If you’re like me, you probably have a drawer overflowing with socks and rarely give them a second thought.

 

If you’re homeless, a good pair of socks can mean the difference between basic comfort and agony.

People who are homeless battle common foot infections, complications caused by friction, and embarrassment due to foot odor and the poor condition of their shoes and socks that keep them from seeking proper foot care services.

That’s one of the things I learned this month when I volunteered with Changing Homelessness to help identify people who would be sleeping outside on the day of our survey.

The nonprofit was specifically searching the urban core, Orange Park and the Beaches areas with the goal of bringing veteran homelessness down to what’s called “functional zero,” meaning so few veterans are homeless that anyone who loses his home suddenly can get a new one within a month.

Changing Homelessness also coordinates the annual Point-In-Time Count, a national survey and census of homeless populations.

The 2016 count tallied 1,959 homeless people in Duval County — but based on estimates by Florida Department of Children &Families, up to 8,000 people might have experienced homelessness at some point in 2016.

Data from Duval County Public Schools says more than a quarter of the homeless population were children.

This was the first time the nonprofit had organized a count during the summer, so they weren’t sure what we would find.

A 5 A.M. START

We met at the nonprofit’s headquarters at 5 a.m. and filled our backpacks with bags of toiletries. Each bag also contained a pair of clean, dry socks. Teams of three and four people were assigned to different areas of Downtown.

My team tackled the area surrounding the LaVilla School of the Arts.

We parked at the Anointed Church of God and walked down Church Street under the southbound Interstate 95 overpass where we met Johnny, a 61-year-old man who was just waking up.

He signaled that he was hearing impaired, so we showed him the survey, which he completed himself.

Two others were sleeping on the concrete barriers next to him. I left hygiene bags next to their feet.

Three blocks down the road, I could see the school my daughter attends.

The juxtaposition was overwhelming.

During the evening shift at 5-9 p.m., my team was given a swath that stretched from the sports complex to Hemming Park.

SHELTER FROM HEAT, RAIN

We found people secluded under overpasses, shaded by trees, shrouded in bushes, tucked into window alcoves, covered by porches — any shelter they could find from the August heat and evening rain.

A trio gathered by a stream in a tree-covered grassy area near the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena said they were lucky to be at the Sulzbacher Center but spoke of the hoops they had to jump through to get there.

We talked to a young woman staying at Sulzbacher who had just scored a security job at EverBank Field. She told us her brother asked if she could get him into games, and she told him, “I’m not breaking the rules for you or anyone!”

We had a lengthy but witty conversation with Shawn with a “w” about his difficulty finding sign-fabricating work without a driver’s license.

A woman sitting in a chair near the Baseball Grounds refused a water bottle, but I left it on the nearby pay phone in case she wanted it later.

In Hemming Park, we met Kashi, who grew up in the foster system but said he’s felt homeless his whole life.

In Main Street Park across from the Main Library, I spoke with a man who shared the same birthday as my father —which was two days away. I thought about the stark difference in how those two occasions would be commemorated.

THE DOWNTOWN FACTOR

Perhaps the single biggest reason people give for avoiding Downtown Jacksonville is dealing with people who are homeless. Panhandling, loitering, litter, mental health issues — they don’t want to deal with it.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that people who are homeless are human beings.

It seemed that many people we met just enjoyed the opportunity to talk to someone.

I met a woman in Hemming Park who had been accepted at a shelter and found a job at McDonald’s. She was worried about her safety on the walk from the bus stop back to the shelter. I introduced her to a Downtown Vision ambassador to give her a friendly face.

Two days later, I looked for her at the McDonald’s where she worked.

I ordered a shake and gave her a hug.

She and a dozen others are the people I will remember when I think about the homeless population in Downtown.

Denise M. Reagan is senior PR manager at Brunet-García Advertising, a longtime journalist and a frustrated Downtown enthusiast.