items, such as hygiene kits, to the homeless. (Photo by Barry Rabinowitz)

Perhaps due to its proximity to downtown Jacksonville, where homeless from colder climates often arrive via Greyhound bus, the 5 Points and Riverside area has more than its share of a transient population, but has little to no services to offer. Fortunately, local businesses may soon have help.

An Urban Rest Stop, newly opened Feb. 14 at Sulzbacher Center, 611 E. Adams St., is already proving to be a popular resource for Jacksonville’s homeless. The new program helps people experiencing homelessness with personal needs such as laundry, showers, meals, access to computers and mail. 

Mental Health Resource Center Vice President of Community Support Debra O’Neal listens as Eddie Ledet discusses weekly goals in an MHRC department meeting.
Mental Health Resource Center Vice President of Community Support Debra O’Neal listens as Eddie Ledet discusses weekly goals in an MHRC department meeting.

The Urban Rest Stop (URS) is a joint venture between Sulzbacher, Mental Health Resource Center (MHRC), and the City of Jacksonville, which provided the funds to rehabilitate a vacant area of Sulzbacher, as well as an off-duty police officer who is present during the hours URS is open Monday through Friday. Goodwill Industries’ Job Junction is also on the Sulzbacher campus.

“The City is developing a handout [for the Urban Rest Stop] that anyone can download from a website and keep available to hand out to a homeless person who is seeking help,” said Eileen Briggs, Sulzbacher’s chief development officer. “Also, I know that some people keep goody bags of water and snacks in their car that they can hand out if someone asks for help.”

Neighborhoods near Downtown – like Brooklyn, Riverside and Springfield – can also get information about the Rest Stop from MHRC. 

The Goodwill Industries of North Florida Job Junction is an important part of the services provided at the Urban Rest Stop. (Photo by Barry Rabinowitz)
The Goodwill Industries of North Florida Job Junction is an important part of the services provided at the Urban Rest Stop. (Photo by Barry Rabinowitz)

“We do outreach into the neighborhoods outside of downtown where we take snacks, water and brochures to tell homeless people about our services and let them know about the new Urban Rest Stop,” said Carlos Laboy, MHRC program manager for homeless services. “Sometimes businesses and residents call to let us know they’ve seen a person who they think needs our help. Hospitals and agencies like the Red Cross call us to send a case manager to assess someone they think may be homeless.”

The services at the new Rest Stop are proving to be a big draw for many of the homeless.

“Showers, laundry and free phone use are very big hooks for getting homeless people to come to URS,” said Laboy. “Getting them in the door gives us the opportunity to offer them services that can help them move out of homelessness.

“We want them to be safe, feel safe and get services,” he continued. “We greet them with open arms and respect them, while recognizing the difficulties they face.”

Carlos Laboy, Mental Health Resource Center program manager, speaks with a client about her needs.
Carlos Laboy, Mental Health Resource Center program manager, speaks with a client about her needs.

Five days a week, people are welcome to simply walk in and ask for services. “Most of the shelters require clients to leave after breakfast,” said Debra O’Neal, MHRC vice president of community support. “They aren’t designed to have people stay around all day until dinner. URS is ‘service-rich.’”

MHRC has two programs that specifically focus on helping homeless people. LINK stabilizes homeless adults experiencing severe and persistent mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders and then links them to permanent, supportive services offered by other agencies. MHRC’s QUEST program assesses homeless individuals and families and serves as the single-entry point for helping them find housing. In addition, Sulzbacher’s downtown health center provides low-cost services such as primary care, vision care, psychiatric/behavioral healthcare and dental care to help homeless people.

“We take people from zero to hero,” Laboy said. 

Timothy Brown, who answers to Israel, jumped into the conversation when he heard Laboy say that. “This Urban Rest Stop is great,” he said. “I feel like a king when I’m here.”

Brown moved to Jacksonville in 1988 from New York City. “I experienced a lot of childhood trauma that I’m just now starting to deal with, thanks to URS,” he said. Brown, 37, said he has been diagnosed with paranoia schizophrenia. 

The Urban Rest Stop features an activity room where people experiencing homelessness can rest during the day.
The Urban Rest Stop features an activity room where people experiencing homelessness can rest during the day.

“We were impoverished when we moved here. We lived on the Northside, near Callahan, where there was lots of crime – cocaine, guns and hijacking of rail cars,” he said. Brown has been “Baker Acted” and hospitalized several times. He is currently homeless and staying at City Rescue Mission after spending the past year in Nashville trying to record country music. He came to Sulzbacher to enroll for SNAP (food) benefits, which has given MHRC staff the opportunity to work with him on mental health issues.

“I love the change; this place reeks of success,” Brown said. “I was able to get a shower after breakfast, lunch was impeccable, and the squash was great.”

The community can help URS serve those who are homeless with donations of bottled water, snacks, new socks and underwear, disposable raincoats, new flip flops or shower shoes, travel size toiletries and laundry detergent pods. “Drives to collect those items would be a great way for kids to learn the gift of helping others,” said Briggs.

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