When a local homeless shelter closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, an encampment sprung up. Now, the City of Gainesville and Grace Marketplace want it closed by Monday.
The encampment is located on the north side of Grace Marketplace, at 3055 NE 28th Ave., said City Manager Lee Feldman at a Thursday city commission meeting. Grace Marketplace, a homeless shelter, and the city have partnered forces to close the encampment and re-house the residents.
In doing so, they hope to ensure that homeless residents are provided with the opportunities and resources needed throughout the pandemic and beyond, Feldman said.
Since the encampment began in July, the population grew from 10 to 25 residents, said Jon DeCarmine, the Grace Marketplace’s director. An outreach team has since provided meals and mail services to the residents, as well as begun needs assessments for residents to determine how to best house each individual..
Grace Marketplace invited 24 of the 25 encampment residents to the shelter, DeCarmine said. The only person who wasn’t invited is accused of acting violently while in the encampment. DeCarmine said those willing can have a shelter bed by Friday but will be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined. They will not be in the open shelter until they test negative to avoid an outbreak.
DeCarmine also said Grace Marketplace offered to cover transportation costs for residents who wish to stay elsewhere, even in another part of the country. Grace Marketplace would facilitate the move-in and offer long-term storage for their belongings.
He added that he believes the encampment sprung up because the shelter was closed for two months when COVID-19 hit Alachua County. After reopening June 1, Grace Marketplace can offer COVID-19 tests, clothing, case management and shelter to encampment residents.
Grace Marketplace has worked with the city to find appropriate shelter and housing options for homeless residents in encampments since March, DeCarmine said. He said he wants to prevent another encampment like Dignity Village from popping up, because people don’t get the services they need in an encampment.
The city posted signs on July 23 that said there were no drugs, violence or weapons allowed on the encampment, as well as a warning that residents will have a seven day notice before it closes, DeCarmine said.
Grace Marketplace gave the notice Monday that residents needed to vacate, he added.
Fifteen of the residents said they were interested in staying at Grace Marketplace, he said. The nine other residents haven’t yet given a final answer.
If individuals remain on the property once all other options are exhausted, DeCarmine said they could be charged with trespassing. Feldman agreed, adding that the city wants a partnership with housing opportunities — not a scenario similar to when the state forcibly closed an encampment near the Florida Department of Corrections. FDC bulldozed an encampment after evicting 10 residents.
Residents will solidify their plans with the outreach team by Monday, DeCarmine said. New entries to Grace Marketplace will be held and quarantined until results and contact tracing return.
To Gainesville resident Alfredo Morales, encampment residents shouldn’t be charged with trespassing if they refuse to leave.
“Even if it is used as a last resort, you are still putting a gun to people’s heads, and threatening [them] with prison, which we already know has a COVID population,” he said.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe told Feldman and DeCarmine to keep the commission updated about the encampment’s closure. He added that the encampment isn’t safe because it violates public health measures and doesn’t provide residents with the services they need.