Staff and supporters of the Port in the Storm center which officially opened Monday see the facility as a beacon of hope for the homeless youth it serves.
The 5,800-square-foot brown-brick building on Arapaho Avenue will provide daytime services to young people under 21 who are troubled or experiencing homelessness. After some final renovations are completed, the center will also offer overnight shelter with the addition of 16 beds by the end of the year.
The project, an offshoot of the St. Francis House, has been in the works for almost two years but was delayed due to the extensive damage the main downtown shelter sustained during hurricanes Matthew and Irma. Previously, St. Francis — which serves St. Augustine’s adult homeless population — had provided outreach services to youth but until now has not had a physical home base.
“It’s just unbelievable we’ve created something where there was nothing,” said executive director Judy Dembowski.
At Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Dembowski said Port in the Storm — just one of a handful of youth shelters of its kind in the state — would not have been possible without the support of community leaders and donors.
“They said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s do it,’” said Dembowski.
One of those early champions was Bill Rieger, chief information officer for Flagler Hospital, who shared with the crowd his own story of a difficult chapter in his childhood.
Reiger recalled how as a 16-year-old he and a friend ran away from home in Chicago, stole a car and drove south through the Ozark Mountains. The ultimate goal was to get to Florida.
“We were going to rob convenience stores,” said Rieger.
But as Reiger looked down the barrel of the gun he prepared to use, he reached a crossroads and returned home to accept his fate: a 30-day lockup at a psychiatric hospital.
“Hope was birthed in my life, and I didn’t have any,” said Rieger, who has served on the board of directors of St. Francis House/Port in the Storm for the last two years. “When the community sees this place, I hope they see acceptance for the rejected, connection for the lonely and seeds of hope for the hopeless.”
When the number of homeless/unaccompanied youth reached nearly 200 in 2016, plans for the Port in the Storm began in earnest and a $1.5 million capital campaign was launched in July 2017. So far, $1.28 million has been raised but donations are still needed for present and future needs.
Scott Lagasse Jr., NASCAR driver and St. Augustine native, serves as the honorary chair of the Port in the Storm’s capital campaign.
“I can’t wait to see what they do to make our community better here,” Lagasse said.
The daytime drop-in center is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Offerings include food, hygiene items, clothing, showers, laundry as well as access to medical care, substance abuse counseling and academic/employment support.
St. Francis hopes to have the overnight shelter up and running by later this fall. Youth will be able to stay as long as necessary, and staff will make every effort not to turn anyone away, even setting up cots or sofas in case of overflow.