The homeless cap

Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 10:59 p.m.
Where and how to feed the homeless is a dilemma the city commission has been grappling with _ or perhaps more accurately, refusing to grapple with _ for years.
There are only two permanent facilities that offer meals to the homeless every day. The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army are both located downtown. The argument has been made repeatedly over the years _ and it's a legitimate one _ that concentrating homeless services in that one area unfairly hampers downtown revitalization efforts. But over the years, virtually nothing has been done to encourage or facilitate the location of permanent homeless centers elsewhere; commissioners would rather not deal with the inevitable opposition from neighborhoods and businesses.
And so, except for the good work of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, whose members periodically serve meals at churches around the city, downtown remains the chief service area for the city's homeless and hungry. That's not an ideal situation, but it is the reality.
The city imposes a meal serving limit of 75 people a day on the St. Francis House (the Salvation Army is under no such restriction). But it's widely acknowledged that the St. Francis often serves more than its limit, and city enforcers have no desire to raid a homeless shelter in order to crack down on feeding the hungry. As St. Francis Executive Director Jim Boggs puts it: "How do you cut off and not serve the 76th person?"
Rather than continue to turn a blind eye, the city commission is considering raising the limit on meals served to 130 a day, and the cap on residents at the house from 30 to 35. Some commissioners worry that raising the cap will "inundate" downtown with homeless persons and further hinder economic development in the area. And that's a legitimate concern.
On the other hand, it looks as though the commission will never make the politically risky decisions necessary to allow the siting of homeless facilities elsewhere in the city. And simply ignoring it when the St. Francis House violates the current limit seems to make a mockery of the city's enforcement powers. Raising the limit may be an unsatisfactory solution, but it may also be the most practical one.
We will say it once more. It is unfair that downtown Gainesville has to shoulder most of the burden for serving the homeless. But until the city commission musters the courage to do something about that injustice, it shouldn't put well-meaning social service providers in the position of having to choose between ignoring the law or ignoring the fact that hungry people need to be fed.

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