The Bridge — DeLand’s shelter for individuals struggling with homelessness and poverty — has served more than 50,000 meals and helped 228 people in the year since opening its doors, but hadn’t had a formal grand opening.
“While this ribbon-cutting ceremony is a year late, we also have one year of success to celebrate,” DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar told a group of some 50 people who attended the ceremony Sept. 18.
The crowd was composed of employees and volunteers from The Neighborhood Center, the organization that helps operate The Bridge and is situated just next door, along with DeLand city commissioners and supporters from across West Volusia.
“The Bridge exemplifies the spirit of West Volusia: Everyone coming together, working together to help others and change lives,” Apgar said. “Probably in my memory, this is the best example of West Volusia working together to help those in need.”
“We are a community with heart. That’s how this came together,” Volusia County Council District 1 representative Barb Girtman said.
Prominent DeLand clergy people offered invocations, and the mayor, City Manager Michael Pleus, a client of The Bridge and others made speeches, all affirming The Bridge’s mission to serve as a hand up for people who need it most.
Bridge client Sherry Myers spoke.
Myers said the staff of The Bridge, including Director Forrester and Neighborhood Center Executive Director Susan Clark, helped make “Sherry back into Sherry Myers.”
“Being homeless, it’s not nice. It’s not nice, and it’s not pretty,” Myers said. “Now I have a job, and I’m moving forward in my life. … Where I’m going to be in the future is to have my own home again and have my own job like I used to.”
Myers became homeless after losing her husband. At The Bridge, she found hope.
The 6,300-square-foot shelter boasts 30 beds — some for men, some for women, and a section for transgender individuals — a fully staffed kitchen, and a team of volunteers who have given more than 60,000 hours over the past year.
There are showers, washers and dryers, and itineraries for clients who are in the middle of their stays at The Bridge. Such stays typically last between 30 and 90 days.
The Bridge has seen 39 people transition out of the shelter and into transitional housing, Pleus said, and another 79 clients have gotten jobs since checking into the shelter. The 50,000 meals served, Pleus added, were provided by volunteers and donations from local businesses and the faith-based community.
The stories the staff hear from the shelter’s clients are hard to hear, Clark said, but their goal is to offer people in need a hand up.
”It’s traumatizing to live in the bushes,” Clark told The Beacon. “We’ve seen that what we thought was a real need was a reality.”
So what’s next? After a year of operation, Clark said, the goal is to keep serving the community, but to try to expand The Bridge’s offerings.
One option being considered, she said, is to look at purchasing a motel or similar building to use as affordable housing. Clark said The Neighborhood Center and The Bridge would also like to look at the possibility of tiny homes or other outside-the-box solutions to keeping people off the streets.
“We’re very innovative,” she said.
However the offerings expand, DeLand city staff and staff from The Bridge said they will continue to pour all they can into operating the shelter and helping everyone they can.
“It really has been a project of a lifetime for me,” Pleus said, “and a real privilege to be a part of a community and part of a team that could say that we are going to try to make a meaningful impact in the lives of those experiencing poverty and homelessness in our community.”
By the numbers
Clients who have moved from The Bridge into transitional housing over the past year.
Years DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus has worked in public administration. Pleus, who initiated The Bridge project, called it “the project of a lifetime and a real privilege to be a part of a community and part of a team that could say that we are going to try to make a meaningful impact in the lives of those experiencing poverty and homelessness in our community”
Clients of The Bridge who have found work since signing up with the shelter.
Clients who have stayed longer than the ideal maximum 90 days.
Times The Bridge and The Neighborhood Center have opened a cold-weather shelter over the past year.
Volunteer hours donated to The Bridge since it opened a year ago.