Homeless shelter opens in Daytona Beach

DAYTONA BEACH | “Homelessness is one of the most intense, visceral, human realities that we experience across this city and the county of Volusia,” said Dr. L. Ronald Durham, Community Relations Manager for the City of Daytona Beach. “It’s not easy to see someone who is homeless. When we see someone wrapped on a cold day in a blanket, sitting on the sidewalk – we feel their pain because it pierces our own hearts and souls.” Durham was a pastor who helped spark F.A.I.T.H. (Fighting Against Injustice Towards Harmony), a Volusia County justice and advocacy group, over a decade ago to fight for a homeless shelter in Volusia County. His words rang out before a crowd of hundreds gathered for the December 11 grand opening of the First Step Shelter in Daytona Beach, a dream several years in the making. The shelter is the result of a collaborative effort between Volusia County, the City of Daytona Beach, a number of beach-side municipalities, Halifax Health and other health partners, Catholic Charities of Central Florida and many others.

Father Phil Egitto, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach, recalled the early days of dialogue as F.A.I.T.H. worked to get county and city officials on board. “One of the biggest problems was that no one wanted it in their backyard,” he said. Overcoming numerous obstacles, the location was determined to be west of I-4, in Daytona Beach. “Being this far from town has got its benefits and its disadvantages. We were looking at creating a homeless assistance center, not just a housing facility. We saw benefits of it being away from the possible issues that got people into a homeless situation. We saw this as a viable solution. Working with many cities and the county, we got this off the ground. It was through the power of numbers.” He was referring to F.A.I.T.H. which gathers an estimated 2,000 people and more than 35 interfaith churches every year in Volusia County “to build the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of peace and justice,” explained Father Egitto.

Once agreement to build the shelter was achieved, Father Egitto asked Gary Tester, President of Catholic Charities of Central Florida (CCCF), if the agency would talk with Mayor Derrick Henry of Daytona Beach about managing the shelter. Running shelters are common for many Catholic Charities organizations nationwide. CCCF currently operates Pathways to Care in Casselberry (Seminole County), an assisted living facility and bridge housing program for homeless and precariously housed men and women coming out of a hospital stay, making management of First Step Shelter a natural next step.

“We don’t want to provide three hots and a cot,” Tester said. “We want to provide counseling, case management and health care services that will allow us to make a more meaningful impact in the life of someone who is saying, ‘I need my life to be different’. And that is the exciting and challenging part for us.”

Clients “can expect dignity and respect in terms of the services they receive,” said Tester. “They will obviously be safe, in a comfortable setting and receive the basics. We’ll also provide intensive case management, life skills education, housing navigation and related services. Our goal is to help stabilize them, assist them in achieving employment or whatever appropriate financial means makes sense for them, and then help them obtain sustainable housing.”

The shelter is strictly for single adult men and women. Homeless and precariously housed families will continue to be served through Hope Place, a ministry of Halifax Urban Ministries in the Holly Hill area.

William Bernardo, the Director of Operations for CCCF at First Step Shelter, will be working with Bob Williams and others from Halifax Health to coordinate healthcare services for residents in concert with two local, federally qualified health centers in the community. “The whole idea is to provide health and wellness services to help these individuals,” said Williams. “As they come in off the street, they come in dehydrated, sleep deprived and we can get them in here, get them stabilized and wrap around these services to help them find a path out of homelessness.” He explained, “the overall strategy aligns with the national strategy of housing first, but you need a transition place for people.”

Medical screenings will help determine referrals for medical services. On-site case managers will assist with job skills training, government and employment resources, and the shelter “will also be a safe discharge location for homeless people who find themselves in the hospital.” Williams added, “Nurse case managers will also help assist with certain chronic conditions, whether it’s diabetes or high blood pressure, COPD. We won’t be dispensing medication, but we will help them understand how to take medications that have been prescribed, storing medications for them and making them available when they need them.” He noted partnerships with Daytona State College and the Workforce Development Board of Flagler and Volusia Counties, Inc. will make a difference. “Now we can bring all those services together.”

A van donated to First Step will provide transportation along with volunteers from numerous churches committed to assistance. The facility has a maximum capacity of 100 beds but has an initial capacity goal of 40 and opened Monday, Dec. 16. Guests will be welcomed 10 at a time, progressing to 40 within a month until everything is up and running smoothly.

Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry, First Step Shelter Board President, stated at the grand opening, “It is said that defeat is an orphan and success has a thousand fathers. As a community we refused to heed to the advice of the naysayers—those who said our efforts were futile. Those who said we should give up, that no one would come to a shelter located halfway out of town… This is truly a community endeavor and effort… We all share a vision for a community where homelessness is a thing of the past.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic December 11, 2019