With temperatures consistently dipping below 45 degrees in north central Florida — and even lower than that this weekend — cold night shelters throughout the region are helping unsheltered residents stay warm.
James McDowell, who has been homeless for five months and living in Gainesville for three weeks, is looking for somewhere to stay now that winter is here.
“I’m not from here, I just moved from Orlando, so I am not familiar with the area to know about the shelters,” McDowell said.
He decided to move from Orlando to Gainesville for a fresh start.
North central Florida has four shelters – two in Gainesville, one in Lake City and one in Ocala – providing hot meals, beds and clothing to residents seeking refuge during this chilly season.
Grace Marketplace and St. Francis House – Gainesville
GRACE Marketplace and St. Francis House are homeless shelters year-round but offer cold night shelter programs whenever temperatures drop below 45 degrees.
GRACE Marketplace, located at 3055 NE 28th Ave., normally closes its doors to visitors at 7 p.m., but remains open 24-hours a day on cold nights. GRACE usually houses 146 beds but can shelter an additional 100 people during cold nights.
While on the surface GRACE serves as “simply a warm, safe place to stay,” executive director Jon DeCarmine said emergency circumstances like freezing temperatures often introduce first-time residents to the shelter and other services it provides. These include but are not limited to meals, showers, a laundry room and a computer lab.
“For a lot of people this is a first opportunity for us to engage people with services and then continue that relationship from there,” DeCarmine said.
According to DeCarmine, more than half of the staff have been homeless before, or have lived through, experienced and recovered from drugs and alcohol.
“That puts us in a really great position when somebody comes in and says, ‘I’m not sure if these services are going to work for me or if I can do this,’ we have people who will walk right up to them and say, ‘That’s exactly how I felt, and here’s how I made it happen. Here’s what worked for me,’” DeCarmine said.
St. Francis House, located at 413 South Main St., primarily serves families, providing parents and children with pillows and blankets, meals, laundry facilities and bathrooms. In order to stay at St. Francis, guests must present a blue card from the Gainesville Police Department certifying they’ve never been convicted of a violent or sexual offense.
On cold nights St. Francis House gives guests snacks and meals, including breakfast the following morning. Guests must check in between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and check out the following morning by 7 a.m. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the shelter would set up an extra 60 beds on cold nights, but it’s since limited it to 30. On regular nights, the shelter’s nine rooms are filled with 45 beds, 35 of which are usually occupied.
“I think it’s great that we are able to open up and provide shelter to those who need it that aren’t able to readily access it otherwise,” St. Francis spokesperson Katelyn Drummet said.
Salvation Army – Ocala
The Salvation Army in Ocala also serves unsheltered residents throughout the year at its Center of Hope building, located at 320 NW 1st Ave.
The shelter qualifies cold nights as those when temperatures drop to around 40 degrees or below. Guests must arrive with a form of I.D. to check in at 7 p.m., although dinner is available for visitors every day at 5 p.m. Check-out is the next morning at 5 a.m
The shelter has seen between 45 and 60 guests on cold nights so far this year, case manager specialist Marie Ortiz said. The Center of Hope provides guests with mats to sleep on.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Center of Hope offered 40 beds in its men’s room, 20 beds in its women’s dorm, and six rooms for families with children who are not looking to stay more than a couple of days. The shelter is currently operating at half capacity.
Parkview Baptist Church – Lake City
The Parkview Baptist Church, located at 268 NW Jeffery Road, provides guests with dinner, cots, and showers. The church also gives them blankets, socks, and towels to keep warm and clean throughout their stay.
While Gainesville cold night shelters open once temperatures drop below 45 degrees, Parkview Baptist Church opens when temperature drops to or below 35 degrees. Mike Tatem, senior pastor of the church, said volunteers typically serve four to 10 people per night.
“We decided to be intentional about making our campus available and making our facilities available to help provide a warm place to stay,” Tatem said.
According to Tatem, the church is taking COVID-19 precautions by practicing social distancing in the gymnasium where guests stay. The church also cleans and disinfects each cot in between nights.
“We are told to love our neighbors and our homeless population, so we want to do what we can to demonstrate a tangible way our love for them and our willingness to help them,” Tatem said.