Officials see success in former homeless woman


Published: Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 1:18 a.m.

As she walked out of jail, Janel Minish would panhandle the police walking in, buy a six-pack of beer, consume it on a park bench, and get arrested for having an open container.

Panhandle, consume, arrest, repeat.

In 2005, Minish was arrested seven times under similar circumstances.

In fact, for five years, she lived in the alleys, porches and woods of Gainesville.

As the city of Gainesville seeks a location for the GRACE Marketplace One-Stop Homeless Center, various homeless advocates are pointing to stories like Minish's to justify the budgeted $413,000 to operate the one-stop center in 2009 and $268,000 for facility construction.

"Right now we let the people go to the emergency room, go to the shelters, jail, then back on the streets," said John Skelly, Alachua County Poverty Reduction Program director. "They go through this endless cycle of expenditures, maintaining the horrible status quo, where the cheaper method is the more effective method."

Now two years sober, Janel chain-smokes while sitting on her own couch, in her own apartment.

She confesses that she has no idea what drove her to sobriety after more than nine years of drunken addiction and homelessness.

For Janel, her sobriety and the fact that she is no longer homeless is, all by itself, a personal triumph. According to Jon DeCarmine, director of the City of Gainesville Office on Homelessness, it's also a societal victory although Janel still relies on food stamps and has her rent paid by the local housing authority.

Still, it is a financial success for the residents of Alachua County, DeCarmine said, and one that illustrates the importance of a homeless center that provides stabilization such as drug rehabilitation, job training and housing.

In reality, a small number of habitually homeless account for the majority of arrests and expenditures from the Gainesville Police Department.

The Gainesville Police Department calls repeat offenders "frequent fliers." Every year the arrests are for basic crimes like open-container violations, tresspassing, panhandling and urinating in public.

In 2007, 10 "frequent fliers" accounted for 17 percent of the 445 arrests of people who either identified themselves as homeless or gave the address of a local shelter.

It was the same percentage in 2006 when 635 arrests were made involving homeless individuals.

In 2005, 10 people accounted for 24 percent of the 458 homeless arrests that year.

Janel was among that list of "frequent fliers" in 2005 with seven arrests.

She said the most important element in her success story was being able to walk out of rehab and into an apartment two years ago.

She had been through detoxification programs before, only to find herself back on the street, in the cold with her former drinking buddies.

"It was just a way of life," Janel said. "I didn't think that I was worthy of having anything better. I thought I had burned all my bridges."

There was one bridge she hadn't burned and that was with Gail Monahan, executive director of Alachua County Housing Authority, who was waiting with a housing voucher in hand when Janel left rehabilitation in early 2006.

Today the state is paying $500 a month in Section 8 vouchers for Janel and her husband to live in an apartment. They also receive $200 a month in food stamps.

Monahan concedes that Janel's circumstance is tenuous. Janel worked at McDonald's up until a few months ago but says she was laid off. Her husband, who is disabled, doesn't work either.

"The people that we've put in housing we've pretty much been able to keep them in housing," Monahan said. "Are they living their lives the way I want them to? No. You have to accept them for who they are and what they are trying to do."

DeCarmine said he conservatively estimates that the residents of Alachua County paid $1,000 per arrest considering the arresting officer's time, the gas to get Janel to jail, the court services at first appearance and ultimately processing her release.

Gainesville Police Department Cpl. Sheldon McKinzie patrols the downtown Mike Zone during the day a square area from S. 4th Avenue to N. 8th Avenue and W. 6th Street to E. 7th Street.

"I get 15 calls per day, and I would say half of them have to deal with some part of homelessness, whether it be someone panhandling outside a store or a problem at St. Francis House or a fight at Lynch Park," McKinzie said. "If there's an answer, I don't know what it is. The open-container violation you ignore now later on becomes assault."

Aside from officer time, housing in the Alachua County jail costs $67.39 per day, according to the Sheriff's Office's most recent estimates.

"We are, in effect, a detox program by default," said Lt. Steve Maynard with Alachua County Sheriff's Office. "We have an obligation to the person to protect them (from) themselves until they properly detox. We certainly provide that level of care that I'm not sure any other housing option could provide. The burden on the jail is tremendous."

Both DeCarmine and Skelly emphasize that while cases involving alcohol like Janel's might be the popularly conceived image of homelessness, it's not the only one.

"I guess the frame that everyone sees the homeless in is through their frame of reference," Skelly said. "It is limited to what the general public sees as the stereotype in motion when you go through the plaza downtown. It is really a false representation of who the homeless are. A vast majority of homeless people don't fit the stereotype."

The rest are women, children and families who have fallen on hard times and need help.

Skelly said those people are not seen on the Downtown Plaza and have filled the local homeless shelters.

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