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Gainesville: A Popular Destination For Homeless Travelers

The brace Amanda Goines wears on her left leg and the rickety wheelchair she sits in hide the fact that not so long ago she made her way from West Palm Beach to Gainesville on foot.

After trouble with her landlord, Goines and her boyfriend found themselves homeless in the Tampa Bay area. The couple hitchhiked their way toward Stuart, and eventually West Palm Beach, in search of a job. Then, they found their way to Gainesville.

That was about eight weeks ago. Now, Amanda is one of the many homeless Floridians who are living in Gainesville, which is seen as a safe haven for those without a home; a rest stop on the mother road.

One place travelers stay at is Dignity Village, the homeless tent camp that has sprung up outside GRACE Marketplace on NE 39th Avenue.

Mimi Adrija, a resident at Dignity Village, has lived on and off again in Gainesville for 10 years and said she sees plenty of travelers come through the area.

“People do come and stay. Every now and then you'll meet somebody and then like a month later you're like, 'Oh where is so-and-so?' They've moved on to wherever they were going,” Adrija said.

Adrija said one of the reasons Gainesville is so popular among traveling homeless people is because of the city's large homeless community.

According to a report by former Alachua County Manager Betty Baker, there are about 1,300 homeless people in Alachua County, of which about 200 live in Dignity Village.

“We get two meals a day here, there are showers available, there are washers and dryers available,” Adrija said, referring to the services provided by the nearby GRACE Marketplace, Gainesville's homeless center.

Another reason homeless people often travel to Gainesville is because other cities in Florida are much less friendly to those without homes, she said.

Goines said in her travels she found homeless people were treated acceptably in West Palm Beach, but other cities weren't as tolerant.

Orlando City ordinances, for example, prohibit panhandling in most public areas during the day, and completely prohibit panhandling at night. Panhandling is only allowed in specially designated areas downtown, and even then people may not directly solicit passersby.

Gainesville city ordinances do not outright ban panhandling except for pedestrian-to-motorist panhandling. Pedestrian-to-pedestrian panhandling is sometimes prohibited when under certain circumstances, like when close to an ATM, or on private property.

The particular arrangements in Dignity Village may be another reason the city attracts so many homeless travelers, Adrija said. Other homeless encampments around Florida, like Pinellas Hope in St. Petersburg and Nothing Lost Outreach in Escambia County, are not self-governing on the scale Dignity Village is.

Both Pinellas Hope and Nothing Lost are run by religious organizations. Unlike those two homeless camps, Dignity Village has no formal rules and few requirements to live there.

The influx of homeless travelers has sometimes been problematic. Adrija, who is one of the Dignity Village residents and in charge of loaning tools, said shortages of certain supplies like tents are not uncommon.

Travelers tend to arrive to Dignity Village during the winter months and usually clear out by the summer, she said – but those extra residents in the winter can strain camp resources. Community advocates keep a tent filled with supplies, such as cords, personal hygiene items and tools, that were donated to Dignity Village by groups like Helping Hands.

Learning more about travelers' journeys is also problematic.  Bob Woods, spokesman for the city of Gainesville, said there was no method at the moment of collecting information about homeless people's origins and destinations. The City of Gainesville/Alachua County Office of Homelessness' yearly point-in-time surveys do not ask about travel plans.

Adrija said travelers range from young to old, and they come from all walks of life. Many are military veterans. Families with children are not seen in Dignity Village, however, because the camp does not allow anyone under the age of 18 to live there.

Frankie Withey, a 44-year-old resident of Dignity Village, said he found travelers to be educational. Withey, who's lived in Gainesville since the 1980s, said travelers have taught him about the conditions for homeless people in other towns around Florida.

For Withey, Gainesville represents a place where there are support systems for people who are homeless. He admits to a violent criminal record that has resulted in several arrests over the years, but he said he's paid his debt to society and is determined to live a quiet life in Dignity Village.

Whether it's long-time residents or people passing through, Withey believes one thing:

“In here, we're safe.”

Editors note: This story was updated to accurately reflect Bob Woods as the spokesman for the city of Gainesville. 

Andres is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.