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Jacksonville Homeless Shelters Concerned for Vulnerable Population During COVID-19 Pandemic

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Orders to stay-at-home are nearly impossible to follow for the 500 homeless people living on Jacksonville’s streets.

Organizations like and are committed to helping them, but they understand COVID-19 could be difficult to contain if there is a positive case among the population.

“Homeless people can’t self-quarantine,” said Sulzbacher CEO Cindy Funkhouser. “There are homeless people all over the community all the time…just like a nursing home or the jail, when you think about one person getting the virus, it would spread, no matter how much you’re cleaning, and we are cleaning like four or five times a day.”

There is also the issuing of bringing a homeless individual to get testing if the centers determine they need one. Three of the testing locations - TIAA Bank Field, the Prime Osborn Center, and St. Vincent’s Hospital - are only drive-thru sites.

“Homeless people don’t have cars,” Funkhouser said. “The health department has advised our task force very strongly that no staff member should be transporting a symptomatic person in a company vehicle or a personal vehicle.”

Right now, Sulzbacher is looking at a private ambulance service as a possible measure. If a homeless individual were to test positive for COVID-19, the Downtown Homelessness Task Force has a hotel to bring them to where they can isolate from everyone else for two weeks.  

Changing Homelessness CEO Dawn Gilman said it’s a challenge because the homeless tend to be older and sicker than most other people.

“That group is fairly self-isolating. So is it best for them that we continue to support them with what we already do," she said.

She added if the coronavirus were to take hold among the area's homeless population, it would add to an already strained system.

“It will also put an enormous strain on our hospital system because these are people that will come in not only with COVID-19 but with multiple underlying medical conditions.”

Funkhouser says Sulzbacher’s location introduced many changes for residents and homeless clients coming in.

People coming into the Urban Rest Stop at the Downtown center are screened for their temperature, and they are issued a colored lanyard that designates which part of the day they are allowed to be at Sulzbacher. The lanyard system was created to prevent too many people be there at once.

The population eats lunch in shifts, and the medically vulnerable are isolated.

“We have a lot going on,” Funkhouser said, adding, “but we are still providing meals and all the services at the urban rest stop.”

To minimize risk, Sulzbacher is no longer allowing volunteers to help at the centers, meaning more strain for employees.

“That is an extreme challenge for us,” Funkhouser said. “On a normal day we do over 1,500 meals, and so we’ve seen an increase in the number of people coming for meals. So now, we just have our staff, and we only have skeleton staff in the kitchen.”

Funkhouser said the donation of food from the PGA Tour PLAYER’s Championship helped Sulzbacher provide pre-made meals, but they’ve had to pull employees from other areas or residents to help get meals out to visitors.

“The residents understand what’s happening,” Funkhouser said. “So everybody is really pitching in, and I have to say, it’s really encouraging.”

In early March, Sulzbacher launched a Healthmobile to drive around different parts of Jacksonville’s Urban Core and provide medical services to the homeless population. It was supposed to begin running routes on March 23, but right now it’s stationed at the Urban Rest Stop Downtown.

“It's really operating as the command center with everything happening around it, but all the supplies that we need, and staff can go inside to cool off,” Funkhouser said.  “So we're using it as more of a command center right now, because it's really better practice to be doing any of these screenings outside.”

Funkhouser said centers around Jacksonville are in need of donations of masks, pop-up tents, and other specific requests to keep them from running short. If you’re interested in giving a donation, visit Sulzbacher’s site here.

Read more from WJCT News: Local, State And National Coronavirus Coverage

Contact reporter Cyd Hoskinson at, 904-358-6351 and on Twitter at @cydwjctnews.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit .

Cyd Hoskinson began working at WJCT on Valentine’s Day 2011.