Shelter offers safety, comfort and even a dab of romance

He noticed her right away.


There was something about how she was intently reading some dime-store novel, a murder mystery, in her lap even as noise swirled around her in the crowded gym.

Donovan Dean tentatively approached Jannet Brown. They started talking about books by authors like James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell that they both liked best.

“I could tell how intelligent she was just in those first few moments,” Dean recalled. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

Now, nearly a year later, Brown and Dean find themselves back where it all began: at the Solomon Calhoun Community Center where the couple first met while seeking shelter after Hurricane Matthew.

Brown, who is homeless, had been staying at the St. Francis House before evacuating to Pedro Menendez High School last week before Irma hit. With all six school shelters closed by St. Johns County on Tuesday, Brown like others without anywhere to go, had been transferred to the Solomon Calhoun center, which is being run as a longer-term refuge by the American Red Cross.

Like last year, the Calhoun center has been designated by the County to provide shelter for those who continue to need it: the homeless, those who are elderly or have medical conditions, and others who have returned to find their homes uninhabitable.

According to Judith Dembowski, executive director of St. Francis House, about 25 of the homeless shelter’s regular residents have fled to Solomon Calhoun with St. Francis closed temporarily due to the storm’s impact.

”We didn’t have as much damage as last year, but we are still without power and hope to get things dried out here and to reopen by the end of the week,” Dembowski said.

Dean, 49, lost his job recently and had been staying at a friend’s downtown apartment. With that no longer an option, he is not sure what he will do when Calhoun closes. He and Brown, 62, say they are now engaged and hope to get married sometime soon.

“Hopefully, I can get some side work cleaning up some yards,” said Dean. “I’ve also put in some applications at a few places.”

For Gregorio Sardenas, who has heart problems, losing power in the storm wasn’t just an inconvenience but also a health risk. The 65-year-old Sardenas needs to be hooked up regularly to a heart monitor, which requires electricity, so he left his family at their place in Flagler Estates to come to the community center.

Of his neighborhood, Sardenas said, “It’s like an ocean everywhere … lots of flooding.”

While at Calhoun, Sardenas, a custodian, has volunteered to sweep and mop the floors and wipe down bathroom facilities.

“At least, I can do something while I’m here to help,” said Sardenas. “At least, I can make it clean.”

On Wednesday morning, there were several dozen people lounging on cots in the gymnasium, some covered with standard-issue Red Cross blankets, others reading or browsing their devices. Three meals a day are served.

“After they leave the emergency shelter, we try to make it as homey as possible,” said Tony Briggs, a regional communications director with the American Red Cross.

Briggs said each shelter resident is assigned a caseworker responsible for helping him or her to collect required documentation needed to enroll a child in school, find temporary housing or apply for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“And they [caseworkers] continue to stay in touch with them even after they leave the shelter,” said Briggs.


In response to impacts from Hurricane Irma, St. Johns County has opened the Solomon Calhoun Community Center, 1300 Duval Street, as a post-impact shelter for those who are unable to return to their homes. All other shelters are now closed.

Shelter capacity: 150. Occupancy on Wednesday morning: 33 (though Red Cross personnel expected that number to climb as the day went on)