Deep in four layers of clothes, Russ Dye sat by an extinguished campfire outside homeless shelter Grace Marketplace on Monday as the temperature tiptoed just above 60 degrees. Two sweatshirts, two T-shirts, a pair of shorts and sweatpants kept Dye, 54, from freezing the night before when temperatures across Gainesville dipped below 40 degrees.
Still, Dye is one of the lucky ones. Of the more than 100 people who come to Grace Marketplace every day, Dye said about a quarter of them are not adequately prepared for the cooler months.
The shelter started seeking donations as temperatures threatened to drop last weekend facing Friday’s cold front, said Jon DeCarmine, operations director for the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry.
“I was incredibly grateful on Friday,” DeCarmine said. “We kept having people come by our office and dropping stuff off. Between all of them we had enough to get through this weekend, but we could always use more.”
DeCarmine said the shelter, located at 2845 NE 39th St., is in great need of blankets and thick jackets – the bulkier, the better. He estimated hundreds more will be needed to get through the winter.
“It becomes a very severe situation very quickly,” he said.
As of now, Grace has a cold-night program that allows people access to the shelter once temperatures drop below 45 degrees. A paper taped to the office desk Monday read, “Saturday night temps in the 30s! Be prepared!”
Helping them with their preparations was client advocate Carlos Farjs, who has handled the shelter’s donations and prepares breakfast every morning at 6:30. Farjs said he has prepared 26 beds with warm blankets in an open yet roofed pavilion and about 20 more beds inside the cold-night shelter. He has seen a 10-percent increase in breakfast attendance since the cold front, up from the usual 40 or 45 people.
“I envision it being more as we get colder weather,” Farjs said.
UF President Bernie Machen, who joined the oversight board for Grace Marketplace last month, said preparing the homeless community for the cold is crucial.
“With winter coming on, clothing and shelter becomes a top priority,” he said. “I think the community can be mobilized to help provide some additional resources there.”
Machen became the first non-local-government-affiliated member to join the board in hopes of getting more engaged in the community and adding a new perspective to the board. He and his wife, Chris, who founded the Gainesville St. Francis House’s pet care clinic, have been involved with helping the homeless community for many years, he said.
“Maybe I can be a liaison to the community to help us get more involved,” Machen said.
On Monday afternoon, Grace Marketplace continued to bustle with people walking in and out of the gates that separate it from adjacent tent city Dignity Village, where Dye and his dog, Ginger, live.
Dye sat smoking a menthol-flavored cigar with a face-down copy of children’s book Song of the Wanderer by Bruce Coville nearby. He was bundled up in a gray Aeropostale sweater, and an Occupy Gainesville pin was clipped to his camouflage cap. The Seattle-native said most people are not prepared for cold temperatures in Florida. Many came to Gainesville from northern states in the last few weeks to escape the cold.
“They’re new to it,” he said. “They’re not expecting it to be cold. This is Florida.”
At night, he sees them huddle by the fire.
Another resident, Gus Johnson, echoed Dye’s concerns. Blankets get stolen, said Johnson, 66. Traffic at the center has increased dramatically since the cold settled in. Still, the Philadelphia-native said Grace Marketplace is a luxury for those who attend.
“If I were to bring five people from up north down here they’d say, ‘Wow, this is homeless? Man, I’ll be right back I need to go get my stuff,’” Johnson said.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t have this blessing whatsoever.”