In 2018, the St. Johns County Continuum of Care reported that there were 164 unsheltered homeless persons in St. Augustine. It doesn’t take long to encounter members of the homeless population, especially in the historic district. A variety of factors have forced some to live on the street, sleep in gazebos, and nap on coquina benches. It pains empathetic hearts to see members of the community experience life without shelter. This has been especially true for Olivia and Al Deinhart – coordinators of an initiative called Dining With Dignity.
The couple moved to St. Augustine from Buffalo, New York in 2004 and quickly got involved with various volunteer programs to feed the homeless and food insecure. In their early philanthropic days, the couple’s efforts functioned very much on a personal level. This often meant taking note of homeless people they’d run into regularly and buying them a bagged lunch or a meal from Chick-fil-a. They soon saw an opportunity to provide practical assistance in a manner that would exalt recipients.
Today, Dining With Dignity can look back on its ten years of activity and reflect on a quarter million meals served. “We have food insecure people come…people who live in their cars with their kids,” remarks Olivia. Guests who attend Dining With Dignity’s regularly held meals get world-class treatment that they’re generally unaccustomed to. While some are content to eat on the floor, Olivia and Al encourage guests to sit at prepared tables. As Olivia says, “You are our guest, and you get the best of what we have to offer.”
Forty groups meet at least twice a month near the corner of Bridge and Granada Street. That corner “is probably the lowest in the city” says Al. During one rainy day meal, the low-lying area forced volunteers porting dessert to kayak from two blocks away in pursuit of their group beneath the Lightner Museum’s east awnings. Few things can thwart a compassionate heart’s determination to relieve suffering.
When the Deinharts contemplate their visitors, they see more than present circumstances. “These are real people with real stories and rich histories,” says Olivia. In fact, they can recall a few instances in which former homeless friends update them on their situation – be it job placement or securing housing. One formerly homeless man made a donation in support of the cause after finding suitable work.
None of this would be possible without the generosity of St. Johns County residents who donate their time, funds, meals, tables, and chairs. A number of restaurant owners have also avoided food waste by sharing excess ingredients with the cause. How reassuring it is to know that the next homeless person we encounter may be on the road to self-sufficiency with a little help from their supportive neighbors.