Summit leads to committee that will study issue, make recommendations
BY ANDREAS BUTLER
Concerned citizens, social services, health care officials, clergy, faith-based organizations and politicians in southeastern Volusia County are all trying to figure out ways to help the homeless in their area.
On Monday, they came together for the Southeast Volusia Homeless Summit to discuss homelessness and to try to come up with solutions relating to issues like housing and health care. The summit was held at the Brannon Civic Center in New Smyrna Beach.
At the summit, 15 attendees volunteered for the newly created Southeast Volusia Community Stakeholder Committee. The committee will discuss issues for the homeless, then develop plans and recommendations for the City of New Smyrna Beach.
“This summit was created so that people could realize exactly what the City of New Smyrna Beach and Southeast Volusia are doing for the homeless and disadvantaged. Everyone is facing the same issues. It’s just how you put it together,” said Donna Gray-Banks, the city’s Community Resource coordinator, who helped to organize the summit.
It was facilitated by Mykal Tairu, a local community organizer and entrepreneur.
New Smyrna Beach is facing homelessness like cities nationwide, including its own neighbors, Daytona and DeLand.
Currently, there are no plans to build a shelter in Daytona and DeLand or provide funding outside of Southeast Volusia.
Mayor Jim Hathaway told the Times, “We have talked about that, but we want to put our money in New Smyrna. We will be willing to work with Port Orange, Oak Hill and Edgewater. The mayors of those cities and I meet monthly to discuss our issues and how we can deal with them collectively.
“If we could come together and do something in Southeast Volusia, it would be great. Nobody wants to travel to Daytona. If that’s the case, how do we get them there? Our police department is limited. We can’t always take them off the street and drive them there. We are concerned and we must look into it to see what the final outcome will be.”
Rent too high
The summit included an open discussion on situations and solutions.
“One of the biggest causes is affordable housing, which is badly needed in this area. A family needing a three bedroom is looking at $1,000 per month rent, commented Rosemary Walker, executive director of the Southeast Volusia Habitat for Humanity and chair of the New Smyrna Beach Housing Authority Executive Board.
“We have people with Section 8 vouchers that can’t spend them because they can’t find a place to live. They still have to pay first and last month rent with deposits and moving costs. The challenge is to find affordable housing. We must make affordable housing a priority,’’ she added.
The federal Section 8 program provides rental housing assistance. It’s a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD.
Homeless to homeowner
Kathleen Westerfield is an account manager who once was homeless. She shared her story at the summit and stressed the need for affordable housing.
Now a homeowner, she said, “I was sleeping on different people’s couches. I got to live in public housing in New Smyrna, which helped me,” she related.
“I later had Section 8. I was unemployable. I had a child at 17 years old. If it wasn’t for housing and the help that I got, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I brought the house that I had during Section 8. I can now afford a life for my kids.”
Health care needs
Health care is another need discussed, especially mental health.
“Many homeless people have mental health issues. A study shows that 20 to 25 percent of them have conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), bipolar, substance abuse, etc. We try to find the resources and funding,” said James Bryant of Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare.
“We never have enough beds. We have a long waiting list. A lot of people are in jail instead of dealing with it out here. We need to let them know not to give up and work together to provide them what they need.
He continued, “We need not to hesitate to help. We must also fight for more funding and resources.’’
Others entities that spoke about their services, plans and solutions included Florida Hospital, Halifax Urban Ministries, First Step Shelter, Restoration House, and the Homeless Management Information System.
Others attending the summit were Volusia County Councilwoman Debra Denys, Volusia County Council candidate Percy Williamson, and the Rev. Jeffrey Dove, pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in New Smyrna Beach.
No accurate count
There was no accurate count of homeless people in New Smyrna Beach, but it’s estimated that there are more than 2,000 in the southeastern part of Volusia County.
“We had a count done, but the hurricane messed it up. It seemed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 115 to 150 people,” Hathaway noted.
“We believe that it’s much more than that, but there is no way to verify that without getting everyone together to these camps and other places. That’s the problem. It’s all volunteer work right now.’’