Shelter's history filled with ironies

Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 10:12 p.m.

The history of St. Francis House homeless shelter and soup kitchen is filled with subtle ironies.

Like that the architect of the current building, constructed in the early 1990s, also helped design The Sun Center and the downtown parking garage.

The irony?

Owners of redevelopment projects in downtown Gainesville are now the most ardent opponents to continuing operations at St. Francis House, located at 411 S. Main St.

There's also the irony that in 1987 when the operators of St. Francis House were looking for locations for the homeless center, downtown was the place they faced the least resistance.

Today, the response from city commissioners and the community seems to be resounding - anywhere but downtown.

In the early 1980s, what is now St. Francis House began operating as a small soup kitchen in what was known as the Violate House, just south of its current location.

"One of the reasons we bought the Violate House was because it was in the 'Central City District' - it was properly zoned for what we wanted to do," said Bob Tancig, who was executive director of the program from 1990 to 2002, but started volunteering there as far back as 1980.

"That was not the first place we went," Tancig recalls. "We had a contract on another property that didn't go through. That was before the downtown redevelopment was undertaken."

The downtown scene has changed now, with developers like Ken and Linda McGurn investing millions on projects like the Sun Center and Union Street Station - two developments that have contributed to the lively downtown environment that exists today.

Prior to these efforts, the downtown was suffering.

Ken McGurn declined an interview for this story. However, fellow downtown business owner Billy Scheele expressed his concerns.

"Particularly for our downtown to thrive, we need the city's help on this," Scheele said. "It is a fragile area, and it could go the other way if it's not taken care of. We are very lucky to have a vibrant downtown."

From the Violate House, a larger building next door became the St. Francis House. Operations likely began around 1995, according to construction documents provided by architect Fred Vyverberg.

"We actually pretty well met resistance anytime we sort of got to talking seriously about a parcel," Vyverberg said of his efforts to find a location for the shelter in 1990. "We looked at sites on Waldo Road and SE 4th Avenue, NW 10th Avenue and 6th Street. We trooped around to a lot of locations and never found very many happy neighbors looking forward to having us."

Vyverberg likens it to the city's current effort to find a location for the one-stop homeless assistance center.

The city located a place on N. Main Terrace, paid four months' rent there, and then agreed to find another location after opposition from area residents.

Now the city is trying to buy a piece of land in unincorporated Alachua County.

"It just seemed like the downtown place was the only place that it was going to work," Vyverberg said. "It was much like the current effort, and the results weren't a whole lot different."

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