It’s been less than three months since the camp outside of the old Fire Station No. 1 in downtown Gainesville closed.
Katy Smith considers herself a “fire station crew” member. The 47-year-old Gainesville resident has camped outside of the fire station since last summer, and she would spend her time walking to Depot Park or along the bike trails.
The camp closed Sept. 15, because the city is looking to occupy the space as part of its larger plan to revitalize the downtown area. This meant Smith and several other homeless people at the fire station couldn’t stay.
Smith said she has been homeless off and on during the last 10 to 15 years and has been homeless in Gainesville since 2017. But because housing at the Inn is temporary, Smith said she will go to GRACE Marketplace after Dec. 9.
“I really enjoyed my time here at the Kampus Inn and I really hate that we’re leaving,” Smith said. “I’ve gone through a lot in this room, good times, bad times — the whole nine yards.”
City Commissioner David Arreola said safety concerns were an additional reason for closing down the camp.
“That is an unoccupied building,” Arreola said. “If there were to be an incident, a health emergency or something, there's no one there to address that issue. So it's an issue of safety overall.”
After the camp closed, Smith said GRACE Marketplace’s outreach team sent Ubers to transport and rehouse Smith at Kampus Inn Gainesville, located at 2820 NW 13th St. While some of the homeless fire station crew from the Kampus Inn have been moved into permanent housing, there are still a few that remain at the hotel.
Jon DeCarmine, executive director at GRACE Marketplace, an organization that serves as a shelter and homeless outreach service, said they chose to rehouse people from the fire station at the Kampus Inn because that hotel had the availability.
GRACE Marketplace created a roster for those camping outside of the fire station, which closed on Aug. 31. Those that signed the roster would be taken to the Kampus Inn and receive help from GRACE Marketplace.
DeCarmine said it has committed to renting rooms at the hotel through Dec. 9.
After Dec. 9 the remaining people at the Kampus Inn are left with the option of going to GRACE Marketplace or going back to the streets if they aren’t moved into permanent housing.
“I’ve been on the streets for a long time and I’m used to it,” Smith said. “But the thought of having to sleep on the sidewalk again is unfathomable.”
Smith and the rest of the crew have less than a week of housing provided by GRACE Marketplace at the Kampus Inn.
“We believe there should only be six or so people who have not been housed and at that point, we’ll make one more push to get them into housing and offer a wide range of other resources if they are going to leave the Kampus Inn,” DeCarmine said.
The city of Gainesville asked GRACE Marketplace to organize a campaign in order to help rehouse the homeless, Arreola said.
At the beginning of the year, it created a street outreach program in which it sends its campus’ resources to homeless people so they can see what they need in order to house them sooner.
There has been a 47% reduction in homelessness in Alachua County since 2014 according to GRACE Marketplace. This includes all homeless people, such as those on the streets, hospitals, emergency shelters and more, DeCarmine said.
Thirty-eight people were added to the roster, DeCarmine said, and they have since moved 12 of those people into permanent housing. He said there are 11 others who are currently assigned to GRACE Marketplace or other agencies.
The process for getting homeless people into permanent housing involves things such as signing leases, gathering identification and birth certificates, and helping them establish a proper income.
“It’s one thing to be signed to an agency, the harder part at this point is finding housing that works for people,” DeCarmine said. “We are finding ourselves running up against the bottom of the barrel of places that people can afford.”
The city commission is still considering various options for what should be done with the space that used to be the fire station. They haven’t decided whether they will go forward with the SPARC352 proposal from the UF’s College of Arts or if they will pass it up entirely.
Arreola said programs like these will have their opponents and it can’t be assumed that the public will always support them.
“I think that when people see that this work is getting done, they sort of take their foot off the gas,” he said. “They sort of say, ‘OK maybe we don't need to put as much money into it as we were putting into it.’”
Juliana Sanchez is a contributing writer to The Alligator.