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Empowerment Center Oversight Advisory Board Meets To Discuss Grace Marketplace Improvements

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The Empowerment Center Oversight Advisory Board discussed creating 200 units of housing at Grace Marketplace, as well as expanded on-site services and housing units, to reduce homelessness in the county within the next two years.

The board, made up of city and county commissioners and a member of the Gainesville Housing Authority, met Monday to strategize ways to phase residents out of Dignity Village, a tent city surrounding the Grace Marketplace shelter, and transition Gainesville’s homeless into temporary and permanent supportive housing.

Assistant city manager Fred Murray and director of community support services Claudia Tuck asked the board for policy guidance to develop a written plan, which they will present at the next city commission meeting April 12.

City of Gainesville commissioner Harvey Ward said the board and city planners have met several times over the last two years without developing goals for bolstering services and housing for the homeless and reducing the size of Dignity Village.

“We’re not visioning,” he said. “The buildings are just pieces of the puzzle. What’s that puzzle supposed to look like?”

Newly appointed board chair Helen Warren said she wants a plan for the Empowerment Center’s future “before the summer heat comes out.”

“It’s hard to look at that property specifically without looking at what’s available in the community because otherwise, that becomes a drain with no filter on it,” she said. “The problem is something that requires a very broad, community-based approach.”

Grace Marketplace, at 3055 NE 28th Ave., provides shelter, food and health services to its 100-plus residents. Still, as of the shelter’s last Point-in-Time survey, another 600 remain homeless in Gainesville without shelter, she said.

County commissioner Robert Hutchinson proposed turning Grace Marketplace into a “one-stop” center for homeless support services rather than scatter them around the city without ample transportation. Housing, however, is not sufficient at the site for those seeking permanent transitions, he said.

“Until we build communities with $250 rental units…we’re going to need to pack them into buildings at Grace, and that’s not what we want to do,” he said.

Ward motioned for Murray and Tuck to return in April with a plan to create low-barrier, short-term shelter space for 200 people at Grace Marketplace, shared between the outdoor pavilion and single-bed dorms, as well as a store for residents to purchase necessities, medical building for on-site care, job training center, recreational spaces, community garden and a new RTS stop. The board unanimously approved.

Rather than build villages of “tiny houses,” low-rent, single-resident homes on Grace Marketplace property, Ward suggested turning existing apartment complexes and “mom-and-pop” hotels into permanent supportive housing units, a housing model that provides long-term financial assistance and case management services to residents.

Dignity Village resident Mark Venzke asked the board to consider creating a crosswalk at Northeast 39th Avenue and Northeast 28th Avenue, where pedestrians cross to reach the nearest bus stop.

“Eventually, it’s going to get someone killed,” Ward said.

Travis Hansen, 37, was killed crossing Northeast 39th Avenue in December. Others have been struck and injured, Venzke said.

Still, he said, it’s encouraging to hear the board supports additions to Grace Marketplace.

“Things have gone uniformly–little innovation, little expansion into what Grace could be,” he said. “I’m very pleased to see what looks like promising progress being made.”

About Scottie Andrew

Scottie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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