Homeless to be evicted from Tent City
Published: Monday, July 7, 2014 at 12:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.
After property owners' complaints of criminal and drug activity, police say the remaining handful of residents of Gainesville's so-called Tent City will be evicted Tuesday before midnight.
Those living in the longtime homeless camp in the woods south of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail near Southeast Fourth Street have until 11:59 p.m. to move out, Lt. Brian Helmerson of the Gainesville Police Department said on Monday.
GPD will give people who refuse to leave Tent City a verbal warning first, but they can be arrested if they continue to refuse to leave, he said.
Helmerson said the property owners want the homeless people removed because of reports of criminal activity in the area. One of the owners, Larry Calton, also owns a dental laboratory near Tent City and told police he fears for his employees' safety.
The owners have been talking to law enforcement officials about evicting the community for months, Helmerson said, but were waiting until the opening of Gainesville's homeless center, also known as the GRACE Marketplace, at the former Gainesville Correctional Institution off of Northeast 39th Avenue.
The homeless center had been expected to fully open its shelter on July 1, but the City Commission last month voted to delay that opening by up to 90 days. After that delay, the owners decided to evict the residents, Helmerson said.
For months, GPD has been warning residents that the eviction date was coming and distributing fliers about the GRACE Marketplace and other homeless services. Helmerson said officers have documented everyone they have spoken with to know who has been given a warning.
“We don't expect too many people to [refuse to go] because we've been working with them,” he said. “We've been giving them a heads-up for a long time. Some have waited until the last minute, but the camp has diminished quite a bit since we started the warnings.”
After today, the owners have told GPD they will post “no trespassing” signs, which officers will be able to enforce.
Community volunteers, including members of Occupy Gainesville, the HOME Van and the Good Neighbor Society, have spent the past few weeks moving homeless people and their possessions from Tent City. Many of the former residents have gone to stay in the woods bordering GRACE Marketplace, while others have moved to areas near Sweetwater Branch and Williston Road.
Annette Gilley, with Occupy Gainesville, said Monday that over the span of six weeks, the number of people staying in Tent City has dwindled from about 70 to fewer than a dozen. Gilley said people started to move to be near the homeless center once initial services such as running water, restrooms and two meals a day became available.
“That was enough to encourage people to move out,” she said.
Arupa Freeman, with the HOME Van, said volunteers are trying to get new tents for those leaving Tent City. Their old, weather-beaten tents often cannot be moved without falling apart.
In an email, Freeman said with GRACE Marketplace now offering some services, the people leaving Tent City at least have someplace to go.
“All in all, I think this is going substantially better than previous evictions where people were being kicked out into nowhere,” Freeman said.
Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry Executive Director Theresa Lowe said additional tents have been sprouting up around the center on a daily basis. Lowe said people also are sleeping under the roof at the center's outdoor pavilion, and mealtime crowds have sometimes reached 75.
“Our community is rapidly growing,” she said.
In woods near Southeast Fourth Street on Monday afternoon, empty tents and piles of trash dotted the abandoned campsites. Signs taped to trees announce the July 8 deadline in bright orange letters.
Calton said the homeless camping area started years ago with one person. Over time it grew to 20 or 30 and Calton said he had no problem with homeless veterans or people who have fallen on hard times staying on his land.
But when the population of Tent City grew to around 150, there would be problems with violence, drugs, prostitution and other crime, he said. That happened several years ago, and police eventually evicted those staying at the site.
Calton said it happened again after construction work on the Gainesville Regional Transit System maintenance and administration building closed an adjacent campsite and pushed people staying there over to Tent City.
Calton said issues with crime and drugs grew and spilled over into his company's parking lot. He expressed his concerns to city officials and they asked him to wait until GRACE Marketplace was opened.
He waited and granted extensions from his May 1 eviction deadline when the center's opening was delayed. Now, with the center up and running but its overnight shelter still months away from opening, Calton said he can wait no longer.
“My staff is scared,” he said. “It's just too risky. I can't wait any longer for the city.”
At the all-but abandoned campsite Monday, Vincent “Uncle Vinnie” Charo was busy piling garbage so it will be more easy to remove later.
“We can't leave this for the man,” Charo said of Calton, whom he has never met. “He let people live here all that time and he has the right to have his property put back.”
Shirtless in sweat shorts and an American Flag bandana tucked under a baseball cap, Charo dug through the piles that have been left over looking for any tent parts that can be reused at the dozens of campsites that have sprouted up in the woods bordering the GRACE Marketplace.
Along the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, he's lined up several shopping carts that were stolen from area supermarkets. He said he's called the stores and told them to come pick up their property.
Charo, who lives in the woods outside GRACE Marketplace, said he's been encouraging people from Tent City to go to the center, where there are meals, services and bathrooms.
On Monday, the perimeter outside GRACE Marketplace had the look of an established camping area. A gas grill stood outside one tent. Outside another, an inflatable beach ball floated on the surface of a small swimming pool decorated with brightly colored fish.
On the center's property, mattresses, chairs and tables are set up in the makeshift sleeping area under the roof of the outdoor pavilion.
Walking from the center back to the woods with a box of Moon pies, Paul, said he came here from Tent City about a week ago. The 59-year-old, who declined to give his last name, lives in a tent set up in the shade of oak trees in a quiet corner behind the center.
“To me, that was sin city,” he said. “This is a place I'd be proud to bring my family. It's quiet. It's peaceful. We're helped. All the other tent cities I've been to, we're on our own.”
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