Poverty is a forgotten issue

Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 3:37 p.m.

A week earlier, Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn had taken me on a tour through the same area.

He was showing me that construction had started on a new $34 million Regional Transit System maintenance facility and administrative building. Funded by federal grants, the facility is being built south of the current RTS headquarters and the site being cleaned up and turned into Depot Park.

I returned to the area Thursday with the Home Van, the mobile soup kitchen and assistance center run by Arupa Freeman. As she handed out socks to the homeless folks living in the nearby encampment known as Tent City, I told her about the new bus facility being built nearby.

"I don't understand the financial priorities," she said.

Freeman first contacted me in response to an editorial about the benefits of high-tech companies coming to Gainesville. I had written that such companies have a multiplier effect by leading to the creation of businesses such as restaurants.

She told me that flipping burgers are the restaurant jobs available to the poor, and some people in Tent City already have those jobs but can't afford rent. Her bigger point was the City Commission spends money like drunken sailors on things like trolley studies while neglecting the poor and homeless.

The point is somewhat unfair — a lot of time and energy has been spent in recent years on plans for a one-stop homeless center — but she's right about the idea that the plight of the poor doesn't seem like a pressing item on the agenda of most elected officials.

I'm guilty of giving more attention to issues like public transit and parks than poverty, so I tagged along with the Home Van for an afternoon. Freeman has been operating the van for 11 years, providing the homeless with food, clothes, medicine and other items. I handed out candles at the group's three stops.

Freeman said she's seen the homeless numbers increase and more people in desperate circumstances during the time that she's run the service.

She's a saint for her work, but even she gets tired. She used to operate the van twice a week but cut back to once. She took a couple weeks off recently. She doesn't expect anyone would take over if she retired.

It just seems like there's a lot of social Darwinism out there these days, she said, and little compassion for the poor.

"I don't know what the future is for poor people," she said. "Things don't look good."

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