Chip Conley will never forget the day he almost died in the woods.
In June 2013, what began as shortness of breath quickly became something worse for Conley. Infection spread throughout his lungs, leaving him with a 102-degree fever and struggling for air.
Conley, a resident of the Sweetwater Branch homeless community, called 911 using a neighbor’s phone. He stumbled to the front of the wooded plot while throwing up multicolored phlegm along the path, finally reaching the waiting ambulance.
The Gainesville Police Department (GPD) reported an increase in emergency calls from homeless woodland communities, alerting them to the need for faster response times from law enforcement and medical personnel to these areas. As a result, GPD created a new initiative to help people like Conley.
Patrol officers William Gough and Amanda Rodonis created the initiative, which color-coordinated segments of Sweetwater to gain better recognition of the wooded plot. The goal is to locate a suspect or person in need without confusion.
The trees are spray-painted green, orange and yellow to distinguish different segments.
Ben Tobias, GPD spokesman, said the markings were recently completed and the department is in the process of loading all the maps to dispatch.
Rodonis explained the initiative was originally meant to cover the two predominant tent communities in Gainesville: Sweetwater Branch, near the intersection of Southwest 16th Avenue and Williston Road, and Tent City, which is located behind Calton Dental Lab at 119 SE 11th Ave.
However, complications arose in the Tent City area, Rodonis said.
Larry Calton, owner of Calton Dental Lab and one-third of the property that contains Tent City, did not want the initiative developed there. He said it is a great idea for organizing the woods, but he is concerned it will make the land difficult to sell.
“When somebody comes that might have some interest in the property, and there are 180 homeless people on it in tents and trash everywhere, it just isn’t very appealing for sales,” Calton said.
The Wilkes brothers, who Calton spoke on behalf of, own the rest of the land. The total area of the land is more than five acres, and is located between the University of Florida and Paynes Prairie.
With plans to retire soon, Calton will work with GPD to remove the homeless residents from the area. Warnings will be issued to those found trespassing on the private property, and people who violate the warnings will be removed from the area or arrested.
Although Tent City may no longer be a feasible living area for the homeless, the Sweetwater Branch zoning could lead to a more permanent residency for them.
“By marking the tree areas with different colors, it will give first responders a chance to know pretty much exactly where they are,” Tobias said. “We’re kind of creating a neighborhood, so to speak, in the tent camp area.”
A few Sweetwater residents have voiced their concerns about the initiative and police involvement, but some believe it will help the community become a safer place. Resident Douglas Ashcraft views the initiative as positive.
“We’ve had guys have to go to the hospital. We’ve had people who had to be picked up for doing something wrong,” Ashcraft said. “We’ve had all kinds of stuff happen out here and for the ones having to do it – yes, it’s a good thing. I have no problem with it.”