Gainesville city commissioners want to keep the newly improved Bo Diddley Plaza a place for everyone to enjoy following the year-long $1.8 million improvement project. To do that, they are looking for legal ways to keep the homeless from taking up full-time residence in the park and curb some of the not-so-pleasant behaviors that keep others from coming downtown.
Commissioners Helen Warren and Randy Wells are discussing a plan that could ban repeat criminal offenders from city parks for a three-month period.
During their commission meeting last week, Warren and Wells talked about a possible trespass warning that would create a 90-day ban for anyone who broke the law while inside a city park. Warren said, the goal is to encourage good behavior in the parks, rather than punish those who don’t follow the rules.
The city used to have a similar ordinance, but it was suspended in 2012 because the park ban was permanent for all parks and the wording was legally vague, which didn’t stand up in court.
Warren said when an individual is arrested for certain behaviors in a city park, including urinating, loitering, possessing alcohol or drug paraphernalia, they usually don’t spend much time in jail and frequently end up returning to the park to repeat the same offenses . If the trespass warning is approved by the city commission, police officers would be able to ban those offenders from the park and keep them away for three months.
“It lets the police officers make it uncomfortable for someone to return to that place and continue the behaviors that were associated with the offense they were arrested for originally,” said Warren.
The proposal would not prohibit those who are given a trespass warning from going to another park like the previous ordinance.
Warren stressed she doesn’t think it’s fair to kick people out who are in need, but said the city parks can’t continue to house the homeless.
“To sleep in the same place in the middle of the plaza as if it’s your home, there’s something about that that’s just not right,” she said. “As a community, we need to find people ways to get housing.”
While a few homeless residents did agree that the parks are not an appropriate place for them, some of them say there is no other place to go.
“What do you do?” said Nicholas Barritt, who is currently homeless. “If you figure you got another hundred or two sleeping in parks around Gainesville, where are they going to go… they don’t have any other choice or options.”
Warren said the plan is to train city staff members to deal with the homeless and their needs in a compassionate way, instead of always relying on the police to arrest them and issue trespass warnings.
Parks and Recreation Committee members are continuing to work out the details. The proposal will be presented to the full city commission in April.