Outfitted in a baseball cap and a black tank top that reveals his tattooed forearm, Drouillard would fit in on any college campus in Florida. But Drouillard is no student. At just 24, he’s homeless.
Six weeks ago, he was in the Flagler County jail in Bunnell, Fla. Although he had been arrested nine times in the past and served brief sentences, Drouillard says that being in jail for four months, especially as a young man, motivated him to finally ask for help.
He said his relationships with his parents, sister and brother fractured over time over problems related to his substance abuse. At 22, Drouillard was fending for himself—sleeping where he could and living off what work he could find.
“I was on the streets for a couple months, trying to survive, trying to find ways to make money here and there, legally or illegally,” he said.
Drouillard describes himself as a loner during that time—it’s a habit he has carried with him into the St. Francis House, which touts itself as the only full-time emergency shelter in St. Johns County in northeast Florida.
The house, with 16 bunks for men and eight for women, is located along Washington Street in St. Augustine.
Spanish settlers founded St. Augustine in 1565. The town, with a population of about 13,000, is nicknamed the Nation’s Oldest City because it is the oldest permanently occupied European settlement.
Drouillard says he has made some friends in town, but is afraid of the influence past relationships have had on his behavior.
“I have a few of the boys who are my age or maybe a little bit younger that stay here with me that I talk to, but for the most part I stay to myself,” he said. “Honestly, I try to keep it that way because I’m not going to be strong enough, if those people party, to say no.”
Drouillard is not the only one. His struggle underscores the hardships of homeless people in their late teens and 20s. They are largely invisible, lost beneath the images of panhandlers with signs and tin cans that homelessness brings to mind.
About 8 percent of state’s homeless are between 18 and 24 years old, according to Florida’s Council on Homelessness’ 2013 report. That, however, only accounts for those on the radar.
Drouillard is one of the few individuals that are young and homeless that step forward to seek help, according to Chris Papadopoulos, a case worker at the St. Francis House.
Papadopoulos says that Drouillard’s case is far from ordinary. While men and women in their early 20s do come to the St. Francis House to eat lunch on occasion, they rarely come to stay or find a permanent solution.
“Some of the young people may have come from jail and they get a boot camp in what reality is—the kind of reality our parents and grandparents shook our fingers at us and told us about,” Papadopoulos said. “The young people who do come here get a glimpse as to what the end to that lifestyle is.”
For Drouillard, the problems started in middle school, when he began to throw tantrums in class and start arguments with teachers. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder at a young age. He began to drink and abuse drugs by the time he was in 7th grade.
In the beginning, he drank to fit in. Soon, the problem was more serious. By the time he reached high school, his drinking had moved beyond weekends and social events.
“It was a really big problem. Even though I started in middle school, I only did it to fit in and be cool,” Drouillard explained. “In high school, I would have days where I would go on random, angry outbursts if I couldn’t get a beer or smoke a joint.”
By the time Drouillard reached the beginning of 11th grade, he was thrown out of school for his disciplinary record.
Drouillard lived with his father in Flagler Beach and moved from job to job in the years to come. When he was fired from a restaurant he had been working at for a year, he began to lie about being employed.
“I was lying to my dad for a week, saying I was going to work when I wasn’t. One day he caught me,” Drouillard said. “I was coming in late. I was always drinking. At the time, I was stealing money from him to drink, to hang out with the people I partied with.”
When Drouillard’s father told him he couldn’t live with him anymore, the friends that he thought would support him evaporated quickly. Drouillard was suddenly alone, obliged to sleep under “under bridges, benches and anywhere I could get comfortable and pass out.”
While some strangers offered Drouillard help, many were simply confused about how someone like him could be homeless.
“I don’t think they had pity towards me. It was more along the lines of ‘what are you doing out here? Why don’t you have anybody? You should be young and up-and-coming and doing something,’” Drouillard said.
Conditions were so bad, at times, that Drouillard considered going to jail better than living on the street.
“I got to the point where I was like jail can’t be worse than this,” Drouillard said. “You have a place to eat and sleep and take a shower.”
That was when a sheriff’s detective in neighboring Flagler County told him about the St. Francis House and gave him a MapQuest printout so he could find his way there. Drouillard climbed onto his bicycle and set off for St. Augustine, more than 30 miles to the north. He says it was during that three-hour bike ride that he decided to try to stay off the streets for good.
Jonathan Ellis, a 27-year-old from Detroit, was in a similar predicament two months ago. It was Drouillard who found him in the woods and told him about the St. Francis House.
At the time, Ellis only had $20 to his name. He said he has traveled from state to state and experienced periods of homelessness since he graduated high school.
“I left home when I was 18,” Ellis said. “The last time I saw my family was two years ago. I really miss them. I am doing well now. I am living here in the dorms of St. Francis Shelter. I have food here, and I have a job as a fellowship with the church.”
Ellis said he met Drouillard at the beach.
“He was just next to me and we started to talk about our lives. I told him I was homeless and he invited me to St. Francis Shelter. Before coming to St. Francis I used to live in Palm Coast. There, I had a job, I had a home but then alcohol and drugs took over and I was homeless again.”
He said his struggles with substance abuse have endured for more than 10 years. He has experienced periods of sobriety, but it has never lasted.
“I would do well and then I would self-sabotage,” Ellis said.
Ellis has now been sober for almost six weeks. He is now applying to Flagler College, where he hopes to major in sociology. He says he wants to understand homelessness on a deeper level.
“You have a house filled with people from the north, south, from the hood, from wealth, and we all are here,” Ellis said. “I want them to know that you don’t have to be 27, 37, 47, 67 before you can change your life.”
Drouillard is back in school and working towards his general equivalency diploma at First Coast Technical College. He’s taking part in Fresh Starts, a four-week program that helps homeless people obtain certification in culinary arts.
He spends most days in class or studying at the library. His goals are not to just get through the program, but thrive.
“I don’t want to get by with the bare minimum. I want to go above and beyond. I want to get really, really high scores.”
Drouillard’s time at the St. Francis House has given him stability and hope for the future.
“They helped me a lot. Living here teaches you morals –responsibility and how to carry yourself and be an overall productive citizen,” he said. “It’s not about just getting a job and paying your rent.”
Drouillard now attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and has made connections that have helped him stay sober.
He is also working on rebuilding relationships with his family, including his mother, who lives in Tennessee and recently graduated from a rehab center herself. They keep in contact through bi-weekly phone calls, texts and Facebook. Drouillard’s family might even visit for Christmas.
After graduating from Fresh Starts, Drouillard plans to further his education in culinary arts. His dream is to eventually open a restaurant.
“I can’t wait to get my degree,” he said. “I can’t wait to be able to say, for once, I actually went through something in my life and completed it.”
Daniel Arbelaez contributed to this report.
In high school, I would have days where I would go on random, angry outbursts if I couldn’t get a beer or smoke a joint.
Some of the young people may have come from jail and they get a boot camp in what reality is – the kind of reality our parents and grandparents shook our fingers at us and told us about.
Living here teaches you morals –responsibility and how to carry yourself and be an overall productive citizen.