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Dignity Village to close by Jan. 1, transition homeless elsewhere

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  • 4 min to read
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Amanda Smith, a 31-year-old Dignity Village resident, stands in front of her camp located on the outskirts of the 10-acre property. Smith has lived there for four months. She wants to stay in Gainesville once it closes on Jan. 1, though she does not know where she will go.

Almost two miles away from the bustle of Gainesville Regional Airport, all is quiet as tall grass and a plain concrete road leads to a sea of dark-colored tents.

The silence is broken only by the sound of dogs barking.

Among the abundance of tents is a single hammock owned by a woman with a personality as vibrant as her wardrobe. Amanda Smith’s yellow and teal clothes are easy to spot in Dignity Village, a homeless encampment in Gainesville.

For the past four months, Smith has been one of about 200 homeless people living in Dignity Village, which surrounds GRACE Marketplace, a low-barrier homeless shelter joint-funded by the Gainesville City and Alachua County commissions. The camp will close by Jan. 1, 2020.  

Smith, 31, usually sleeps in her hammock and lets other people sleep in her tent. 

“I let everybody come up here and stay,” Smith said. “I don’t deny nobody a home. That’s just me.” 

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Smith stands next to a teal stool, her favorite piece of furniture in her camp. She likes to wear colorful clothing, such as her Flintstones socks, that cheers up the other people in Dignity Village. “My style, I never want to grow out of,” Smith said.

 

Soon, Smith’s hammock will no longer sway outside GRACE and her gray tent will be replaced with a chain link fence, leaving her and her neighbors looking for somewhere new to go. 

“It’s hard to think what’s going to happen when and if they shut this down,” Smith said. “Everybody here is family to me.” 

City and county commissioners voted in May to close the camp and evacuate it by next year, said Jon DeCarmine, executive director of GRACE Marketplace.

Starting Oct. 1, a chain-link fence will outline the camp, preventing new residents from moving in and a one-way entry and exit on to the property will be manned by security personnel a holding a roster of current Dignity Village residents. 

Dignity Village had potential to be a safe place for people to live, but residents aren’t receiving the services they need, DeCarmine said. He did not elaborate further on his decision to close the encampment. DeCarmine and his colleagues approached the city with a proposal to close the camp and transition residents into GRACE Marketplace or elsewhere about a year ago, said City Commissioner David Arreola. 

“Dignity Village is the biggest broken piece of our local homeless services system,” DeCarmine said. “It’s become more of a long-term sheltering arrangement as opposed to a tool to get people back into housing as quickly as possible.”

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Smith keeps a collection of 10 bibles in different languages in her camp. She said her faith has kept her strong. “I think it’s important for everyone to believe in something,” Smith said. “Just for hope, if nothing else.”

 

But a lack of communication between the city and county might steer these plans off track. 

At the Gainesville city commission meeting Thursday evening, commissioners spent almost an hour attempting to clear confusion about funding for this initiative from both committees. 

City commissioners were unsure of how the county is contributing to Dignity Village’s closure. Commissioner Harvey Ward asked county officials for the exact budgeted costs, which is $100,000.

County Commissioner Ken Cornell confirmed the amount in a phone call on Thursday before the city commission meeting. He said the county is a funding partner but is not involved in the operations of GRACE Marketplace or Dignity Village. 

"It’s actually a city shelter that the county has participated in the funding,” Cornell said. “It’s something that the county is committed to.” 

Despite the possible setbacks, DeCarmine said he remains hopeful. 

“I am completely confident we will find a way through this and that the county will provide the funding that they committed,” he said at the meeting. 

During the transition, different options will be offered to Dignity Village occupants, he said. A section of the GRACE Marketplace property will be transformed into a new campground, which will include up to 100 new tents, 9 feet by 9 feet in size. Tent platforms and shade sails for each person will also be provided. 

The campground is part of a two-year process to get residents into stable housing and will be open Dec. 1, he said. The startup cost for supplies and resources is $125,000 and the funding is coming from the city and county. An additional $66,000 will cover the fence and security for three months.

For those who choose to go elsewhere, a bus ticket will be provided for residents to reach their families, he said. The “Go Home” fund for this is $20,000, and it is funded by the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, DeCarmine said.

Confirmation of a safe place and a consenting relative will be required to receive the ticket. 

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Terry Washington, a 54-year-old Dignity Village resident, rests near his tent located in Section A of the property. Washington has lived on the campground for over four years and does not want Dignity Village to close. “You get three meals a day, take a shower, wash your clothes,” he said. “So it’s alright in there.” 

According to a survey of Dignity Village residents conducted by GRACE Marketplace, about 72 percent have someplace else to go, DeCarmine said.

About 65 percent said they would be willing to move onto the GRACE Marketplace campus and about 10 percent said neither of those options work for them. 

The city spends $82,000 a year to help operate Dignity Village, Arreola said. 

“Our approval of the transition plan was integral for it to happen,” Arreola said. “At the end of the day it’s a matter of safety, and the situation at Dignity Village has generally become unsafe.”

Ten minutes away from GRACE Marketplace and Dignity Village, downtown Gainesville also remains an area with a noticeable homeless population.

Managers from Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Co., Pop-A-Top and The Gelato Co. and Eatery said they have not noticed a recent increase in the homeless presence around their businesses, but that certain residents have always been there. 

On the other hand, the owner of Big Lou’s NY Style Pizzeria and the manager of V Pizza both said they’ve noticed an increase in the past couple of weeks. 

V Pizza manager, Jon Raspperry, 30, said he’s had to call the police twice due to homeless people screaming, being rude to employees and customers and refusing to leave the restaurant patio. 

“I think less families are going to want to come downtown because they don’t want their kids to be exposed to certain things like that,” Raspperry said.

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Washington sits near his tent in front of the Dignity Village property. He plans to stay with his daughter in Gainesville when the shelter closes. Washington said that his stay in Dignity Village has been better than some. “In this section, I ain’t ever seen no problem,” he said.

 

Terry Washington, a 54-year-old Dignity Village resident, said he thinks the camp shouldn’t be closed because he receives three meals a day, has a place to shower and do laundry on the GRACE Marketplace campus. 

“I’ve been here over four years, I ain’t never had nothing really bad happen to me,” Washington said.  

Smith said she’s not sure where she’s going to go when it closes but hopes to stay in Gainesville. She does not plan to move on to the GRACE Marketplace campus. 

“I feel like there’s somebody else that needs it more than me,” Smith said.