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Jon DeCarmine: Downtown Homelessness Requires the Right Services

Updated: May 23, 2022

Our Executive Director, Jon DeCarmine, responded to an article released by The Gainesville Sun last week.

"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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