After a lot of work and with a great deal of fanfare, DeLand and Volusia County opened two homeless shelters over the past three years.
Both shelters are operating at capacity. DeLand’s shelter, The Bridge, has been full for most of its one year in business.
The Bridge is operated by The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, under contract with the City of DeLand.
The Bridge is the only dedicated homeless shelter on the county’s west side. The other shelter is in the middle of the county at 3889 W. International Speedway Blvd.
First Step opened in 2019. Currently, the director said, it can support 45 people, but typically houses around 50. With about 16,000 square feet, First Step Homeless Shelter was built to house 100 people, but it doesn’t have enough money to do so.
“It would be really great to have donations, so that we could open the place up to more people,” Executive Director Victoria Fahlberg said. “To double the number of residents here would not double the budget.”
The current operating budget is $1.35 million, representing $800,000 from county government and the City of Daytona Beach. Other East Volusia cities chip in, but closing the budget gap is largely up to Fahlberg, by way of donations, grants, etc.
The Bridge is less than half the physical size of First Step, and its current operating budget is about $571,000, which comes from the cities of West Volusia, plus donations from churches, other organizations and individuals.
Director Michael Forrester said being full doesn’t mean the center stops helping.
“If someone comes here, we’re The Bridge, and we give them other alternatives to receive benefits and help. We never turn them away,” Forrester said.
There are other important differences between The Bridge and First Step.
The Bridge is a low-barrier shelter, Forrester said. When there’s space, clients come in from right off the street, after a few quick medical examinations and residency questions. First Step, on the other hand, takes in new residents only with referrals from local organizations, including churches and law enforcement.
The Bridge can house 30 people, with 16 beds for men and 14 for women. The average stay is between 30 and 90 days. Currently, there are seven people on a waiting list for beds at The Bridge, Forrester said.
The average stay at First Step is around 60 days, including people who leave the program early and those unable to find more permanent housing for months at a time.
Staff at First Step includes a full-time nurse, a part-time nurse and three case managers who help people get back on their feet.
“Most of the people here have addictions, mental illness and extremely frail physical health, which requires a lot of wraparound services to be provided to them through our case managers, through our nurses and all the staff here,” Fahlberg said.
Thirty beds at The Bridge and 50 at First Step are not enough to meet the need for safe and warm places to sleep, New Hope Human Services Director Dot Bradley told The Beacon.
“People see me as being a bleeding-heart liberal, but I have a place to stay,” Bradley said. “There are people worse off than me.”
New Hope Human Services is the philanthropy arm of New Hope Baptist Church in Deltona, the most populous city in West Volusia by a large margin.
Bradley said she would like to see more help for people like Justin, who is currently homeless in DeLand.
Justin — who preferred not to give his last name — has spent more than a month on the waiting list to get into The Bridge and is sleeping on the streets in the meantime.
He didn’t always live this way, he explained.
When he was injured at work in March 2020, Justin, 30, was prescribed opioid painkillers, which he became addicted to. He lost control of his addiction — which eventually escalated to heroin — and lost his house and most of his money.
He wants to get his life back on track, he said; to have a job, spend time w
ith his longtime girlfriend and their son, and have a place to live.
But with limited resources available, he’s had to make it on his own, sleeping in a recliner in a vacant lot at night and walking for hours on end during the day.
At times, he said, he’s even thought about trying to get arrested. Jail wouldn’t be ideal, he said, but it would mean some guaranteed care.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people on these streets go to jail on purpose,” Justin said. “I’ve thought about it — you get three hots and a cot.”
Those involved say solving homelessness goes beyond simply adding more shelter capacity. The goal of facilities like The Bridge and First Step is not to serve as a permanent housing solution; that’s something leaders at both shelters agree on.
It had long been the goal of DeLand and Volusia County officials, DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus said, to offer 50 beds on the west side and 100 on the east side.
A better solution than increasing the capacity at The Bridge, Pleus said, would be to increase the number of affordable housing units.
Neighborhood Center board member Rick Rintz agreed. The Neighborhood Center offers 36 units of transitional housing, but that fills up fast.
“There’s no place to go. The housing we have is at capacity, always,” Rintz said. “Affordable housing is part of the reason we have homelessness. They may have a job, but they can’t afford housing.”
Too many people, he said, are forced to turn to shelters or live in their cars because they can’t find a place to live at a cost they can afford.
Another aspect is education, County Council Member Barb Girtman said.
“I think the best efforts are in prevention and in providing those resources upfront and ensuring people are aware of them before they get to that point,” Girtman said. “People get in a situation, and they think they are alone, and by the time they reach out for help, their situation is dire … .”
Girtman represents District 1, on the county’s west side.
She pointed to rapid-rehousing and rental-assistance programs offered by Volusia County as possibilities for people who fear their housing may become jeopardized.
As of Nov. 29, nearly 3,000 people in Volusia County had submitted applications for emergency rental assistance this year. Of those applications, 1,205 were approved and 541 denied.
So far, Volusia County has paid out $9,977,808 in emergency assistance for people who have experienced housing insecurity, either due directly to the COVID-19 pandemic or during the pandemic.
Dot Bradley agreed that education is important; “‘We are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,’” she said, quoting Scripture.
New Hope doesn’t have the staff to operate as a shelter, Bradley said, but she is trying to help in ways she is able, like by certifying individuals as homeless, which can open access to health care, Bradley said.
