Each night in Gainesville, about 2,000 people seek shelter with friends, on sidewalks, or in parks. Sometimes, they have all of their belongings slung in a bag.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved a proposal on Tuesday in which the City of Gainesville would buy former Gainesville Correctional Institution and convert it into a new center to serve the homeless.
The city plans to use the closed jail site, located on Northeast 39th Avenue, for a One-Stop Homeless Assistance Center. The sale of the former prison comes after eight years of planning and would cost nearly $1.4 million.
Gainesville City Commissioner Randy Wells said he hopes the new facility will be a new community asset.
“We plan to transform the closed Gainesville Correction Institution into a community asset for job training, entrepreneurship and empowerment with a focus on homeless empowerment but not by any means limited to that,” he said.
The facility is intended to provide services like case management, meals, housing, life-skills training and much more.
Converting the prison
The city is looking for groups to head the conversion from correctional facility to homeless shelter, and the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry is the top contender for the job.
Executive Director Theresa Lowe said the new homeless shelter will provide services the homeless need but aren’t getting right now.
“We really don’t have much in the way of emergency shelter,” Lowe said.
St. Francis House and the Interfaith Hospitality Network are also options, but their limited bed numbers leave people sleeping on Bo Community Diddley Plaza, she said.
Storage for homeless people in Gainesville is another concern, Lowe said.
“People don’t have a place to keep their belongings, so they hang on to them and carry them around with them in big black plastic bags,” she said. “And it looks like the plastic’s just full of trash, when really it’s not trash – it’s actually everything someone owns in the world.”
The correctional facility provides enough space to meet the varied demands of the city’s homeless, Lowe said.
“We’re talking about taking one dormitory that used to house 140 people and putting in 100 people for emergency shelter, and then using the other three dormitories possibly for some different types of transitional housing with different programs,” Lowe said.
Possible programs include one for veterans and another for ex-offenders, she said.
Transportation to and from
One homeless man, David, lived in Gainesville his entire life and is disabled. He said the shelter will be too far away for people like himself to realistically use it.
“They ain’t got no way to get out there,” David said. “What are they going to do? Walk out there five miles? You know, it ain’t going to happen.”
But Lowe said plans are in place for reliable transportation to and from the shelter.
“If we could work out schedules, maybe we can take people to their doctor’s appointments or out to Shands and stuff like that,” Lowe said. “The bus will probably be busy all day long.”
The Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry will know Dec. 5 whether it will be the organization to spearhead the creation of the homeless shelter. Lowe said if the City Commission approves the coalition’s plan, the emergency shelter should be up and running by the beginning of the year.
The property has been vacant since the Department of Corrections closed the prison in March 2012. The center will use about 35 out of the 133.21 acres of land.
Morningside Nature Center
In addition, 98 acres will be used to expand the Morningside Nature Center. Linda Demetropoulos, nature operations manager for the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said the purchased land will be used to create more nature trails.
While most people come to take advantage of walking, jogging, or even bird watching on the nature trails, she said this expansion could mean more activities for the nature center.