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Q&A with GRACE Marketplace Director Jon DeCarmine

Jon DeCarmine, the Director at GRACE Marketplace, on why it's his goal to end homelessness in our community:

What brought you to Grace Marketplace?

"I was a part of the team that wrote Project GRACE: The Gainesville/Alachua County 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, way back in 2005. We had been looking at all of the different ways we tried to help homeless folks ... what was working, what could be improved, and what could be dropped altogether. We had a huge opportunity to shape the way we helped, as a community, back then.

"The number one thing that came out of that plan was the need to bring all of the best services together in one location. We actually thought we’d be able to get something like this open in about six months, maybe a year. It took nine years. But with a lot of support from a lot of folks in the community, including the city and the county, we finally got a shot at trying out this really unique, innovative idea. And we had no idea that it was going to be so successful, or that we’d be able to help so many more people than we were able to reach before."

What does GRACE mean to me?

"When I look at what’s happening out at GRACE, I see an incredible opportunity to help people in my community take care of themselves. This campus looks like a blank canvas to me — for the first time, we have the space, and the foundation, to really make a difference in the way we deliver services to the people who need them most, and to do it in a way that’s smart, and respectful, and genuinely helpful and supportive."

What is an average day for you at GRACE?

"Ha! There’s no such thing as an average day at GRACE, and that’s my favorite thing about it. I mean, think about it — we provide services to more than 300 people a day, all of whom are in some kind of crisis or another, and very often more than one at a time. It can be hectic sometimes, but it’s never chaotic, and that’s one of the beautiful things about what we do here.

"The things I can count on as constants in my day are all of the best parts of being a human being — people taking care of each other, people being authentic and vulnerable and awesome, and people working tirelessly to improve their lives. There’s no place else I’d ever want to be."

What motivates you to work so hard?

"I’m just doing what I see needs to be done to make our world a little bit better than it was when I got here. There are a lot of reasons I do this work. It’s necessary. People deserve a safe place to call home. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that it’s normal for people to sleep on the street when there are thousands of empty housing units right here in our city.

"It’s more than that, though. Being able to do this work — to help people in need, to make our community a better place to live for everyone in it — it’s a privilege. The people who live here support this project in bigger ways than I ever thought possible. They’ve placed their trust in us to do this, and we have a responsibility to make sure we’re working as hard as possible, as effectively as possible, and as efficiently as possible. I’m honored to have the chance to do this work, and I’m humbled that so many people support what we do and make it possible for us to do what we do.

"And finally — and probably more important than anything else — this is serious work. I mean, we’re solving one of the most complex social issues that exist, and trying to do that on a bare-bones budget. Lives are on the line. The quicker we can get someone out of here and into a place of their own, the better off they’re going to be. And for those for whom it takes a little longer to help, we’re still able to provide a lot of what’s lacking in their lives, those things you need to thrive as a human being, safety, security, and a sense of belonging. There are so many things that are so easy to take for granted — a place to call your own, a shower when you need one, a hot cup of coffee when you want one, a place to put your stuff — that are out of reach for so many people. No one should have to live and die on the streets in Gainesville, or anywhere."

How can the community help you do even more?

"We’ve been able to pull together an amazing array of services, and an incredible team of passionate, committed advocates to turn this vision into a reality, but there’s always so much more we can do. Gainesville is full of smart, talented, creative people with endless different skill sets that could make what we do work even better.

"We’re always looking for new volunteers and new donors who want to be a part of shaping GRACE into the best program it can be. It’s really an incredible opportunity, to get involved with a program like this at the ground level, and to help shape this program into the national model it’s going to become. We need more folks involved at all levels, and to speak to their friends and neighbors and commissioners about the great work we’re doing out here. For most people, the best way to get started is to sign up to volunteer or to sign up for one of the State of GRACE tours."

How do you measure the success of the program?

"Our mission and the way we measure success are inseparable. We’re here to end homelessness, so most everything we measure is based on “How successful are we at ending homelessness for this person, or that person, or in the community as a whole?” It’s easy for organizations to show off big numbers — 200,000 meals, or 100,000 nights of shelter, or 5,000 people served. But those numbers don’t tell us anything about how good a job we’ve done actually ending homelessness for the people we serve. I can serve a million meals and still have a million people in the same position as they were before, only with a little more food in their bellies.

"That’s why we really dig into the number of people we’ve moved into permanent housing, how quickly we can get someone from homelessness into housing, and how good we are at actually keeping them in housing once they’re there. That’s what matters to us — and to people without a place to stay, not much matters more than getting out of that situation and into a place you can call home."

If you'd like to get involved to help GRACE Marketplace make a difference in the community, there are several ways to help. By donating money, volunteering your time, signing up to serve a meal, or donating items on our wish list, anything you can do goes a long way.

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