New homeless center receives conditional approval


Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 11:44 p.m.

A "one-stop" center that will bring together nearly every homeless service provider in Alachua County received conditional approval Monday from Gainesville and Alachua County commissioners, who said they would commit to the program for three years if it met certain requirements.

The proposal, called Grace Marketplace, is the result of collaboration of about a dozen social service agencies in Alachua County that joined forces to respond to a bid put out by the city and county to provide a single-service center for the county's estimated 1,200 homeless residents.

No other proposals were received in response to the request.

"I think the reason you have no other applicants is because everyone is here," said Margarita Labarta, president and CEO of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, the lead agency on the project. "These are agencies that at other times are competing for your local dollars."

Both commissions voted unanimously in favor of a three-year commitment to the one-stop center if a site for it can be found and appropriate budget and performance requirements are met. Gainesville City Commissioner Rick Bryant was absent during the vote.

Officials referred to the proposal as a major opportunity for the area.

"I think we really stand on a precipice here and this could be a great leap for us," City Manager Russ Blackburn said. "This hasn't been done in this community before and there's a great opportunity to make things happen."

The one-stop center was one of the key recommendations of a group that developed a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Alachua County.

The most controversial aspect of the plan — the location for the center — has yet to be decided.

The commissions will receive a report on potential sites at future meetings, and commissioners are already gearing up for potentially heated discussions.

"We shouldn't be naive," County Commissioner Mike Byerly said. "This is where this decision has always bogged down in the past, and it's coming."

The center draws its name from "Gainesville Region/Alachua County Empowerment," the name of the 10-year plan, and would provide a combination of meals, counseling, health care and other services to the county's homeless population.

Labarta estimated the center would serve about 500 homeless residents a year.

The projected budget of the one-stop center is about $1.4 million a year, including both operating expenses and the cost of renting a facility. Of that, about $675,000 is expected to come in "in-kind" contributions from the providers who are partnered with the program. The rest would come from a combination of city and county funds, private donations and federal and state grants.

Commissioners were largely supportive of the proposal Monday, though some raised concerns about making a three-year commitment to the project. Alachua County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, who later voted for the proposal, objected to being asked to approve such a commitment without being notified about it before the meeting and without information about where the center would be located.

"It's unfair to ask us for a decision tonight before we have all the information," Pinkoson said.

But city and county officials said it was important to make a long-term commitment to the proposal to show potential landlords, funding agencies and others that the commissions would not arbitrarily drop support of the program in the near future.

"I have not seen such an impressive, collaborative proposal that was put together in such a short period of time, and I think that says a lot for the providers in this community," Assistant City Manager Lee Ann Lowery, who has been working on homeless issues, told the commissioners, "We're looking for consensus from this group that you're not looking at funding one year and then this is going away."

Jeff Adelson can be reached at 374-5095 or adelsoj@ gvillesun.com.

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