City, county commissioners begin talks of framework for homeless center oversight
Published: Monday, March 24, 2014 at 9:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 24, 2014 at 9:24 p.m.
With the nearly decade-old plan for a homeless shelter and assistance center set to finally become reality in May, city and county commissioners are trying to flesh out their roles in oversight and administration.
In separate, unanimous votes Monday, the two commissions moved ahead with the initial framework for a proposed agreement that would include a five-member governing board, a larger advisory board and a council of shelter residents who would provide their observations, recommendations and concerns.
To date, the city has played the significant planning and financial roles in the facility, which officials have tentatively dubbed “the empowerment center.” Gainesville has spent or committed some $2.5 million to date, including about $1.4 million to purchase the location, the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution off Northeast 39th Avenue, and some adjacent conservation land.
The county, like the city, has pledged $154,000 toward the first year of operations. But Monday's meeting signaled county government's increased involvement.
For example, the five-member board under consideration would, in its current form, include two city commissioners, two county commissioners and a member of the proposed advisory board.
Like the City Commission, the County Commission wants its staff to bring a recommendation on what roles its employees and departments will play. County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson had initially gone into more specifics saying the city, as the property owner, should be in charge of issues such as repair and utilities while county government, with its Community Support Services Department, would get involved in providing social services.
At this point in time, other commissioners did not want to get into that level of detail.
Much of what moved ahead Monday was broad and general, and nothing will be finalized until each elected body approves a joint agreement at some future meeting.
It remains to be seen what oversight role the governing board would have. There was general agreement Monday that any decision on how much money either government body pledges to the center should remain with its full commission.
As for day-to-day operations, in February, the City Commission approved a three-year contract for the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, a group of dozens of charities, to operate the center and oversee services.
After some discussion Monday that the proposed governing board could enter contracts to bring additional service providers, Theresa Lowe, the executive director of the coalition, said the charity group was already recruiting charities and agencies. Lowe asked if they should slow down on that process. The commissioners said to keep moving. Hutchinson politely instructed Lowe to “ignore us” for as long as possible.
The coalition is in the process of hiring staff.
Jon DeCarmine, the former executive director of the coalition, will manage the facility. During his time with the coalition, DeCarmine helped draft the local 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, Lowe said. That plan, itself 8 years old, had the homeless shelter and assistance center as its focal point.
On May 1, the coalition is expected begin providing initial services — breakfast and dinner meals and storage space.
Later, there would be showers and an emergency shelter for adults. An initial 50-60 bed shelter in one dorm building would be replaced by a 100-bed facility when renovation of another dorm is complete.
More long-term plans include a medical clinic, job training, counseling, and organic gardens to grow some of the food served at the facility. Lowe said some vegetables grown on site might be sold at a farmers market to raise money to put back towards operations.
Funding was one area of concern Monday. The city and county each pledged $154,000 for the first year of operations but will revisit their commitments annually.
The city put up $1 million for ongoing renovations and is trying to get an additional $300,000 from the state. The coalition pledged existing grant funds and applied for additional grants. Lowe said the group is also seeking donations and volunteers, particularly to improve the grounds.
“We need to make it look less like a prison and more like a welcoming social services campus,” Lowe said.
As for transportation, Assistant City Manager Fred Murry said staff is still trying to iron out details on either a bus pass program or some type of “free zone” where passengers going to and from the center are picked up for free.
Background checks were another area of concern and, to some extent, disagreement. County Commission Chair Lee Pinkoson, County Commissioner Susan Baird and City Commissioner Todd Chase each supported some type of background check of individuals staying at the shelter for safety reasons. Hutchinson and City Commissioner Randy Wells, on the other hand, said that screening process might prohibit someone in need of shelter or services from receiving them.
Lowe said the center and the shelter, which will be staffed 24/7 and house only adults, will not run checks for active warrants or turn anyone away because of a criminal record.
As the city's plans for the center have hit roadblocks over the years — particularly from a neighboring business owner's legal challenge and wetlands permitting issues at a prior site near Northwest 53rd Avenue — some business owners have voiced continued concern and frustration about homeless congregation on the downtown plaza and sleeping on the sidewalks bordering it at night. Monday, Baird said she would like to see the city reconsider some type of ordinance “eliminating that factor.”
The City Attorney's Office's legal guidance has been that it is illegal to prohibit sleeping on the sidewalk, as long as the path remains unobstructed for people walking, and that, absent some other crime, the city has no legal authority to ban someone from the plaza during the hours it is open to the public. Even then, the city has rescinded multiple trespass orders after the nonprofit Southern Legal Counsel got involved on behalf of the homeless individuals who faced being banned from the plaza.