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As the demands on its resources increases, Tallahassee's Kearney Center reaches out for community support

Kearney Center Sign.jpg
Tom Flanigan
The main entrance to Tallahassee's Kearney Center

The plight of the homeless seems a bit more dire during the holiday season. Tallahassee's Kearney Center is expanding both its service offerings and fundraising efforts to meet growing demand.
As the Kearney Center's deputy director, Vicki Butler is in charge of the facility's day-to-day operations. She also has a literal history with, not only the present Kearney Center on West Pensacola Street, but also its predecessor in downtown Tallahassee. It occupied what had been an infamous rock 'n roll club called Tommie's near the corner of West Tennessee and North Macomb streets. It was called "The Shelter."

"The Shelter was a beautifully dilapidated building with very little occupancy availability there. The building was really in terrible shape. The second floor was for the ladies and was sort of an add-on afterthought. When you walked up the steps, you weren't sure if you were going to make it or not. But back then The Shelter was just a place to sleep," she recalled with no trace of nostalgia in her voice.

Besides its poor condition and lack of services, The Shelter was also quite unpopular with its neighbors and frequent problems regarding its clients. Various temporary solutions were tried, but in 2016, a wealthy Tallahassee businessman and homeless advocate by the name of Rick Kearney gave his resources - and name - to a new homeless services complex on West Pensacola Street.

"It was, 'Let's find a location that works.' The Hope Community was already over here, so the neighborhood was already pre-set to receive us. This is a huge 35,000 square foot building, so we have plenty of room for the actual occupancy we need. A lot of research was done into what is the state of the art for homeless services in that time period, the 2014-2015 planning period."

It was an endeavor that Butler said was a community-wide effort.

"A lot of people came to the table: Rick (Kearney) came to the table, the Beatitude Foundation, Mad Dog Construction, the City the County commissioners. Everyone got involved because they could all see the vision. It was truly about what was going to be the best for the community as a whole. It was a really beautiful vision and I think it was executed really well."

Mainly, said Butler, because the present facility provides far more homeless services than simply a few daily meals and a place to sleep.

"This building has become an actual solution for a lot of individuals as opposed to just a bed. It's not just a bed. Which a lot of people think is all we do, but we do so much more."

The 35,000 square foot Kearney Center still smelled of fresh paint when it first opened its doors in 2016. Despite a few teething problems early on, the facility soon settled into a fairly comfortable routine. Then, just 4 years later, the COVID pandemic struck. The Kearney Center was forced to close. But Director of Shelter Operations Vicki Butler said that didn't mean tossing its overnight guests into the street.

"And we were the first shelter in the nation to actually do that where we got them into the hotels and that was to provide as much space and safety for the clients as possible. And we probably saved many, many lives by doing that."

With COVID's infection threat now abating, the Kearney Center is again offering communal accomodations for its clients. But now there are more of them than before. Case Management Supervisor Jacara Wright said that is also COVID-related.

"We've definitely seen an uptick of individuals experiencing homelessness. And definitely one of those catalysts is because of the pandemic. As you can imagine, when people are laid off from their job or can't go to their job, that impacts their ability to obtain housing."

Although the overall lack of affordable housing remains issue number one, there are other matters facing the area's unhoused population that need addressing. Medical and now dental care is among them At the Kearney Center, Ramona Vossler has the point on that.

"Oral health is huge with overall health. When you've got a dental infection, it's in your bloodstream so it's in every part of your body. And if you've ever had a toothache, you know how dibilitating that can be, so it's hard to show up to your job and it's hard to raise your children. If you're trying to overcome substance abuse, it's hard to stay on that track when you have a toothache."

The Kearney Center has its own in-house basic dental clinic, but since the pandemic, it's now referring more of its clients to practitioners in the community. The Kearney Center also continues its cold-night shelter accommodations during the winter months. But, said Client Case Manager Kesi Williams, the real goal is helping folks get back into a more functional life.

"If they don't have an ID, or Social Security care or birth certificate, I need to get on the phone to Social Security. I help make email accounts, refer them over to DCF (Florida Department of Children and Families) to get food stamps. Once they have that information they can get a cell phone through Safelink so they can have a form of communication when they are applying for a job if they're able to work. Or if they are applying for Social Security so they can get a call-back and have communication with the outside world."

The ultimate objective, of course, is to place those without a home into a real home. That's Housing Navigator Myrtle Ward's job. A job that, despite the current housing shortage, still has its happy moments.

"They get those keys in their hands and people are crying tears of joy. So many laughing and dancing...it's just an awesome thing!" she said, smiling at the recollection.

The past few years have been anything but easy for the Kearney Center. It was forced to suspend its in-house accommodations for homeless clients during the worst of the pandemic. Hundreds of people were put up in local motels and vacant apartments. But that essentially doubled the Center's housing budget from one-and-a-half to three million dollars. The Center had to lay off 20 of its employees last year and secure a two-million dollar loan just to stay in operation. Some help came early this year in the form of a Leon County government committment for a $100,000 a year for the next 5 years. More help arrived in June with a few million dollars in CARES funding. But despite that cash infusion, the Kearney Center is seeing an ongoing flood of new clients. Kearney Center Director of Finance and Administration Katherine Del Signore said that's meant a greater volume and variety of services, as well as greater expense.

"Last year we served over 100,000 meals to clients, so we're looking for more food support as well. And then we also have an outreach program. So as people are noticing some of those camps out in the street, we have 4 individuals who are going out onto those communities and talking to them and helping them be aware and come here and receive the help they need."

Help that Del Signore explained also includes a full array of in-house and external resources to help folks get off the street and into the mainstream of society. To underwrite those, she says the Kearney Center is looking for additional community support.

"We have a few different fund raising campaigns that are going on right now at the end of the calendar year. On December 6th we're at Panera (Bread,) the one on Apalachee Parkway. If you happen to go to Panera, let them know you'd like some of your meal to go to the Kearney Center. It doesn't cost you anything extra, but Panera will set aside a certain amount of those proceeds over to us."

And Del Signore said the push to attract more donations will continue beyond such one-off efforts. The Center's various online platforms have details.

"They can go to our social media on Facebook, Instagram, LinkdIn in order to find that link in order to donate. And again, those donations are used to support the services we're currently serving."

Services that could help more people in our area find a real home for the holidays.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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