Cultures collide

Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:02 p.m.

The executive director of St. Francis House homeless shelter is worried.

The shelter's five-year, city-granted permit to feed and shelter destitute people expires in this year.

Downtown business owners are vocally opposed to the city extending the permit as the business district looks to strengthen itself.

"I hope they won't renew the permit," said Charles Reyner, developer of the unfinished Hampton Inn downtown. "Ultimately, I'd like to see that in a different area, outside of downtown."

Homeless advocates warn the closing of St. Francis House would be "catastrophic."

"They house 30 to 40 people a night, most of them women and children," said Arupa Freeman, who spends much of her time assisting Gainesville's homeless population. "I would suggest that the people who are against the number of people [St. Francis House] feeds, to stand down there and turn away the 126th person who may be a 5-year-old child or a 76-year-old man on crutches."

Freeman was referring to stipulations in the permit that limit the number of meals served in a 24-hour period to 124 people and the number of beds utilized at 35.

The Gainesville City Commission will be caught in the middle of the debate early this year when the permit comes before it.

Commissioners have made the revitalization of downtown a priority, pouring money into the area through Community Redevelopment Area tax incentives.

They also have dedicated money and time toward a proposed one-stop homeless assistance center that would be located outside downtown Gainesville.

Kent Vann, executive director of the St. Francis House, says his shelter is not the direct cause of the high number of homeless individuals in the downtown area.

"Last time we had to do this, we had some people blaming the trash, the beer, the prostitution and all that stuff on us," Vann said. "Which isn't fair. They would be there regardless. The homeless are always downtown. That's where they go. They congregate downtown because they like to see people simply because they are people."

Vann held a community meeting Tuesday night inviting area residents to express concerns about the permit and the current operations. Six people attended the meeting.

Philip and Nannett Arana from Miami attended the meeting because they own two properties on SE 4th Place in the same block as St. Francis House.

The couple, ages 73 and 69 respectively, said they love the downtown area and purchased one of the properties to retire to and the other as a redevelopment opportunity.

"We've had one heck of a time renting this property down here, and a lot of it is because of the location and the people out here," Nannett Arana said during the meeting.

However, she emphasized that St. Francis House and Vann are doing good work and that she would hate to see the shelter closed.

"They need help from the city and the police," said Nannett Arana, who after the meeting noticed a man sleeping on SE 4th Place and called the police for help.

Nannett Arana said she later saw a police car drive by but added that the man was still there in the morning.

Vann echoed Nannett Arana's frustration with loitering. However, Vann emphasized that once the homeless leave his property, it is up to the police to enforce no-loitering laws.

Philip Arana said that if in the next six months the situation doesn't improve, they will be looking for another community to retire to.

For Billy Scheele, who owns a number of downtown properties including Harry's Seafood Bar and Grill, Mark's US Prime and Lillian's Music Store, said his concern with St. Francis House is the volume of people being served at one location.

Vann admits he is exceeding his permit for lunch but emphasizes that in these hard economic times the demand has increased due to the economic downturn.

He estimates that he serves 230 people a day - more than 100 over his permit.

The city ordinance regulating residences for destitute people and food distribution for the needy is rarely enforced.

It includes other regularly violated laws like a no-feed zone surrounding the University of Florida.

Several churches across from the university provide food for the needy.

Service centers must be 2,000 feet apart, and no more than two service providers can be within a two-mile radius.

These laws were the source of tedious city committee meetings and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The department notified the city last year that requiring religious institutions in residential neighborhoods to apply for special-use permits was a violation of a federal law called the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000."

Commissioners voted to come into compliance with the law by making the restrictions apply to any place of assembly rather than solely religious gatherings.

Freeman said the laws are absurd, especially in the current economic environment.

"Hard times are going into the middle class, as well," she said. "It's like outlawing medicine during an epidemic."

However, city commissioners have big plans for the downtown area.

Lynch Park - across the street from St. Francis House - is used mostly by the homeless population during the day and is a frequent location of drug arrests.

The Community Redevelopment Agency will be spending $85,000 this year to create a dog park at the now-vacant lot.

And the agency has been evaluating ways to make the Bo Diddley Community Plaza more appealing to the general public. The plaza is directly across from the six-story Hampton Inn and is a frequent hangout for homeless.

"My concern would be .●.●. guests not feeling comfortable or secure as they walk down the sidewalk whether it be in the daytime or the night time," said Reyner from the hotel. "Outsiders are not always accustomed to that exposure. For a hotel operation, if a customer has a bad experience like that, they won't come back a second time. There are too many easy choices to make elsewhere."

The permit extending decision likely will come before the city plan board in February.

Vann hopes things work out in his favor and is optimistic that the community supporting St. Francis House - with donations covering two-thirds of the operating expenses - also will come out in support of the shelter's existence.

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