City of Gainesville officials have a vision for South Main Street – or SoMa as some call it.
Land has been cleared for a new hotel at Southeast Second Place. Depot Park and the Cade Museum are destinations. A former warehouse has become a space for art and music. New restaurants are opening. An arts center is planned.
Only one unsolvable problem stands in the way of a leisurely stroll through South Main – the gathering of homeless people and vagrants along the street.
Too bad, Gainesville has not solved homelessness. The South Main area near the St. Francis House Hut has long been a magnet for good reason – meals and other services are provided here.
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Now the fire station that was liberated when the new one was built on the next block has turned into a tent city. It’s across the street from Lynch Park, a long-standing hangout.
No action was taken to evacuate people from the fire station.
The city provided porta-pots behind it at a cost of $ 735 per month, but they will be phased out because “the city’s well-meaning efforts have failed because the portable toilets were not used as intended,” the city said. city spokesperson Rossana Passaniti. .
Something may have to be done because the fire station is being considered for a new arts center that the city hopes to attract more people to the surrounding area.
“We absolutely want (South Main) to be a destination, but we’re not going to kick people off their property. We have to be strategic, which is proven, ”said City Manager Lee Feldman. “We will respect their rights – the right to have a peaceful place. People have to live somewhere.
The city hopes that accommodations will be found for people who gravitate around the area.
Feldman referred to the recent count homelessness, which shows a decrease from last year, as proof that the focus on housing for people is working.
Yet some just like to live on the streets.
If the fire station encampment had a leader, it would be James Scott, better known as Tygur.
Scott said he first arrived in Gainesville from Georgia with his family in 1999. He saw homeless people and tried to help them. He has lived virtually without permanent accommodation since, including more recently at the fire station.
His tent is plush compared to others, with a synthetic grass walkway, a fireplace, and electricity to power fans and other devices.
“At one point I was walking the area and there was trash all over the place, so I went out and got it all organized and put everyone on the right path,” Scott said of the fire station. “I try to teach everyone how to love each other and the importance of community, everyone supporting each other.”
Chris Fillie has lived in the Porters District on the west side of South Main Street since 2004 and in 2005 purchased the block of buildings next to the Fire Hall which now houses the Civic Media Center, SoMa Art Media Hub and Tamal – a tamale restaurant.
Fillie has a cinematic take on the neighborhood through the decades in which the homeless were part of an ecosystem that included – and still does to a lesser extent – pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers, young runaways. , country boys who slipped into vans on weekends to buy drugs and sex, and other characters.
“It was a black market mall … I would make friends with the people who ran it and explain to them that I had a business – they were business people – and that’s the way it is.” that we work together, ”Fillie said. “I kind of see these (homeless) people as victims – they don’t have a good life. They love this neighborhood because the people doing the bad activities are preventing anything really bad from happening.
Gainesville and Alachua County have tried to tackle the problem of homelessness. In 2005, the city and county signed an ambitious effort from then-county commissioner Rodney Long, the “10-year plan to end homelessness.” It has been successful, to a point.
Grace Marketplace and a new tent city
Grace Marketplace was created as a one-stop-shop where homeless people can be linked with social services to find housing, employment, vocational training and health care. Showers, courier service, computers and meals are available.
Grace still has limited accommodation space for people wanting to abide by rules that don’t include alcohol or illegal drugs, but the main mission has shifted to to find accommodation for the people.
Shortly after the opening of Grace, a long-standing tent town in the woods of southeast Gainesville near the town bus depot was cleared when the landowner began asking the town enforce a trespassing order.
Thus, a new tent city – Dignity Village – has arisen outside the fence of Grace Marketplace. The police were often called to fight and disturbance. Drugs and alcohol were problems. People refused to leave for their own safety as a hurricane approached.
Dignity Village was wiped out last year. Some have moved into a temporary campground within Grace. Others have found accommodation or have moved.
Still, homelessness persists and it is the most visible downtown area, especially South Main Street.
Anikka Barnett recently arrived in Gainesville for a detour en route to Nashville after spending three years on the streets of Tampa. She landed downtown, drawn to St. Francis House.
Barnett, sitting in Scott’s lobby, said she liked what she saw and felt about Gainesville, so she was planning to stay – at least for a while.
“Everyone has been very kind, very generous. I like it here, ”Barnett said. “I would like to move into the apartment, but I’ve been on the streets for three years now. I’m acclimated to it, I like it. I like to be here and get along with people.
Objective: “End voluntary homelessness”
Claudia Tuck, director of community support services for Alachua County, said the realistic goal is to make “homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring”.
Alachua County had helped run Grace Marketplace, but phased it out over three years to instead spend that money and more on housing and services rather than housing.
County Commissioners bought the old Budget Inn on Southwest 13th Street, just south of Williston Road. It is currently being upgraded and renovated.
This will be permanent accommodation for those selected. Future residents will be prioritized, mainly based on their health vulnerability.
“I don’t think anyone expects you to be able to completely end homelessness. The goal is to end involuntary homelessness, ”Tuck said. “People who don’t have resources tend to be drawn to places where there are resources. I think it’s regardless of whether Saint-François is there or not. There are companies and people who will donate money. “
Outreach teams have been formed by the North Central Florida Alliance for the Homeless and Hungry to reach out to homeless people in South Main and other places.
The teams’ goal is to develop relationships with homeless people to encourage them to accept housing, Tuck said. If they want housing, they will be put on a prioritized list by need.
It will always leave people who do not want to be housed on the streets. Fillie’s sympathy for them is real, but so are the problems they cause.
At the back of its buildings is a section of protective fence that rots deep in urine, which can be smelled while walking. Behind the fence is a courtyard, the gate to which has a do-it-yourself alert system to prevent intrusion that triggers a sound when the gate is opened.
A knife fight left Tamal’s entrance bloodied. Another fight shattered the windows of SoMa Art Media Hub.
“They’ve been described as a tribe, and they’re a family and a community, but there’s also a really dark side because that’s where people are drawn deeper into drugs and prostitution,” said Fillie. “It’s a really complicated question. How do you cultivate a healthy downtown when you have mentally ill, drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, runaways in the middle of your shopping corridor? “