What do you love most about a promenade down Aviles Street or a stroll through the Plaza? Our historic district boasts architectural design elements that transport visitors to yesteryear – helping the day’s worries melt away. Still, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the vagrancy that affects our city. Those impacted are our neighbors, peers, and friends.
Many St. Augustinians are proud to call this ancient coast home because of the culture of support that thrives here. In times of distress, we step up to the plate – engaging in all manner of philanthropy. Along those lines, the City Commissioners’ office approved an initiative that has meant ongoing contact with our homeless population with a view to reintegrate them into the workforce, into housing, and reunite them with their loved ones. Since December 2018, St. Augustine Police Department officers Caroline Drouin and Steve Fischer have been among that number.
Caroline describes herself as a “late bloomer” though her lifelong career aspirations involved law enforcement. She put her dream on hold to focus on motherhood before relocating to Florida from Montreal. St. Augustine has been her home for nearly twenty years.
As a high schooler in Pennsylvania, Steve volunteered with an ambulance squad as an EMT MPA. His background includes deputy work and 11 years of hostage negotiation. Looking back on a year of homeless outreach, he says “with this position…we take as much time as we need. Sometimes it’s a month depending on what we’re trying to do for somebody. We get to see the entire outcome.”
These outcomes involve reuniting displaced residents with their families. In one such instance, a vagrant person was bussed to the West Coast after contact was made with his family to ensure a warm transfer and secure placement into his new community. If traveling within 100 miles of St. Augustine, a local officer will personally provide transportation. Connecting the homeless with services like social security and SNAP benefits is a crucial aspect of outreach. This is done via a community alliance called Care Connect. As Caroline puts it, “They’re a one-stop agency that…collects the person’s data, then they meet…and see what they qualify for.”
Our homeless neighbors sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Still, practical wisdom can be applied to nuanced cases involving open (alcohol) container matters, for instance. So if someone is sentenced to 30 days in jail, our understanding officers step in to ensure those days are spent in treatment for addiction. This gets to the root of the issue, yielding declines in criminal concerns. The fire department has reported a drop in calls involving homeless persons. “We’re getting [the homeless] off the street…we’re getting them services that they need,” reports Steve. Word of the SAPD’s work is spreading to nearby communities and agencies throughout the state. So our local outreach may well elevate still additional homeless populations outside of our city limits.
Photography by Kate Gardiner