Generosity toward homeless has unintended consequences

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.

Tate Clair’s nightmare for the past three months has been a mountain of black trash bags near his restaurant.


During the winter, blankets and coats can be brought to the St. Francis House at 413 S Main St. or to the Alachua County Housing Authority at 703 NE First St. The Library Partnership’s clothing closet at 1130 NE 16th Ave., the Salvation Army and Haven Hospice Attic Thrift Store also provide clothing to those in need free of charge. Thrift stores in the area that accept donations and use the money to further their missions include:
- Salvation Army Family Thrift Stores, 55 NW 23rd Ave.
- Haven Hospice Attic Thrift Store, 300 NW Eighth Ave.
- Alachua County Humane Society Thrift Store, 2029 NW Sixth St.
- Goodwill Industries of North Florida, 3520 SW 34th St. and 2624 NW 13th St.
- Habitat for Humanity ReStore, 2317 SW 13th St.
- Junior League Thrift Shop, 430 N Main St.

Lee Smith, director of operations at the St. Francis House, said during hard freezes, shelters would prefer monetary donations, sturdy clothing, blankets, canned food, hygiene products and cleaning supplies.

Clair, who owns The Lunchbox at 104 SE First Ave., said he has noticed more people coming to the Bo Diddley Plaza next to his restaurant and leave bags or boxes full of donations for the homeless people who congregate in the plaza.

Once, he said, he counted 19 bulging plastic bags.

When people donate items in a box, the homeless people look through the box and take what they need.

But donations left in black trash bags are often overlooked because the homeless use the same kind of bags for their belongings, and other homeless people don’t want to be accused of trying to steal someone else’s possessions.

Thus, the bags are left alone, and soon begin attracting rats and bugs.

“I don’t understand how they can let it look like a dump,” Clair said. “I can’t have a rat’s nest next to my restaurant. Who’s going to bring their kid here if it looks like this?”

Clair said he has called Gainesville Police, city commissioners, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Parks and Recreation Department for help.

Someone spray painted a white dot on three of the bags, which he said he believes means they are for future removal.

Clair pointed out that donated items the homeless people do not use, like pots or high-heeled shoes, lie scattered across the plaza and end up collected as trash.

Theresa Lowe, director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, said people who are thinking of bringing donations to the plaza instead should go to a place where the merchandise can be better distributed.

“While we appreciate the generosity of the people of Gainesville, it’s creating unintended consequences like a dirty plaza and unwanted vermin,” she said.

“There are outlets where people can get clothes if they need them instead of looking undignified while digging through a garbage bag on the sidewalk,” she said.

Next to The Lunchbox one day last week were 14 piled black trash bags with holes where rats had torn into them. One of the bags had a turquoise sleeping bag and several thick, flowery blankets.

Darrell Warren, 21, didn’t know the marked bags had donations. He assumed the bags belonged to others who live in the plaza, so he didn’t touch them, he said.

Warren, like others in the plaza, didn’t have police clearance to enter shelters until a few days ago. He said the random donations by strangers helps those who cannot get into places like St. Francis House, which require clearance to get in.

Five more people joined Warren as he tentatively peeked in the first bag. He took one blanket and left two for others in the plaza.

His friend Lee, 20, went straight for the next donation bag and hollered, “Sweater! There’s a sweater in here!”

Lee and his friends cheered when he pulled out a faded orange hoodie and slipped it on. He wrenched a yellow blanket from the bottom of the bag for the cold night ahead.

“People that need this stuff don’t even know it’s here,” he said.

Later, Lee walked to a man shivering on a bench. He smiled and spread the yellow blanket as wide as his arms.

In a hug, he wrapped the man in the blanket and walked away.

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