St. Augustine is in crisis. Judith Dembowski and the St. Francis House can fix it, but they need your help.
St. Augustine is paradise. From serene beaches to historic culture, it’s easy to see why moving vans fly across the St. Johns County line every day. But for thousands of locals, living in paradise has a high price. Following the 2008 economic collapse and last year’s devastating hurricane, St. Augustine’s struggle with homelessness has become a full-blown affordable housing crisis.
No one is more familiar with the situation than Judith Dembowski, Executive Director of the St. Francis House. Since 1984, the nonprofit St. Francis House has provided emergency shelter, hot meals, and critical services for the local homeless population. “Our goal is to get our homeless population to functional zero,” says Judith. “That means anyone who becomes homeless can get back into housing in thirty days or less.”
In 2016, St. Francis House sheltered 625 people, including 47 children. Through the soup kitchen, advocacy programs, job training, and other assistance programs, the organization also provided 19,401 points of service to an additional 3,134 people in the community. “We have a lot of programs to meet people’s basic needs,” says Judith. “But what our community really needs are long term solutions.”
Under Judith’s direction, the St. Francis House will soon extend its services. Hurricane Matthew devastated their primary facility in Lincolnville, but once repairs are completed, St. Francis House will double its space for women and families. A new location specifically for youth services is also in the works.
Judith began her career assisting homeless youth in her native Maine. She was a college student balancing the demands of classes and her two young children when she saw a former classmate on TV who was running a homeless youth shelter. “Growing up I knew kids who were without a home, but to think about that as an adult with children of my own, the weight of the situation really hit me,” says Judith. “I called right away and asked how I could help.”
Following two decades of work in Maine, Judith moved to St. Augustine in 2014 and took a case management position with St. Francis House. Four months later she was named interim director, a position later made permanent by the St. Francis House Board of Directors. Since then, Judith has led the organization in helping thousands of St. Johns County residents.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about our homeless population,” says Judith. “A lot of our clients have jobs, but maybe lost a roommate or broke up with their significant other, and they can’t afford to live on their own.”
According to a 2015 Florida Housing Coalition report, St. Johns County has the highest median household income in the state, but some of the lowest wages for blue collar workers. Coupled with high rental rates, this leaves many individuals and families just one car breakdown, prolonged illness, or hurricane away from homelessness. “Our clients are no different than their peers in the community,” said Judith. “They want to be self-sufficient. They want to feel good and feel productive. They want to be part of our community. They just have nowhere to live affordably.”
Judith spends every day advocating for her clients and asks the community to support the cause. Donations, volunteers, and advocates are always welcome at St. Francis House. “It’s never felt like a job or a duty to me,” said Judith. “This is just what I do. Some people shop, some people play tennis, I work with kids and families.”