Downtown skid row


Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2006 at 11:05 p.m.
When it comes to the growing downtown homeless problem, taxpayers deserve better service from City Hall.
Solutions cause problems just as surely as night follows day.
City and county officials solved a problem when they arranged with Holy Trinity Church to provide emergency shelter for the homeless during the coldest nights of winter.
But that solution created another problem: The downtown plaza has become a day camp for street people.
They congregate there by the dozens. Homeless support groups set up feeding lines to serve them. The plaza is strewn with garbage and shopping carts, and its public restroom has been overwhelmed. There has been a rash of wallet thefts in downtown businesses, and even at City Hall.
Homeless people spend their days sleeping on public benches. City and county employees have come to fear for their personal safety. Restaurant owners say their patrons are being harassed while dining outdoors.
What's happened downtown is the realization of the worst fears of business people and residents who have for years argued that it is dangerous to concentrate too many homeless services in one small area. The addition of emergency winter shelter seems to be the "tipping point" that now threatens to turn downtown into a skid row.
Moreover, there are indications that the homeless who congregate downtown are not entirely local people who are temporarily down on their luck or unable to fend for themselves because of mental illness or alcoholism.
"Apparently it is now 'cool' to be homeless," downtown investor Ken McGurn said in a recent e-mail. "There is a group of a dozen 'homeless' very young people (late teens and early '20s) who have joined the plaza crowd. They camp out in the woods at night and 'hang' on the plaza during the day....They are not drunks, addicts or mentally challenged individuals.They are coming to the plaza because they get fed, but mostly because they do not get hassled."
Are we making it acceptable to be a vagrant?
City taxpayers have made considerable public investments to lure new businesses and upscale housing downtown. The commission is hoping that a multi-million dollar hotel will soon rise on the parking lot next to the plaza. But people involved in that project say "cleaning up" the plaza is a precondition to going ahead with the hotel.
Downtown Gainesville is too physically small to absorb that many homeless people. And simply hoping that most will "move on" when the weather warms is hardly a proactive response to what is beginning to look like a crisis situation.
Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, whose own wallet was stolen, said in an e-mail response to McGurn, "if we allow the negative effects of loitering, noise, trash, panhandling, etc., to continue to bleed outside the boundaries of the service providers into adjacent neighborhoods, businesses and government spaces, we are going to doom the likelihood of either continuing the current programs and providing much needed expansions."
Frankly, the potential expansion of homeless services, at least downtown, ought to be the least of the mayor's worries.
On Monday, commissioners instructed City Manager Russ Blackburn to "do something" about the problem. Blackburn wants to find ways to disperse services throughout the city so as to ease the strain downtown. In the meantime, it's clear that a stepped up law enforcement effort is needed to crack down on the "negative effects" that threaten to turn downtown into a skid row.
It's the Gainesville taxpayers who have made substantial investments in order to live and do business downtown who deserve better service than they're getting from City Hall.

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