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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Gainesville homeless population struggles with encampment sweeps, lack of options

Unsheltered homeless people, city officials discuss solutions

A man walks through the homeless encampment Southeast Fourth Place on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.
A man walks through the homeless encampment Southeast Fourth Place on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.

Residents of a homeless encampment on Southeast Fourth Place were given about five hours Feb. 20 to vacate a sidewalk they had occupied since December.

“They had about 20 cops out here, the fire department, and they just started putting notes, knocking on tents telling us we had to get out and pack our stuff up,” said Mary Phillips, a 54-year-old resident of the encampment.

Phillips, who regularly cooked for other inhabitants of the encampment in a shared outdoor kitchen, was told by a police officer to go to GRACE Marketplace, a nonprofit with a shelter that is currently at capacity.

The attention around homelessness in Gainesville has heightened after recent sweeps on homeless encampments and city commission decisions to allocate 30 beds to GRACE Marketplace in the next 90 days, move $700,000 to homeless support services and prepare for the sale of the vacant Gainesville Fire Rescue station.

House Bill 1365 aims to prevent city and county governments from allowing people to sleep in public. As the bill moves through the Florida Legislature, members of Gainesville’s homeless population, the city government and residents met Feb. 22 at a general policy meeting to discuss the city’s approach to these issues.

“They can pass a law that says you can't have people sleeping in parks, but that's at odds with the Supreme Court,” said Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward. “We will continue to do our best work to try to make life better for folks who feel like they have to sleep outside and for those impacted by that otherwise.”

Because of the concentration of opportunities and services in Gainesville in relation to North Central Florida, Ward said the city understands its role in supporting homeless populations, but it does not have the capacity to support the influx of people from other counties.

Gainesville’s network of support systems, as Porche Jeffery describes, is limited.

Jeffery, a 39-year-old homeless person, said a lack of all-day access to showers and restrooms from the St. Francis House contributes to behavior that people criticize homeless people for.

“If there were someplace besides GRACE, where you can put your tent and everybody would be cool with it, then that would be fine,” Jeffrey said.

While Gainesville has a variety of local resources to service homeless people, a majority of them only allow certain affected populations. St. Francis House services families and women, the nonprofit Family Promise of Gainesville only services families and Peaceful Paths focuses on domestic violence survivors. GRACE Marketplace is the only shelter in Gainesville that services single adults.

Of the 1,006 homeless people that live in Alachua, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Putnam counties, 725 live in Gainesville, according to Continuum of Care data and a point-in-time study shared by Roberto Sutton, assistant chief of Gainesville Fire Rescue.

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While the count of sheltered homelessness in Gainesville only increased by one person, unsheltered homelessness increased from 318 to 417.

Southeast Fourth Place encampment 

Angie Stokes, a 47-year-old who moved into the encampment in December, saw the camp grow gradually as the weather got colder. She said she had heard for weeks the city was planning to vacate the encampment.

“Not that this is a permanent situation, but you need some kind of calmness in your life to get yourself together,” Stokes said. “If you have stuff like that going on, worrying about if you're going to get kicked out with no place to go is not comforting.”

Citing a city ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the obstruction of public right of way, the Gainesville Police Department, alongside Gainesville Public Works, Gainesville Fire Rescue and the Community Resource Paramedicine Program, gathered to remove property from a sidewalk in front of the vacant Gainesville Fire and Rescue station.

“What we responded to was not because they were homeless, we were responding to the fact that the city has to be responsive to all neighbors' needs,” said Joe Dixon, chief of Gainesville Fire Rescue.

Volunteers, consisting of neighbors and people associated with groups like the Civic Media Center and Florida Prisoner Solidarity, came to provide food and water to encampment residents and support them with moving property — like tents and belongings — to a grass patch across the street. 

“Most of the time people are in their neighborhoods and they don't have to see this every day,” said Dillon Boatner, a Gainesville resident. “I drive by here every day. I see these are my neighbors.”

While the notice warned all property not moved before 2 p.m. would be moved by public works, city authorities gave the homeless residents and volunteers extra time to move property.

After speaking with homeless residents and other spectators for two hours, authorities pushed out non-residents and public works relocated property into trucks.

The encampment, as described by City Manager Cynthia Curry, has 12 current residents among seven occupied tents as of Feb. 22. 

In the same meeting, Jon DeCarmine, executive director of GRACE Marketplace, noted six of the 12 residents of the encampment had left permanent supportive housing programs.

City’s response to homelessness meeting

At a meeting Feb. 22 to update the public on the city’s response to homelessness, city commissioners decided to immediately set up 10 beds in GRACE marketplace and work toward building another shelter with 20 beds in the next 90 days.

Cynthia Curry said city officials had engaged with members of the homeless encampment days prior and a similar sweep was occurring on private property near the Walmart on Waldo Road during the meeting.

“What we see on the streets is not generally representative of the homeless population, it is the most vulnerable component of it,” John DeCarmine said. “Five or 10 percent of the entire population. That makes 100 percent of people’s perception of what homelessness is.”

About 20 residents spoke during public comment, sharing a multitude of experiences regarding ongoing homelessness support efforts, perception of the encampment, criticism of city actions and comments on the behavior of officials who interacted with the volunteers.

In a City of Gainesville Instagram post, the phrase “restoring accessibility to a sidewalk,” along with a selection of pictures that omitted the confrontation between city staff and people supporting the encampment, was a source of contention for a few of the public commenters.

Toward the end of the meeting, Commissioner at Large Reina Saco discussed how certain solutions advocated for by commenters are not viable. Solutions regarding repurposing local spaces, like the vacant fire station and Haisley Lynch Park, were rejected due to concerns about liability and donation conditions, respectively.

Eric Davis, director of housing at St. Francis Center, said at the Feb. 22 meeting he believes more needs to be done to address the causes of homelessness, rather than treating current conditions.

“Anyone that's been here for the last 10 years has watched homelessness explode exponentially,” Davis said. “What I would like to see and begin to have honest conversations about is why people are homeless in the first place. We have a reactive instead of a responsive system, and that is a big part of our problem.”

Contact Diego Perdomo at dperdomo@alligator.org. Follow him on X @diegoperdomoaq.

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Diego Perdomo

Diego Perdomo is a third-year journalism major and the Spring 2024 Data Reporter. He previously worked as the graphic design editor and a graphic designer. Outside of his studies, he is trying to find hobbies outside of work.


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