Alachua County has added nearly 30,000 people since 2006.
Despite the increase in residents, the county’s homeless population has actually decreased – particularly, in comparison to the population increase.
According to the Alachua County Homeless Census, 433 people were unsheltered in 2018. In 2006, 450 were without shelter.
Grace Marketplace, a homeless shelter located on Northeast 28th Avenue, has been a driving force behind the drop, said Jon DeCarmine, the organization’s operation director and University of Florida graduate.
When DeCarmine started planning Grace in 2005, he envisioned creating a one-stop center for Gainesville — a shelter that was capable of providing everything from a toothbrush to a permanent home.
“That didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he said. “We [Gainesville] were asking people with no transportation and pretty severe physical or mental health issues to navigate a really confusing network of social service providers.”
As a result, those in need didn’t utilize the city and county’s resources as intended, leading to an increase in chronic homelessness. DeCarmine said Grace Marketplace was designed to combat this issue by bringing a web of social services to one location.
“They only need to know to show up,” he said. “And we can serve as their liaison for the rest of that process.”
Maintaining an accessible environment is an important value for Grace. DeCarmine said the shelter approaches providing homeless services in a much different way than other agencies.
For years, the community in Gainesville provided homeless assistance on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.
“What that meant was the people who were capable of showing up at a prescribed time, the people who were most able to keep track of paperwork, make a phone call when they needed to, get where they needed to be,” DeCarmine said. “Those are actually the folks that needed our help the least.”
Instead, Grace operates as a low-barrier shelter, specifically targeting assistance for individuals with mental health conditions, substance abuse histories and criminal backgrounds, he said.
At a city commission meeting earlier this year, residents voiced their support for the shelter. Officials would later go on to approve over $1 million in funding for the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, which Grace operates under.
Bobby McKeon, who used Grace Marketplace’s services in 2017, shared her testimony with the commission.
“I joined Grace Marketplace July 8. That same week I found out I could volunteer in the kitchen,” she said. “I haven’t left. I found my purpose in life because of Grace.”
McGean said she wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the mental and physical health care she received through Grace.
Impact is a core value for the shelter, DeCarmine said. And McGean’s story is a prime example of the type of work Grace does in the county.
“We’ve got a way to make an impact on our community,” he said. “It’s an honor to be able to do this. There’s nothing else I could imagine doing.”