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Columbia Cnty – Lake City Homeless/Panhandlers:  "Too Big of a Problem – We Need a Joint Effort"

Commissioner Ronald Williams (left) - Mayor Steve Witt (right)
County Chairman Ronald Williams (left) and Lake City Mayor Steve Witt (right).    Observer photo

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – During Monday evening's joint Lake City / Columbia County meeting of the elected leaders and top management of both bodies, the number one topic was the homeless and panhandlers.


For over a decade United Way of Suwannee Valley has facilitated what is known as the Homeless Coalition.

Lately, some folks in Lake City/Columbia County have been complaining about the homeless and also about panhandlers, which are not necessarily the same, at the I-75 / U.S. 90 overpass. (see: County Hotel Owners Complain About Homeless Under the Interstate at U.S. 90 – FDOT to Step In).

Lake City, City Council Chambers
All elected and first line City and County officials, as well as members from the public were on hand in City Hall for the Joint City/County meeting.

It was crystal clear during Monday's joint City/County meeting that none of the ten elected City/County officials, nor the top management of the City/County knew anything about the work of the Homeless Coalition, nor the amount of homelessness, the number of panhandlers, or who or what agency was doing anything about it.

United Way of Suwannee Valley has been the umbrella agency for the homeless and panhandlers through its Homeless Coalition for about the past 10 years.

Monday Evening

Columbia County Commissioner Ronald Williams
County Commission Chairman Ronald Williams

Veteran County Commissioner and County Chair Ronald Williams kicked off the conversation, "Panhandlers aren't necessarily homeless. "We need to separate the homeless issue from the panhandler issue."

City Manager Joe Helfenberger opined, "It is too big of a problem for one entity. We need a joint effort."

Commissioner Williams suggested a committee of organizations and citizens. He called it a "taskforce."

Lake City Mayor Steve Witt weighed in, "We don't need to be doing something over here and something else over there. We need to pool resources."

Panhandling & Panhandlers

Commissioner Toby Witt weighed in on the panhandling issue, "We can do something about panhandling. That's an easy thing to solve."

Commissioner Rocky Ford followed up, "I think the panhandling issue is something we can address immediately... The problem I hear is funding."

Councilwoman Melinda Moses had a different take. "To me the panhandling is a public safety issue; homelessness is a social issue... It's amazing the people that have nothing," she said.

City Councilman Chris Greene
Councilman Chris Greene wants Columbia County's churches to "deal with homelessness."

Commissioner Williams wanted to develop a roadmap. He said, "We need to get everyone sitting down collectively."

A motion was made to develop a taskforce in which there would be an elected and appointed representatives from both the City and the County.

City Councilman Greene weighed in, "I think it is the responsibility of the churches to deal with homelessness."

Community Activist Sylvester asked, "Do we have any data to know if these panhandlers are homeless?"

Jennifer Anchors, Executive Director Suwannee Valley United Way
Jennifer Anchors, Executive Director of Suwannee Valley United Way..

Jennifer Anchors of United Way of Suwannee Valley

Jennifer Anchors of Suwannee Valley United Way is its Executive Director.

Ms. Anchors came to the microphone to address the officials. She said that by "joining the Homeless Coalition we are able to accomplish more. We would like to be a part of the committee and welcome you to join the Homeless Coalition."

Ron Williams, Jr.
"Instead of passing money to friends, stop talking - do something"

Ron Williams, Jr.
Ron Williams, Jr., speaks to the representatives.

Ron Williams, Jr., is a retired Marine. He explained that he was familiar with the homeless issue in different places throughout the country.

Mr. Williams had another point of view: "One thing I don't agree with is the United Way. I joined that organization, but you couldn't do anything for three years... They won't let you do anything... With homelessness come problems, like drugs and alcohol – substance abuse, domestic violence. There are no services around here... The only issue that we have for people with drug problems is to call the Sheriff – put them in jail. They still won't get any help... We don't deal with mental illness here."

He continued, "These are the problems that we have with homeless people. You need to look at other programs. I would love to see something done about it, instead of passing money on to friends. The homelessness problem keeps growing and you're going to keep having a problem until you deal with it... Stop talking about it and do something about it."

Long time City icon Glenel Bowden said, "You shouldn't just talk about it... If you don't put no money in it – it's just talk."

Linard Johnson
Linard Johnson, former school board member, wants less talk and more action.

Former School Board member Linard Johnson came to the microphone and joined the chorus, "You need to establish what is a panhandler and what is a homeless person... Let's all just make something happen instead of just talk."

Commissioner Nash said there needs to be a panhandler ordinance. He also mentioned that he had no idea what the Homeless Coalition was or did.

Your reporter asked, "Do we have any numbers – homeless – panhandlers?"

Commissioner Williams answered, "We do not have numbers." He explained the committee will be tasked with coming up with some statistics.

United Way's Anchors came back to the microphone, again: "I been in my position six to eight months now and what I've learned is there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about the Homeless Coalition. What you're describing your taskforce to be is the Homeless Coalition. Yes we have the data that we can supply."


In February of this year, your reporter spoke with Ms. Anchors, who appeared to have picked up the phone accidentally, after calls to the person who was supposed to be in charge of the Homeless Coalition did not return phone calls.

Your reporter asked, "Do you know of any agency that deals with homelessness on a government level in Columbia County?"

Ms. Anchors replied, "I'm not aware of anything. We apply for state and federal grants, then we subcontract with other not for profits for services for homeless individuals."

It is understood that Ms. Anchor's now has the email addresses of Lake City/Columbia County officials.

After inquires to the County and City, at post time it is unknown if Ms. Anchors provided the homeless and panhandler stats to any City/County officials.

*Update:  This morning both County Manager Ben Scott and City Manager Joe Helfenberger responded to the following question: "Has Ms. Anchors provided you with any data since the meeting [July 8] regarding homeless or panhandlers?"

The managers' answer: "No."

Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

On July 15, 2019, Sandra Smith of Lake City wrote:

For the homeless and the issues of  panhandling or vagrancy in Columbia County are a quagmire of ineffectual authorities, pointless committee meetings, political favoritism and generally limited and inept communications.  I speak on this issue as someone who has been temporarily disabled,  financially destitute, or virtually homeless in turns here in Columbia County for 37 years.

Since I am also an activist, researcher and entrepreneur, I have tried to discover the way things work here and help develop a coherent and comprehensive approach to all these problems.  That mission has been confusing, frustrating and largely unsuccessful.   I wish I thought the new political emphasis would help but I have no confidence in the current approach.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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