Grace Marketplace One Stop Center, which is set to open June 1, wants to be Gainesville’s only food provider for the homeless.
Theresa Lowe, the executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, said she is concerned that if people continue to serve food at Bo Diddley Community Plaza, attendance will be low at the center.
She said she has asked other downtown centers, including the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and Downtown Ministries at the Alachua County Housing Authority, to stop serving food and encourage people to go to the center.
“The different organizations are addressing an immediate need: hunger. But we want to do more than that,” Lowe said. “We also want [people seeking help] to interact with our staff and become aware of the other services that are available.”
The center will start off providing two meals per day. It will also provide storage, telephones, showers and offer help on resumes. Lowe does not expect the center to provide overnight shelter until July 1.
Both the city and county have provided money to the center but are still applying for more grants. The coalition received a grant from the Department of Children and Families for $71,000 and one from Department of Housing and Urban Development for $89,000.
The center, which is located at the former Gainesville Correctional Institution on 39th Avenue and Waldo Road, may be too far for most homeless people to travel on a daily basis.
Local centers that offer food think downtown will continue to be a popular hub for the homeless.
The Rev. Louanne Loch of Holy Trinity said she thinks downtown will still be busy even with the new center opening. Loch said the center is a great idea and concept, but the ministry’s emphasis is on serving people downtown.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Preston Lewis, a corps officer for the Gainesville Salvation Army, said that his operation would like to move its resources to the center. However, he said about 30 to 40 percent of its visitors are walk-ins from the community and are not homeless.
“Our goal is to help the community in the best way possible,” Lewis said. “We don’t want to neglect the folks who live in this community, yet we also want to help the homeless who move to the one-stop shelter.”
Edith Lee, the leader of Downtown Ministries, said she wants to be prepared to serve even with the center opening. The organization serves breakfast at Bo Diddley Plaza on Saturdays.
She said it makes sense to pull the homeless away from the downtown business scene, but she is concerned people will go hungry.
In addition, Linda McGurn, the director of McGurn Management Company, said many people avoid the downtown area because it has a reputation of being unsafe. As a real estate broker, she has been working to revamp downtown for the past 30 years.
McGurn said people have told her that instead of going downtown, they go to Haile Plantation and the town of Tioga for shopping and dining because of the presence of the homeless population.
David Ridgell, a homeless Gainesville man, said he does not think the response will be as positive as the center hopes for, as it is about an hour walk from Bo Diddley Community Plaza.
“I wasn’t even planning on going all the way out there,” Ridgell said.
Daniel Walters, another Gainesville homeless man, agreed the distance will discourage people from making the journey on foot.
“It’s too far away from anything,” Walters said. “It’s too far for people to go out there just to eat.”
To address this issue, Lowe said the coalition is working with RTS and the city to acquire 2,000 bus passes for transportation and plans to distribute the passes before June 1.
Chip Skinner, the RTS spokesman, said the passes will be valid from May 1, 2014 to May 18, 2015. The shelter was originally supposed to open on May 1, which is why the passes are marked for this date.
He said the $15,000 worth of funds for the passes came from the general city budget and were transferred to RTS. He said the homeless coalition will put the pictures of the individuals on the passes, so they cannot sell the passes or lend them to friends.
To encourage attendance at the shelter, Lowe has been advertising through the Gainesville Police Department and the Home Van, a mobile soup kitchen.
“Don’t expect day one to resemble what it will look like in month six,” Lowe said. “This is an ever-evolving project.”