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3 Booted Dignity Village Residents Allowed Back In, Panel Decides

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Lester Edwards was riding his bike through Dignity Village, Gainesville’s homeless community, a few weeks ago when he saw a friend being arrested by police.

Edwards said he asked an officer if he could retrieve his friend’s wallet to give to his friend’s mother for bail. Gainesville police say they then told Edwards to back away; Edwards says police gave him no such warning, kicked his bike out from under him and kneed him in the face.

In the end, police charged Edwards with resisting arrest and found a marijuana pipe on him, and he was kicked out of Dignity Village by being given a trespass, which essentially prohibits a person from coming onto the property.

“The only thing they handed me when I returned [to Dignity Village] was a trespass,” Edwards told a three-person panel Wednesday in hopes of being readmitted to the community, where his wife and two dogs still live. “They didn’t give me no verbals, no warnings, no nothing.”

Lester Edwards waits for his appeal hearing at the Thomas Center on Wednesday. Edwards, a resident banned from Dignity Village, was one of three at the hearing who will be allowed back in following a three-person panel’s ruling. (Eric Heubusch/WUFT News)

Reasons for trespasses given at Dignity Village include violent or abusive behavior, possession of weapons, and possession of illegal drugs or paraphernalia. Gainesville police are stationed there to monitor for such activities.

“After a giant rise in violence after Dignity Village was created, the City Commission requested that two officers be placed there full time,” police spokesman Ben Tobias said Wednesday.

The panel was brought together at the Thomas Center to vote on whether to re-admit Edwards and two other Dignity Village residents with trespasses who declined to provide their names to WUFT News. The panel voted to allow Edwards and the others back in.

Edwards said he’ll be glad to return to care for his wife, who suffers from illnesses such as pancreatitis. Once, while he was banned from the property, she didn’t call for an ambulance after vomiting blood for two days out of fear that officials would take away their dogs.

“She gets sick a lot of times, and she can’t take care of herself,” Edwards said. “There’s nobody out there to watch over her.”

Some non-residents attended Wednesday’s hearing to support people staying in their tents. Elizabeth Howard, a member of the nonprofit Home Van Pet Care Project, which cares for animals at Dignity Village, attended the hearing to back the kicked-out residents.

“I think that these hearings would be more valid if there were homeless people” on the panel, she said.

Making the community’s rules more readily available for residents could possibly prevent the need for such hearings, attendees said.

“How is everyone else in the Village supposed to have access to the rules?” resident Lynne Pavelchak asked.

When residents are forced to leave, they have to stay in places like Bo Diddley Plaza in downtown Gainesville and camp areas where they must sometimes sleep in the rain, Pavelchak told WUFT News during the meeting.

“I personally have my eye on Depot Park,” she said, noting that’s where she’d go if removed from Dignity Village. “I’d love to pitch my tent there.”

In the past, hearings were scheduled only after trespassed residents filed appeals. But Betty Baker, an executive staff assistant to Gainesville’s city manager, said that the city has revised its rules to have them more regularly without request.

Most of the trespassed residents who attend the hearings are allowed to return, Baker said.

About Austin Landis

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

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