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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Gainesville Fire Rescue, Public Works launches homeless sweep at Southeast Fourth Place

There have been three downtown encampment removals since February

CORRECTION: This story previously incorrectly reported Gainesville Police Department launched the sweep, 70 notices of the sweep were posted and Gainesville could not confirm if the employees wearing PPE hazmat suits were Gainesville Public Works Department staff. The article has since been updated to reflect the sweep was started and executed by Gainesville Fire Rescue in collaboration with GPD and the Gainesville Public Works Department, a notice for every tent was posted and the city did confirm Gainesville Public Works Department staff were the ones in PPE in a May 17 press conference.

The belongings of Southeast Fourth Place homeless encampment residents were removed by Gainesville Fire Rescue, the Gainesville Public Works Department (GNV Public Works) and the Gainesville Police Department in the early hours of May 16 following a February sweep of the street and a May 10 sweep of Haisley Lynch Dog Park.

There were about 24 officers, 20 GNV Public Works members and nine GFR staff at the sweep, said Gainesville spokesperson Rossana Passaniti.

GNV Public Works staff wore bright orange and yellow vests or personal protective equipment hazmat suits while collecting property off the street. Heavy crane machinery disposed of large items in a dump truck. 

Crystal Rial, a 43-year-old resident of the encampment, has lived unhoused in Gainesville for 11 years. Rial removed her belongings from the area early Thursday morning before the police arrived, she said.

“I had my alarm set for 5:30 a.m.,” she said. “I had just set up my stuff outside of St. Francis. I looked up, and [GPD] started to rope [the street] off.” 

Community Resource Paramedics and officers arrived at 7:45 a.m. to block the street with caution tape, and they remained in numbers until after 11:30 a.m.

A written notice was planted for every tent at the encampments, Hatzel said. 

All tents were swept regardless if owners of items were present. For those who chose to remain, they could choose to store their items in the Gainesville Public Works department and later set up an appointment to retrieve their items within business hours, said GFR Community Health Director Brandy Stone. 

“It [items] were tagged and organized based on their orientation on-site,” she said. 

The original motion to remove the SE Fourth Place encampment was previously delayed in early May due to opposition from Southern Legal Counsel. The sweep's pushback followed a February city commission decision to allocate an additional 30 beds to Grace Marketplace, a non-profit shelter, and move $700,000 to homeless support services. 

Three individuals were moved to Grace Marketplace by community resource paramedics, and three others were transported to alternative housing in hotels through a partnership with St. Francis House in Gainesville, Stone said. 

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Fliers for encampment removal on SE Fourth Place were originally posted April 24 and were reposted at a minimum 72 hours in advance, said Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief Joe Dixon.

The May 10 Haisley Lynch Park encampment removal among other recent sweeps were due to city manager policies focused on revitalizing downtown, Dixon said.  

“We have to maintain our public properties and parks and also preserve them for the future,” Dixon said.

Recent state legislation also puts pressure on the local removal of homeless encampments. House Bill 1365, effective Oct. 1, prohibits city and county governments from allowing people to sleep in public. 

On one side of SE Fourth Place, Florida Prisoner Solidarity (FPS) volunteers handed out water, moved belongings and livestreamed the removal. The statewide organization seeks to platform the voices of citizens within the local community through care networks in and out of prisons. 

August Vincent, a 36-year-old Gainesville resident, has been a member of FPS for two years. As a witness of three 2024 downtown area removals, he said each one is a traumatic experience for homeless residents. 

“There’s a lot of desperation and uncertainty about what they can do,” Vincent said. 

The increased use of GPD force could encourage the spread of misinformation, he said. 

“It’s going to send a message to the greater public who’s not familiar with what’s going on that it takes this violence to handle homelessness,” he said. “It’s just going to disperse it temporarily.”

Garnet Davis, a 59-year-old resident of the SE Fourth Place encampment, has lived in Gainesville his whole life. While Davis understands GPD was doing its job, he said he still feels his rights have been violated.

“Do a better job,” he said. “They’re speaking in words, not volumes.”  

Sitting along Main Street beside her two closest friends following the sweep, Rial said she wished there was better representation for people facing homelessness like her within the local government. 

“Instead of all these people in office who ain’t never tasted this life, they should take people who've been in this life,” she said. “If they want to end homelessness, they need to take people from both sides of the box. If not, they don’t know what the hell we’re going through.”

While it is unconfirmed, local homeless encampments are braced for another sweep in the coming weeks.

Contact Sara-James Ranta at Follow her on X @sarajamesranta.

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Sara-James Ranta

Sara-James Ranta is a third-year journalism major, minoring in sociology of social justice and policy. Previously, she served as a general assignment reporter for The Alligator's university desk.

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