Jacksonville neighborhood opposes Sulzbacher ‘idea’ to help homeless
Some of them said they had nothing against the homeless men who live at the Sulzbacher center downtown. Others called them predators.
Some of them said the destination of the center’s proposed move should be the Regency area, others suggested the Westside.
But at a Town Hall meeting Tuesday night, they all vehemently agreed: The center should not move to their neighborhood on Jacksonville’s Northwest side, where a former EPA Superfund site now owned by the city is among multiple locations being considered. Their neighborhood — in what they called an economic and food desert, where residents also have lingering concerns about whether the EPA’s 2020 cleanup removed all trace of contamination — has enough challenges already.
“I don’t think it’s fair to bring us another problem. Keep your problem downtown,” said resident Deborah Williams.
The area has been neglected for decades, said resident Juan Phillips Sr.
“We need … resources,” he said.
Residents blamed City Hall for that lack of resources.
“The city is going to have to take responsibility for what’s happening in our community,” said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville NAACP, whose first house was near the 2610 Fairfax St. site.
And residents said they are paying attention to where the city does prioritize spending, such as Jaguars owner Shad Kahn’s development and tearing down a Hart Bridge ramp.
“We need food up here,” shouted a resident. “This is not the place, not the time [for Sulzbacher].”
Fairfax Street Wood Treaters began operations in 1980. When the company went bankrupt and closed in 2010, tanks of chemicals in poor condition were left behind with stormwater flowing off the property.
Tests showed the area was tainted by substances in chromated copper arsenate, a compound used to pressure-treat lumber to resist rotting. The site was added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list — the nation’s most contaminated land — and eventually about 60,000 tons of tainted soil was removed and replaced with new soil and an estimated 300,000 gallons of water were processed to decontaminate the area.
About 100 people attended the Tuesday session organized by City Councilman Garrett Dennis, whose district includes the property. After Sulzbacher approached Dennis about the potential use of the property, he asked its representatives to take part in a community meeting.
He noted the public input-related mantra of former Mayor Jake Godbold: “People want to be on the plane when it takes off, they don’t want to be on the plane when it’s 10,000 feet in the air.”
“We need to have a community conversation together as a whole as we move forward because this is our community,” he said.
Darnell Smith, chairman of Sulzbacher’s board, said the project is about five years away. No decision has been made on the location or its exact design.
“It’s an idea, a concept,” he said.
The idea, he said, is to not only provide housing and services to get homeless men back on their feet but include job training and a manufacturing plant where they would be employed. The plant would make modular affordable housing.
Based on neighborhood needs, the project might also feature a health clinic and food market open to the neighborhood.
“We’re here to listen to you … We’re not here to debate,” he said. “We have an idea that we think will help provide affordable housing, help revitalize the community.”
Smith also noted that residents’ negative perception of the homeless — as people who live on the streets, are unemployed and likely criminal — is inaccurate. Many of them live on friends’ couches, have jobs and no criminal history and go to Sulzbacher for services.
“We are not a homeless shelter,” he said. “They are trying to find their way back home.”
Cindy Funkhauser, CEO of Sulzbacher, said Wednesday she was not surprised at the neighborhood opposition. The same vehemence greeted the nonprofit’s early planning of the $21 million Sulzbacher Village that opened in 2018 at 44th and Pearl streets.
The village provides a subsidized, permanent housing community for homeless women and children in Jacksonville. The complex has 70 units for single women, female veterans and single- and two-parent families, totaling about 340 people, as well as a health clinic and early learning center.
“The group last night was more respectful than before,” she said. “There were a lot of complaints about … the way the community has, in their mind, been ignored.”
She said there was some empathy for Sulzbacher and its clients, but at the same time a lack of understanding about them.
“They just don’t want them in their neighborhood,” she said. “They have a misperception. There is a certain stereotype. It’s a shame.”
Sulzbacher continues to consider other sites.
“This is not a done deal by any stretch,” she said.
email@example.com, (904) 359-4109