Homeless still need more help

City and county officials hope to raise awareness and funds for programs.


Published: Friday, October 1, 2010 at 8:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 at 8:34 p.m.

Five years after Gainesville and Alachua County officials unveiled their joint 10-year plan to end homelessness, officials gathered Friday to discuss progress at the halfway point.

“We've had some setbacks but we've had a lot of success,” County Commissioner Rodney Long said during a small press conference Friday afternoon.

The press conference marked the commencement of a 10-day series of events intended to raise awareness — and funds — for local programs helping the homeless.

Long said one goal is to clarify the face of homelessness, since the image of a homeless man with a scruffy beard and backpack hopping off Interstate 75 to live in a patch of woods does not fully depict the broader problem.

According to the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry count from January, the number of homeless women locally has increased 49 percent since 2003.

Overall, that count showed 1,292 homeless people in the county, down 25 percent from last year.

“You never capture the real picture,” Long said of the count.

A summary of goals accomplished since the adoption of the plan included:

The establishment of a joint Office of Homelessness.

Securing and disbursing more than $4 million in grants for homeless housing assistance, cold-night shelter programs, aid for homeless veterans and other programs.

The opening of a FloridaWorks office inside the Alachua County Housing Authority to help with job placement.

Creation of a homeless management information system that allows agencies working with the homeless to share information.

Working with local judges, prosecutors and public defenders on a warrant clearance program for some homeless people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants.

Of course, the linchpin of the plan — a one-stop center where the homeless may go for shelter, food, job placement and medical care — has not yet become a reality.

Gainesville City Commissioner Jack Donovan noted the “resistance” city officials ran into while working to locate the facility. The planned GRACE Marketplace one-stop center should open along the 800 block of Northwest 53rd Avenue by August 2011, he said. City officials have estimated that land acquisition and construction will cost in the range of $4.1 million.

Donovan said current plans call for a 60-bed shelter, 80 tent sites at an outdoor campground and the ability to serve 500 meals a day. A medical clinic is also in the plans, although the list of nonprofit agencies that will offer services at the site is not yet finalized, said Theresa Lowe, director of the Office on Homelessness.

While some have criticized the location because it is miles away from the downtown area where many homeless people congregate, Donovan said the city will use a shuttle to transport needy individuals from downtown and other areas to the center.

He said the details of that transportation plan are still being worked out, but “the commitment is solid.”

Donovan noted that some have labeled government-funded programs to aid the homeless and poor as “fluff.” On Friday, he argued it was both “economic” and “moral” to aid the homeless. Long noted that funding for medical clinics such as Helping Hands and Equal Access is intended to cut down on emergency room trips and that has an economic benefit.

Shands Healthcare estimated that uncompensated emergency room trips by the homeless cost its two area hospitals more than $3 million a year, according to the Office of Homelessness report.

The press conference was held at the County Administration Building. Outside on the downtown plaza, many homeless people sat on benches in the middle of a sunny Friday afternoon.

One man named George, who asked that his last name not be printed because he has family living locally, said there is no shortage of churches and organizations that feed the homeless. But finding shelter is more difficult, he said.

He questioned if many homeless people would be able to make it to the one-stop center. George said he'd been homeless on and off for 16 years after a divorce and serving time in prison.

He said he drinks alcohol but does not do drugs and works day labor to make money.

But he said he cannot afford even a motel room on the $38 a day he makes. Most homeless people, he said, would be able to right themselves if they were able to get a steady full-time job.

The main event of 10 days for the Ten-Year Plan will be 12th annual Breakfast on the Plaza from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza.

For more information on events, go online to http://alachuahomeless.com and click 10D10YP.

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