Grace Marketplace still feeling growing pains

Published: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 5:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 5:57 p.m.

On July 7, Nina McNeal stood in a nearly deserted tent and gathered up the last of her belongings, a day before being evicted from the homeless camp south of downtown where she had lived for six years.

A month later, McNeal sat Thursday reading a paperback novel in the air-conditioned welcome center at Grace Marketplace.

She had a box of M&M cookies on the table in front of her. A few feet away, a stack of sandwiches set out as an impromptu lunch - breakfast and dinner are typically the two meals served here - was rapidly shrinking as people stopped in the building to grab some cool air and food.

“I love it here,” McNeal said. “It’s so much cleaner. It’s so much better. You can come and sit in the air conditioning. You don’t have to sit in the heat all day long.”

The community homeless center is now in its fourth month of operation and the crowds in and around it continue to grow. Under the roof at the outdoor pavilion, rows of mattresses line the concrete floor. With the indoor shelter not opening until Oct. 1, about 28 people sleep in the pavilion at night, cooled by ceiling fans.

After staying at the pavilion for a few nights, McNeal now sleeps in a new, donated tent in the camping area that has sprouted up south of the center. Like the other folks in tents behind the center, she has access to Grace’s facilities and services until 9 p.m.

Located outside the fenced perimeter of the converted former state prison at 2845 NE 39th Ave., several dozens tents are set up in clusters under the shade of trees. Next to them are bicycles, canvas camping chairs arranged as sitting areas, several wheelbarrows and the occasional cooler.

In July, 275 separate individuals accessed those services, with a total of 2,079 dinners served and 1,829 breakfast meals. With the on-site kitchen likely several months away from being used, church groups, community organizations and even individual volunteers such as James “the hot dog guy” provide the meals, said Theresa Lowe, the executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, the nonprofit group that runs the center via contract with the city of Gainesville.

Showers and multiple sets of restrooms are available. Several social service agencies, including county government’s Community Services Department and Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, have a presence on site. Lowe said that through a Coalition rapid rehousing program, one family that came to the center for help has transitioned out of homelessness.

“As small as it is here, it’s still starting to work,” she said. “We’re starting to see success stories.’’

There have been some complications. Last week, homeless people living in the woods west of the center were told to move or face trespassing charges because the property belonged Tacachale, the state-owned living facility for individuals with developmental disabilities.

That has meant more tents and more people crowded in the camping area behind the center.

Standing shirtless outside his red and blue tent was Kevin Cummings, who was pushed first out of Tent City and then the Tacachale property. He said there are some problems, pockets of drug use and one man who had been trashing tents. But Cummings said most people keep the area clean and appreciate the close access to meals and services.

“It’s kind of a community,” he said. “We all watch each others’ backs.”

With the center still in its infancy, there is much left to do and a lot of uncertainty.

The indoor emergency overnight shelter for men and women is slated to open Oct. 1 in a vacant dorm building that has changed little since the property was the Gainesville Correctional Institution. That will serve as a temporary solution while renovation work continues. The work includes new bathrooms in another dorm that will eventually be the shelter.

The state gutted the kitchen area in the cafeteria building and Lowe expects it will take $100,000 to purchase and install new equipment.

Funding remains an issue. A few months back, the Coalition told both the city and county commissions that it was running a $20,000 a month shortfall. This year, the city and county both put $154,000 toward operations. For the city of Gainesville, that was on top of the money to purchase the property from the state and renovate buildings. Through July, the city’s costs for the land purchase and the ongoing renovation work eclipsed $1.6 million.

The budget City Commission has preliminarily approved for next fiscal year holds the line at $154,000 for operations. County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said the county’s discussion on funding should come in two weeks, when commissioners also discuss funding for charities through the Community Agency Partnership Program.

Hutchinson noted that, under state law, county government has the responsibility of being the social service agency of “last resort” and, in his mind, has some obligation in that role to fund the center.

Lowe said she expects that, with the shelter and kitchen coming online this year, a full year’s operational budget for the center will be in the range of $750,000. She said the Coalition should be able to cover that if the city and county maintain their funding commitments from this year.

“It’s going to take aggressive fundraising to fill the gap but yeah, if they cut us, it’s going to be a problem,’’ she said. “If they wanted to give us more money, we wouldn’t turn it away.”

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