My Name is OdJuan Whitfield and I am the social services specialist in Hemming Park. I connect people in the park who are in need and refer them to appropriate agencies that address their needs. I am grateful for having the opportunity to express what I feel and see in the park. First, I feel compelled to discuss my background to solidify why I am a qualified to take on such a task.
I was homeless. I slept in parks, in the foyer of Prime Osborne, and walked the streets at night with nowhere to go. Nothing is more difficult than having nowhere to go when the crowds go away and the traffic stops. I was on the streets for a total of nine months; I didnt wake up one morning and decide to be homeless. I was and I woke up like that for 270 days. Dont let my big smile and slacks fool you, I was just as homeless and jobless. I was blessed enough to stay at the Sulzbacher Center for two months, and after eight months, they hired me part-time for the weekend shift. To this day, I dont think they knew I was homeless until I got my first paycheck. It will be 7 years since that first paycheck on December 20th.
Being in the park
In the park I have heard some say You’re just the black face to cover whatever the real agenda is, and that is to put the ‘black folks out the park.’ When I hear these words, I smile and think to myself, you have no idea where I have come from and what I have been through. Once I share with them what I am here for and my experience, they are more open to listening to what I have to say.
The goal is not to push, kick-out, nor disenfranchise any particular race or group. We want everyone to come to the park, enjoy the great activities and festivities, and use it as a public park. The park has so much potential to bring thousands of people through it every single day. There is no agenda to remove anyone from the park who is using the park as a public space. The agenda is to reactivate and program the park.
Groups that want to feed in the park
It has been misconstrued that we are against feeding the homeless; that is the furthest from the truth. What we do want is for those who desire to feed the hungry to connect with one of the four agencies that provide food.
Six blocks west from Hemming Park is Salvation Army which provides dinner every night, five blocks northwest is Trinity Rescue Mission and they serve dinner to those who spend the night at their shelter, the next street over is Clara White that serves breakfast Monday through Friday. Three blocks from the park is City Rescue Mission, which serves an early dinner Monday through Friday and six blocks East of Hemming, The Sulzbacher Center severs lunch and dinner seven days a week, rain or shine.
Cindy Funkhouser, the CEO of The Sulzbacher Center, made a good point in stating downtown has enough shelters feeding the homeless on a daily basis that no one should ever go hungry. You can eat five meals a day in Downtown Jacksonville. If there are people wanting to feed the homeless, there are food deserts around our community where people really have no access to food. The need for feeding is not downtown.
Another critical point worth mentioning is that city funding is constantly being cut from these agencies, if feeding numbers decreases because others are feeding, the perception is that there is not a need and funding can be potentially cut.
Friends of Hemming Park are not against feeding the homeless. We are about connecting people with resources.