There are almost 18 percent more homeless people living on the streets and in uncertain housing in Volusia and Flagler counties than there were last year. That’s according to data released by the Volusia/Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless.
That increase is being felt in DeLand, too.
“Last year was one of the biggest years I’ve seen of people coming in for all services, including ThenBridge,” Neighborhood Center Chief Operating Officer Waylan Niece told The Beacon.
The Bridge homeless shelter — operated by The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia — in Downtown DeLand is at the front lines of combating homelessness. The shelter served 336 people last calendar year, and city and Neighborhood Center officials want to make sure it can keep offering that support.
The City of DeLand helps fund The Bridge, but the city and The Neighborhood Center are on the hunt for more donors to ensure the shelter can continue to serve the community.
Opened in 2020, The Bridge has 30 beds that homeless people in the area can stay in for short-term periods while staff help get them back on their feet. In the event of cold weather or a hurricane, the shelter converts to an emergency shelter and can house an additional 30 people.
Currently, the shelter has a waitlist of seven people for women’s beds and 50 people for men’s beds; the shelter is likely to be full for the foreseeable future.
That’s, in part, because the number of homeless people locally has increased.
DeLand, per this year’s point-in-time count by the Volusia /Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless, has around 105 sheltered individuals who are homeless and 42 who are unsheltered. Shelter, in this case, counts as temporary housing, or space in a shelter.
DeLand’s population of unhoused individuals observed by volunteers is the highest in West Volusia — Orange City comes next with 29 unsheltered individuals and Deltona next with 23 people without shelter — and adding the number of people counted on the east side of the county brings Volusia County’s estimated total of homeless individuals to 992 people.
To conduct the count, volunteers go into communities to speak with and count the number of homeless people they observe. This rough estimate probably doesn’t count individuals who are living in hard-to-reach areas, like woods, or people who would be otherwise hard to find, like individuals living in motels or on friends’ couches.
With this many local people in need, DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus said, the work The Bridge does is vital. Looking forward, one of his main goals is to ensure the shelter is financially supported.
When it was first opening, the city and The Neighborhood Center received some $350,000 in financial support from other municipalities, businesses and individuals.
“Right now,” Pleus said, “we’re in the process of going back to all of our original donors and seeing if we can get new commitments for five years.”
This September will mark three years since the City of DeLand began a five-year commitment to guarantee support to The Bridge.
“As a non-profit organization, we are continuously looking for funding through grants, corporate giving, and donations to ensure we are able to continue to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our community,” Neighborhood Center CEO Savannah Jane Griffin told The Beacon. “I’m confident with the community support and the invested partnership that we have with the City of DeLand that the Bridge Shelter will continue to be fully funded.”
While funding is top of mind, so is expanding the services The Neighborhood Center offers.
One goal, Pleus said, is to reinstate SMART, a 2021 program where judges were able to send people to StewartMarchman Act Healthcare facilities for behavioral health care instead of jail.
The Neighborhood Center worked closely with law enforcement and judges to facilitate the diversionary program, offering space at The Bridge and the agency’s other housing to help keep homeless individuals out of jail for crimes like loitering.
But the program was funded for only one year with money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a state budget item for $500,000 to support The Bridge, Pleus hopes he can convince legislators to fund a pilot program like SMART next legislative session.
“I was a little surprised it got vetoed,” Pleus said, “but I was very happy we got as far as we did in the process.”
How can the city help?
To help unhoused individuals in DeLand, the city hopes to do more than just fund the homeless shelter. While some DeLand residents have come before the City Commission and asked the commissioners to get rid of homeless individuals in Downtown DeLand, Pleus said it’s important to remember they have rights, too.
“I think the notion we can just go down there, scoop them up, and take them out of town is not an option,” Pleus said.
One thing the city has done is increase the number of times DeLand Police officers stroll Downtown.
“We’ve linked the Police Department with The Neighborhood Center to go Downtown and try to get additional people to The Bridge for help,” Pleus said. “The police have done additional patrols during nighttime hours during the week. They’ve been down there in force walking around and just making sure they’re keeping an eye on illegal activity.”
The City is also working with FDOT to put up signs that stress its strengthened anti-panhandling ordinance. Citing the safety of pedestrians and drivers alike, the city tightened up its regulations against panhandling in 2021 to prevent people asking for money from soliciting at busy, dangerous intersections.
The next step, Pleus said, is to erect signs that encourage drivers to, instead of giving money to panhandlers, give it to organizations like The Neighborhood Center, instead.
The city calls the program Spare Change for Real Change.
“Giving somebody a dollar on the street is just exacerbating the problem,” Pleus said. “If you give them cash, they’re going to just use it for basic needs and not put it toward the change they need.”
Organizations like The Neighborhood Center, he said, can help get to the root of homelessness and do more than just get someone a single meal.
Similar signs were recently erected in Tallahassee, according to reporting by Tallahassee public radio station WFSU, and reactions by some Tallahassee residents was strong.
According to reporting by WFSU, while the local Chamber of Commerce and most of the City Commission supported the signs, feelings outside of City Hall were mixed.
From WFSU: “Legal Services of North Florida maintains that, quote, ‘expanding anti-panhandling laws will increase the rate of homelessness and will increase Criminal Justice System costs.’”
Neighborhood Center COO Waylan Niece, however, stressed the benefits of discouraging panhandling. For one, he said, it keeps pedestrians from approaching cars in busy roadways, and for two, The Neighborhood Center can help break cycles homeless individuals get stuck in.
“When we continually give money to individuals on the street, we enable them to continue in their current lifestyle as opposed to being empowered and move away from such lifestyle,” he said.