Lunchtime at St. Frances feeds city debate
City law restricts the number of lunches the shelter can serve daily, which St. Frances sometimes violates.
Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 11:24 p.m.
As a brisk January morning starts toward noon, a line begins to form outside of the St. Francis House homeless shelter.
Men, and a few women, dressed in light coats and sweatshirts wait their turn as those at the front of the line are let into the center's cafeteria, a handful at a time. As the line begins to shrink, newcomers fill in behind, giving the illusion of a perpetual line of people seeking a warm meal of chicken and rice.
But, at least on paper, the city of Gainesville requires the line have a definite limit - after the 75th person passes through the doors to the St. Francis cafeteria, no one else should be fed until lunch the next day.
But Gainesville homeless advocates say this limitation, imposed more than a decade ago, would require the facility to slam the door on hungry residents while food goes to waste inside. And St. Francis administrators admit that when more than 75 people show up it's the amount of food, rather than city codes, that restricts the number of people they feed.
"It's a dilemma," St. Francis House Executive Director Jim Boggs said. "How do you cut off and not serve the 76th person?"
And though they may violate the letter of the law, Boggs said he has yet to see the city try to cite the center; and commissioners and city staff say the restrictions place the city in an awkward position.
"We're going to enforce laws," City Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said. "But I don't think anybody's going to actually enforce a law when we're feeding people."
Two proposals working their way through the city committees would try to make the codes more closely match the reality at St. Francis, partly to prevent the city from having to cite a nonprofit group for feeding the hungry. One would increase the number of people that could stay at the center from 30 to 35; the second, and more controversial, would increase the number that could be fed in a single day to 130, not including residents.
Supporters of the restrictions say without them the downtown area would become a magnet for the city's destitute, who could in turn cause problems for neighboring residential areas and the city's fragile downtown revitalization efforts.
"The limits were imposed pretty much to protect the various neighborhoods," Interim City Manager Barbara Lipscomb said. "No one's trying to discourage the feeding and housing of the homeless, but I think the feeling was if you keep adding more and more and more it becomes dysfunctional for the neighborhoods."
But Boggs said St. Francis attracts a lot of the city's poor because many of them live or work near downtown Gainesville. City-imposed limits are unnecessary because other factors, such as the amount of space and resources St. Francis has, will naturally limit the number of people it can serve.
"If, in fact, we are serving all the people that are coming to us now, to increase the limit would have no effect on what we are doing," Boggs said.
Limits on St. Francis and similar centers were originally imposed in 1992, after plans to expand the facility raised concerns about the impact on downtown revitalization efforts. Some suggested that limiting the numbers served at St. Francis would encourage services to be offered elsewhere in the community, either through construction of new facilities or by partnerships between St. Francis and other organizations, like churches, to set up "satellite" feeding centers.
But while about 40 organizations offer food throughout the city at least once or twice a week, and many offer regular meals in some type of residential program, no organization has developed in Gainesville to feed nonresidential clients in large numbers outside the city center. In fact, the only other facility in the city to offer meals at least five times a week - the Salvation Army - is also downtown, though it is not subject to the limitations faced by St. Francis House because it was grandfathered in when the restrictions were put in place.
"Having sites scattered throughout the community is a good idea," said Beth O'Grady, coordinator for the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry. "But right now these are the sites that are set up to serve meals."
Commissioner Ed Braddy said without enforced limits, downtown Gainesville will become "inundated with the homeless and downtrodden." The city has taken steps to encourage economic development downtown, but Braddy said dealing with the city's homeless population is still a struggle for downtown businesses.
"We passed the panhandling ordinance and that made things noticeably better downtown," Braddy said. "But it's still a struggle for businesses to stay afloat. If we made this thing wide open, my goodness."
Braddy pointed to the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which houses and feeds several families in churches throughout Gainesville, as an ideal model to ensure that services for the destitute are not concentrated in one location. Another proposed ordinance change, which would let the network increase the number of people staying at its facilities to 20 and increase the number of meals it served per day to 40, has Braddy's support.
Others say increasing the limits not only makes downtown centers more popular, but decreases the likelihood of one being built outside the central city. At a recent meeting of the city's Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness, downtown developer Linda McGurn said limits on the number of people helped make the facilities more appealing to residential communities that might otherwise worry about the impact of a shelter.
"If you take the limits off you will never get dispersal in the community," McGurn said.
But advocates on both sides of the issue will have time to hear their concerns addressed at several city meetings before the policies go into effect. The City Commission is expected to vote Jan. 24 on whether to send a petition to the City Plan Board loosening the restriction on the number of meals served. The proposal then must receive the approval of the Plan Board and the City Commission before taking effect.
"Obviously, these are issues that will probably have some folks concerned," said Jim Hencin, the city's block grant manager. "But I think they should feel comfortable knowing that there are yet opportunities to voice their concerns."
"None of this is being done very hastily, it's a methodical process."
Jeff Adelson can be reached at (352) 374-5095 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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