What can be done?
When asked what the First Step shelter needs, Executive Director Victoria Fahlberg said money. More money would open the door to more opportunities.
If Fahlberg could have anything for the shelter, she would want the money to operate First Step at its full capacity of 100 people.
They can’t do everything for people, Fahlberg said, but with more money, she could hire more staff to provide assistance to more people.
Michael Forrester, director of The Bridge, answered similarly.
If DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus could wave a magic wand, Forrester said he would ask for more blankets, more hygiene products and more housing opportunities for people in DeLand and across West Volusia.
Ultimately, Fahlberg said, she wants to see more options and less judgment passed on people who just need a hand up.
“Many people are in desperate need through no fault of their own,” she said. “I would like to see all of us take more responsibility for our neighbor.”
Daytona Beach resident Dennis Murphy, 63, was in need earlier this year when he found himself homeless for the first time in his life.
“I was in a bad place,” he said. “I needed a little boost, a little push.”
Murphy spent 50 years working various jobs, he said. From working as a custodian in public schools to helping move papers at The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Murphy said he has done a little bit of everything.
“I paid my way through for society,” he said, “So come on, I need a hand sometimes.”
Murphy was homeless for three months, from March to May this year, when he got a room at The Bridge. He had been on a waiting list for Section 8 housing for nearly two years and had had no luck finding permanent housing. After around four months at The Bridge, Murphy moved into an apartment in Orange City.
He’s working again, too, this time as a security guard at The Bridge, where he was hired after living there.
It’s a good feeling, he said, to be playing a part in helping people who come through The Bridge looking for the kind of hand up he needed and received.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Murphy said. “Everybody comes to me for advice. They ask, ‘D., what’s the word for the day?’ and I come up with something good.”
Murphy recognized how lucky he was to have found the hand up he needed when he needed it. In five years’ time, he hopes to see himself married, with a house of his own and living out the rest of his life in peace.
His advice to people struggling?
“I’ve been in this place. These people will help you, but you need to want help,” Murphy said. “Take one day at a time, and treat your brothers and sisters how you want to be treated.”
People of The Bridge
Kriscilla Stanley, originally from Arizona, has struggled with homelessness for three years. Several years ago now, Stanley told The Beacon, she was “kidnapped, drugged and trafficked.”
“I wasn’t going to get my life back,” she said. “My family didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Stanley moved in with family in Tampa, but after a falling out, she became homeless. She did not know about housing resources and turned to committing crimes to ensure she would have a place to sleep at night.
“I would go into stores and say, ‘I’m going to steal this, and I need you to call the cops, because I’m not sleeping on the streets.’”
After every brush with the police, she said, she was given phone numbers to call for help.
Stanley didn’t have a cellphone, though, and without one, didn’t know how to tap into the resources she had been told about.
Finally, a judge recommended her for the SMART program, a jail-diversion program that can send a nonviolent criminal — like a person accused of shoplifting, for example — to a homeless shelter instead of jail. The Bridge always holds a bed or two open for SMART program use.
Stanley was sent to The Bridge, where she has been working with a case manager to get her life back on track. She hopes to soon be eligible for a government-issued cellphone, a step at the top of her wish list. From there, she plans to apply for jobs and begin making money to get her life back on track.
Stanley praised the staff at The Bridge for their support and positivity. They taught her a mantra, she said.
“I am safe here; everything is going to be OK.”
That simple mantra, she said, has made a world of difference.
Heather Gottshalk, a former Ormond Beach resident, had heard about The Bridge. She put her name on the waiting list about 15 months ago, she said, then ended up spending nine months in jail for the burglary of an unoccupied dwelling.
Gottshalk has spent three years homeless. After getting married and moving to Palatka, her housing became unstable when the relationship didn’t work out. When she tried to move back home, she found her mother living in the woods.
“Things started to fall apart,” she said.
Now at The Bridge, Gottshalk has secured work at Chicas Cuban Cafe in Downtown DeLand, where she had worked for about three weeks as of Nov. 17.
Things are improving, she said. Her mother is in rehab, and the two of them have one of The Neighborhood Center’s transitional homes with their name on it, as soon as there’s an opening.
Everyone has been very supportive, she said, including her new co-workers at Chicas.
Gottshalk said she’s looking forward to her mom getting out of rehab and the two moving in together.
Securing a spot at The Bridge isn’t easy, and Gretchen Semble recognizes that she’s lucky.
Semble spent roughly two months at The Bridge before moving into a transitional housing unit, where she had lived for about a week as of Nov. 17.
After a relationship went sour and Semble left a partner she said was abusive, she lived in her Jeep Cherokee for about two weeks.
Semble said she had been homeless two other times before this most recent instance.
“It’s nice to have a shower and a bed to sleep in,” Semble said. “It was hard to sleep in my Jeep sitting up.”
Semble showed her feet, still swollen months later from sleeping upright.
Semble has enjoyed her time at The Neighborhood Center, she said.
“I’m very adaptable, and I love people,” Semble said. “Everybody who stays here or comes here for lunch knows my name.”
Sure enough, walking with Semble to the door, multiple people stopped to say hello or give her a hug on her way out of The Bridge’s main facility, where she still goes for lunch. That day’s meal was ziti, donated by one of the many faith-based groups in DeLand who donate meals to the shelter.