A city beneath the radar

Eeyore, right, said he thought he had gotten back on his feet, but now must reside in Tent City, along with his friends Chet Albert, center, and Robert Parkman, where a cluster of homeless people live in the woods in southeast Gainesville.

ERICA BROUGH/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 1:12 a.m.

Look around.

There's an open fire pit to the left, with the crisscrossed metal of an abandoned shopping cart serving as a grill. A weathered umbrella, colors fading, leans to the right. And jeans, blown out at the knee, stretch across low-reaching oak branches. There's no electricity, running water or sanitation, much less washers and dryers, out here.

James Whitfield says he's survived this way for 1 years. Excuse the mess, he says.

The city of Gainesville calls him homeless. But Whitfield, 48, has a home in Tent City, a homeless encampment that has been buried out of sight but not out of mind for more than a decade.

He is the face of a statistic one of more than 1,000 people who still live in Tent City in violation of city ordinances.

"We're skeletons in the closet," he said. "Nobody talks about us."

About a year ago and, incidentally, during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, the city forced relocation of the section of Tent City pitched on public property. The intent was to drive out the public health and safety issues and to shuffle the homeless into emergency shelter services.

But Tent City is back, and it's bigger than before.

Homelessness has declined by an average of 30 percent across the nation this year, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report put out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Gainesville, on the other hand, has registered a nearly 50 percent rise, according to the 2008 Point-in-Time Census and Survey conducted by the Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness. The survey found the number of homeless in Gainesville jumped 43 percent from 2007 to 2008.

In fact, the number of men discovered on the street or in the woods nearly tripled, from 124 to 348, according to the census. Four months after the forced relocation from Tent City last September, 1,365 men, women and children remained homeless in Gainesville, the survey found. Of these, 507 were children.

Arupa Freeman, coordinator of the HOME Van, which has offered meals to the homeless since 2002, said Tent City is growing rapidly. She detected a surge in the number of homeless around June.

Rather than preparing the usual 200 sandwiches a day, she said HOME Van volunteers began slapping together more than 300 to fill the gap. She credits the recent rise in homeless to high rents and low wages, complemented by escalating gas and food prices.

"It isn't snowbirds," she said. "It's pretty much local. It's people who lost their jobs and can't pay their rent anymore."

Freeman hesitantly said the eviction of Tent City in September 2007 was a guise. It neither corrected health and safety issues nor solved the housing problem. The homeless remained just that, she said.

"We have cancer patients, and we have 80-year-olds. We have such vulnerable people out there, and I'm afraid to say anything."

Looking back, those involved both affirm and question the success of the eviction of Tent City.

On Aug. 13, 2007, the City Commission decided, in a 5 to 1 vote, to relocate all homeless people squatting on the public property of Tent City as part of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

In doing so, the City Commission decided against postponing the relocation until after the Office on Homelessness evaluated alternative options.

Fast-forward to 8 a.m. Sept. 12, 2007 when the Gainesville Police trekked through a heavily wooded area intent on executing the City Commission's decision. Here uniformed officers planned to distribute official trespass notices and shelter vouchers to all they found in the area, which is roughly bound by Depot Avenue, South Main Street, Southwest 16th Avenue and Williston Road.

What they found, however, was a moldy armchair and accompanying side table.

Word spreads fast in a Tent City where walls are tarps and windows are tears in the tarps.

A week before the pending relocation, the Gainesville Police posted trespass notices to warn inhabitants. The homeless had seen the signs, and those who hadn't heard the hollers. So the few remaining in Tent City relocated themselves before being relocated.

Nonetheless, GPD Cpl. Robert Finelli, who patroled his definition of Tent City for nearly two years, deemed the relocation a success.

He estimated 95 percent of the improvised shanty town wasn't on public property. He passed by a few scattered, empty tents and a handful of wandering homeless on the fringe that Wednesday morning.

"We refer to Tent City as the area on private property," Finelli said. "There were never many tents on public property; it's hard to refer to that as Tent City."

Over the course of three days, the objective was met: the site was cleared of all things homeless.

Jon DeCarmine, executive director of the Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness, argued the relocation efforts simply shoved the homeless 50 feet in the other direction. Most weren't pointed to emergency shelters, and most weren't linked with crucial services.

"The only effect it had," he said, "was to further saturate the private land with homeless and push them into a smaller area. It didn't do all that much."

DeCarmine suggests the attempt to shut down Tent City only worsened problems, citing findings from the 2008 Point-in-Time Census and Survey. The Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness has used the same method of data collection since 2003, he said.

Homelessness among women, particularly single women with children, continues to swell, DeCarmine says, with 233 women counted in 2008, up from 187 in 2007.

Nowhere to go

Today, Tent City continues to serve people who have nowhere else to go, he said. The eviction didn't solve the their basic need for shelter.

"We're setting ourselves up for a situation that gets so big it expands beyond Tent City and can no longer be ignored," he said. "This is an issue the city has to address."

James Whitfield said most of his neighbors in Tent City didn't seek shelter upon being evicted back in September 2007.

"Right here, we belong," he explained.

By sundown on the day of the eviction, Whitfield said some of the homeless were trickling back into Tent City, while some ended up back on the street. Others trudged to the St. Francis House homeless shelter and soup kitchen to redeem vouchers.

According to executive director Kent Vann, the city budgeted about $62,000 for the efforts of local shelters to cover the increased amount of space, food and utilities used after the eviction.

But only eight more beds were filled that night.

"We were hoping to see 100 people that wanted to come in," Vann said.

Hope on horizon?

City Commissioner Jack Donovan, the lone commissioner who voted against the relocation during the City Commission meeting in August 2007, says an end to homelessness is in sight.

In 2005, the idea of a one-stop homeless service center was proposed as part of the city's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

Three years later, the idea is still an idea, but a list of 10 potential locations has been narrowed to three.

"People need a place to stay," Donovan explained. "Until we develop some facilities where they can stay indoors, they're going to be in tents somewhere in the city."

The proposed GRACE Marketplace would bring counseling, housing and shelter referrals, meals, education, job training, laundry and hygiene facilities, health and child care, lockers, and telephones. A shelter component, at first not part of the homeless center plans, now is under consideration, Donovan said.

"I'm hoping," Donovan said, "that even though the pace has been a snail's pace with all kinds of frustrations, in the next three to five years, we will see a major turnaround in helping people get back on their feet."

In the meantime, James Whitfield waits.

He may only have nine cats, four tents and a shoe rack to his name, but Whitfield has hope.

"Things are going to get better.

"I'm not always going to live like this," he said.

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