Empowerment Center Creates New Group To Assist With Gainesville’s Homeless Issues



Gainesville and Grace Marketplace residents are lined up and led in prayer before receiving a provided dinner.
Gainesville and GRACE Marketplace residents are lined up and led in prayer before receiving a provided dinner. Photo courtesy of Gregg Undeen.

Gregg Undeen, who was formerly homeless, does not want Gainesville residents to donate only money to the Empowerment Center’s homeless shelter GRACE Marketplace. He wants residents to donate time.

Undeen, who now works with homeless residents at the shelter, is slowly being introduced to Gainesville’s new Citizens Work Group, 14 community members selected to assist with homeless-related issues.

Through the group, Gainesville residents have come together for the first time to have a direct say in the advancement of the Empowerment Center’s homeless shelter.

Work group members are expected to act as policy experts, formulating strategies and providing suggestions to help improve the shelter.

The Empowerment Center’s oversight board opened member applications to find people from various community backgrounds, ranging from business and medical to religious groups and law enforcement. They selected the members on Jan. 14.

Tom Tonkavich, community support services assistant director, said the group elected Gainesville residents Maru Opabola as the Citizens Work Group chair and Leah Vail as vice chair at their meeting on Feb. 12. They were given a presentation from the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry about GRACE Marketplace and the camping area known as Dignity Village. 

“The group has committed to three things so far,” Tonkavich said. “They will read the book “Tent City Urbanism,” about camping in public areas, by Andrew Heben; they will go through presentation materials on Jacksonville’s homeless shelter, The Sulzbacher Center; and they will send a list of their top three or four issues to me before the next meeting so we can decide what they will focus on, in addition to camping issues.”

The group will meet next at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, in the Alachua County Health Department Auditorium, at 224 SE 24th St., and will hear a presentation from law enforcement as well as identify the work group’s top priorities.

Elected chair Opabola, who is also a Florida attorney and Greenhouse Church operations director, said she drives down to the center every week to discuss the various ways the religious community can be helpful. She is currently overseeing a drive to collect clothing.

She said having various sectors of the community come together provides hope for change more effectively than when one person, one group or one philosophy addresses the problem.

“The issues that perpetuate homelessness are social, psychological, spiritual, economic,” Opabola said. “But I think, with my experience, this is a great opportunity to be a part of the solution.”

Homeless residents of GRACE Marketplace currently receive health care, social services, food and clothing. The city of Gainesville also recently signed a contract with the Florida Forest Service to expand the land behind the center so more people can set up camp, creating a safety network around the shelter. However, Alachua County Community Support Services program manager Marie Small said she still constantly receives calls regarding the outside of the center.

“Five to 10 years from now, I would want people to be able to go there knowing they have a safe place, be there for a time limit, get employment skills and be able to stay there for a short period of time so they can go back out and participate in life,” Small said.

Undeen, who went through this process and now helps run the shelter as a client advocate, has a few suggestions the subcommittee might want to consider.

“What we need most is people out here to talk with clients because one-on-one interaction is really what motivates people the best,” Undeen said.

He said the shelter needs more places for people to hang out. GRACE Marketplace currently has a welcome center, but the capacity is limited to about 20 people. He wants space where homeless residents and the public can feel comfortable intermingling because he feels it is sometimes difficult for people to muster up the courage to walk out there and talk.

“I think the biggest motivator for someone, personally, is instilling some sort of belief or faith in one another, and a lot of people out here have lost all hope,” Undeen said. “If we could recognize that and address that rather than trying to throw money at it, per se, more people will begin to feel worthwhile as a result of that interaction.”

About Rebecca Kravetz

Rebecca is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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