WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — West Palm Beach's new mayor says the city's homeless population is decreasing.
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At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Mayor Keith James said there's been a reduction in the city's on-street homeless population for a second-straight year.
"The on-street homeless population is skyrocketing in so many parts of the nation," said Mayor James. "Here in West Palm Beach, comparatively speaking, we're doing pretty well."
The mayor said there were 354 unsheltered residents in West Palm Beach in Jan. 2019, down from 462 in Jan. 2018.
"The issue of homelessness is a challenge that's bigger than any one city," said Mayor James.
The mayor attributed the decline, in part, to services offered through the city's Vickers House, which provides support and resources to homeless men and women. He also said the efforts of community engagement officers are getting homeless residents much-needed help.
"These community engagement officers each and every day are out there doing enforcement and aligning the on-street homeless population with the support and services they need," said Mayor James.
Success stories like those of 20-year old Diane Burk and 64-year old Mural Brown are ones that Mayor James said he hopes to see more of.
The two people are separated by 44 years but both share the same struggles of homelessness.
Burk said it can happen to anyone.
“It affects everybody," she said. "It's difficult."
She spent five years homeless as a teenager. She said the struggles started when her mom lost her job.
Just two years ago at 18, she was sleeping in parks or occasionally at a family member's home.
She had no job, no home and no hope. And to make matters more complicated, she was pregnant.
“I had a son, so I had to figure something out," she said. “I was praying and hoping. I was just keeping faith, basically. Holding on strong.”
With the pressures mounting, she came to West Palm Beach city hall and pleaded for help. She found city hall staff who connected her with programs like Vita Nova, a non-profit helping homeless youth with housing services, employment and education.
“Since I met Vita Nova, I’ve been housed, I've found a job. They even donated me a car," said Burk.
Meantime, the Vickers House is helping the 64-year Brown. He's spent the past seven years living on the streets.
“I’m tired of the streets. It’s nothing but trials and tribulations," he said. “Your health depletes on the street. You’re not eating properly. Where are you going to lay your head? You never know from day to day.”
He said depression and a loss of faith in himself kept him in a dark place during that time.
“I was greedy, I wasn’t really needy. I was greedy," he said. "Do you know what understanding is? I learned from my mistakes. That's understanding.”
While eating a meal at St. Ann's kitchen, he heard a woman start asking patrons if they wanted to find housing. He said something motivated him to sign up for a way out of the streets.
After piles of paperwork, documentation, and an assessment, he's been accepted into the program to be placed into housing thanks to Vicker's House. He's also getting free mental health care, doctor's visits and transportation.
“I come here and I feel joy," he said. “I love their smile. And their encouragement.”
For those who work at Lord's Place, the updated numbers are a welcome sight.
"It brought tears to my eyes," said Eileen Ryan, Outreach and Engagement supervisor for the Lord's Place. "Because it just shows that our hard work is paying off. Tthere are days we go home and we're tired and we wanna make sure that we're doing a difference. And to hear the numbers go down, it's like 'OK, this is real. It really is happening.'"
Earlier this month, the mayor introduced Frank Adderley, his nominee to become the city's new police chief. Adderley said tackling homelessness is one of his main goals.
"He has the ability to address homelessness," said Mayor James at a news conference earlier this month. "He's experienced in community policing and developing nurturing relationships."
Back in January, former West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio announced the formation of an outreach team to engage with homeless men and women in the downtown area to help them find job, housing, and treatment opportunities.