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Jon DeCarmine: Downtown homelessness requires the right services

Our Executive Director, Jon DeCarmine, responded to an article released by The Gainesville Sun last week. Here is the full piece:

"An article published last Sunday on downtown homelessness failed to include critical information on the complexity, and solutions, to the issue. 

The closure of Dignity Village did not increase downtown homelessness. Of the 222 people who lived there, 100 are now in permanent housing and 64 left town. Another 58 are waiting to be housed, and 41 of them sleep on the GRACE campus. Overall, only 17 people moved elsewhere, most to small camps scattered around town. 

So why are we seeing more people without housing downtown? There are a couple of options, the first of which is the most obvious. Very likely, there are more homeless people downtown. There’s a pandemic, and a much more insidious economic pandemic coming, and folks who were on the margins are being forced out of whatever tenuous housing arrangements they held onto up until this point.

Second, there are fewer housed folks downtown on most days because of the pandemic. Proportionally, it’s going to appear like downtown is overrun by homeless folks. It’s not, but the lack of “other” people can make it look like the majority of people downtown are homeless. 

Homelessness always ticks up slightly as it gets colder. If you don’t have ties to the community, it doesn’t make sense to stay up north when it gets cold if you sleep outside. Likewise, it almost never makes sense to sleep outside in Gainesville in July, when we see a corresponding decrease.

More than 80% of people at GRACE lived and worked here, or in a surrounding county, before they became homeless. The idea that “no one is from here” is a weak argument designed to help people feel better about not helping people. It’s not supported by data.

There may be people who would have set up in Dignity Village in other years, but instead moved downtown since Dignity Village no longer exists. That’s not the same as a campsite closure “causing” this problem. 

Finally, there’s a major disconnect between services available downtown and what people actually need. The biggest concentration of people on South Main Street are 50 feet away from the one emergency shelter downtown, but that shelter only provides services to them for three hours a day. Beyond that, their doors are locked to anyone not in their shelter. They’re not built to provide a solution to this problem.

Homeless families with children do not generally stay in the downtown area. On the other hand, single adults do live downtown, as they do in every other urban area. Downtowns have the most accessible public spaces in a city, and when you’re locked out of every other private area, that’s where you go to meet your needs.

The solution starts with coordinated outreach to identify what people living downtown need. The core answer is simple: housing that’s affordable and meets their needs. Iain de Jong describes unsheltered people as those who reject — or have been rejected by — the shelter system. They primarily reject shelters for three reasons: people, pests and policies.

Policies at many shelters are oriented more toward social and behavioral control than they are focused on housing. When you’re in crisis, you generally aren’t acting your best. That shouldn’t prevent anyone from receiving services at a shelter any more than it prevents someone from receiving treatment for a heart attack.

Back to outreach. Right now, our community has several outreach teams, all with different priorities such as medical needs, rural needs and veterans. They are all contact-based — they measure success based on the number of people they talk to , or how many pamphlets or pairs of socks they distribute. They are not oriented toward housing.

Ultimately, street outreach must exist to facilitate access to permanent housing. That’s the only metric that tells us whether they actually work. 

If we want substantial improvements in how homelessness “looks” downtown, we need to invest in professional street outreach programs that are seen, treated, funded and trained as such. And we have to invest in these programs before we jump to investing in things like substance abuse treatment or job training.

Those programs are important, but until we can get the people who will benefit from them into safe, decent, permanent housing, none of the programs — or the people — will succeed in the way we all want to see them succeed. 

Jon DeCarmine is the executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless & Hungry, which operates GRACE."

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Jeff was recently featured in the New York Times discussing his battle with voting rights in Florida

Jeff was recently featured in the New York Times, discussing how Florida laws have affected his ability to vote after facing a felony conviction over 10 years ago. In our blog post, Jeff tells us us about his experience.

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GRACE In The News: Housing Not Handcuffs

The following article was published in the August Newsletter for Housing Not Handcuffs.

Successful Transition of Homeless Encampment to Permanent Housing in Gainesville

In Gainesville, Florida, a homeless encampment known as Dignity Village, in which experiencing homelessness resided, was approximately 350 people closed through provision of housing. Dignity Village was located near GRACE, the largest homeless services center and shelter in the city. When the city made it clear they wanted the camp closed, advocates from GRACE proposed a phased plan to the City of Gainesville so residents could obtain permanent housing. 

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Response to story by WCJB TV20 regarding positive COVID-19 cases at GRACE Marketplace

On August 5, 2020 WCJB TV20 published a story with factually inaccurate information regarding COVID-19 cases at GRACE. TV20 did not speak to anyone at GRACE before running the story. The article contained several errors.

Here are the facts:

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Q26. Why do you call the people you serve your "guests"?

This is a question from our Q&A series connected by Infotech. 

We call the people we serve guests for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it emphasizes the level of courtesy and respect we expect our team to extend to those we serve. Like elsewhere in the service industry, our guests receive a level of hospitality we are proud of, from the way they are treated to the quality of services we can offer.

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Jon DeCarmine, Harvey Rohlwing and Grant Harrell: Community partnerships at GRACE are bright spot in pandemic

Posted Jul 30, 2020 at 12:01 AM

Published by The Gainesville Sun

A community partnership between GRACE, the University of Florida Mobile Outreach Clinic, the Alachua Area Medical Reserve Corps, the Alachua County Health Department, Grace Healthcare Services Corp and the city of Gainesville has emerged as a model for how to continue providing services to the most vulnerable while preventing the spread of the virus.

As the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the U.S., homeless shelters across the country scrambled to find ways to protect their clients from the impact of the virus. Shelter guests — many of them elderly and with severe underlying medical conditions — were particularly vulnerable to the virus, and the congregate settings many lived in could facilitate rapid transmission among this vulnerable population.

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Q25. What does 'GRACE' mean?

This is a question from our Q&A series connected by Infotech. 

Today’s GRACE campus grew out of Project GRACE: The Gainesville/Alachua County 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The planning process involved more than 200 community members, including homeless and formerly homeless people, nonprofit professionals, health care providers, and housing developers.

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Q18. What are the requirements to stay in the GRACE shelter?

This is a question from our Q&A series connected by Infotech. 

As a low-barrier shelter, our only requirement for shelter guests is that they work on a housing plan, to the best of their ability, with the support of our team. We start with a basic 30-day stay, and as long as someone is making progress toward that housing plan, their stay is extended.

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Q1. What is a diversion?

This is a question from our Q&A series connected by Infotech.

A diversion is a service that attempts to get someone the help they need - safe housing - before they enter the shelter system. It’s a process to help people uncover resources and opportunities they may not know they have available to them. Using motivational interviewing techniques and a script to explore alternatives, we can learn where someone stayed previously, what it would take to keep them there, and what other options might exist.

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What is a low barrier shelter?

This is a question from our Q&A series connected by Infotech. 

Low-barrier shelters are built around the idea that programs should fit the needs of the people they serve, rather than trying to make the people served fit the needs of the program. As the only low-barrier shelter in North Florida, GRACE serves our guests regardless of whether someone has income, or is struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. 

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WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING

Lauren Poe
Mayor, Gainesville, FL
"They're doing remarkable work and changing the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people."
Dr. Bernie Machen
President Emeritus, UF
"GRACE's early success represents a truly remarkable launch of a much-needed community resource."

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