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Gainesville homeless campers told to move by Dec. 1

The camp is a microcosm of both this year’s housing crisis and the cracks in the local shelter system. Its uncertain future hints at what may be ahead for many more. (Illustration by Vin)
The camp is a microcosm of both this year’s housing crisis and the cracks in the local shelter system. Its uncertain future hints at what may be ahead for many more. (Illustration by Vin)

Who they are, and what it reveals about Gainesville's housing crisis and cracks in the shelter system

Willie Littles was making a desperate bid to hold onto the place he and a few dozen others called home. They’d been camping on empty land next to Grace Marketplace homeless shelter, but were told to vacate by Dec. 1.

Newly erected signs warned of possible consequences if they stayed: “Deadly force is authorized.”

It was late October and the first cold week of the season, but Littles was sweating under his black beanie. He was working fast to load items onto a trailer bed – twisted metal, a rusted out barbecue, a defunct freezer. He said he hired someone to come haul it all away. They were gradually piling the rest of the debris onto their fires.

Littles was hoping the landowner would see their efforts and have a change of heart.

The land is registered to the State of Florida. It had been under Department of Corrections management in the past, but some service providers said the new signs indicate the state’s National Guard is taking it over. The National Guard did not respond to requests for confirmation that they are now in control of the property, or the intended use.

To the people who live there, a uniform is a uniform.

Littles reckoned a whole Navy base – his foggy perception of what was coming – would take some time to build. If he cleaned up the area, maybe they’d be allowed to use at least this part of the property, or be given more time.

The camp is a microcosm of both this year’s housing crisis and the cracks in the local shelter system. Its uncertain future hints at what may be ahead for many more.

Who they are

Though they share this small patch of woods next to Grace, the campers are not a monolith. Each person had a different reason why this was their best option and why it was hard to leave, and a different plan for December.

Robin Carter said she was on “restricted services” – she wasn’t allowed on Grace’s campus for a few days. She had a voucher for housing but couldn’t find any landlords willing to take it.

There are laws meant to prevent income source discrimination, but landlords continue to find ways around them, like requiring an income three times the rent, or a minimum credit score of 650 – neither of which Carter had.

Even if she were allowed into Grace, she said she had no protection against the frequent assaults inside shelters. She was vying against the odds for a landlord to accept the voucher before it expired, and before she’s kicked off this land.

Terrance Dexter said he camped here before everyone else came. There were too many rules in Grace. He did better when he wasn’t confined in such a tight space with so many people.

Dexter figured he’d move to another patch of land across the street.

Tommy Brown was trespassed from Grace, he said. He was hoping to appeal the trespass and get back into shelter but he was scared to try – he didn’t know if he’d be arrested in the parking lot. He wasn’t clear on how the process works.

Brown said in 1991, when he was only 19, he was shot six times. He’d been living off the land ever since.

Alan Nelson was getting on his bicycle to head to his 19-year job working in a patent law office, he said. Everyone is mixed together here, he added. People with mental health issues and without, the employed and the unemployed, the actively addicted and the sober, some who were evading the law and others with spotless records.

They had one thing in common: they had slipped through the cracks in local housing and shelters.

Why the systemic cracks are widening

Grace is the county’s only shelter for single adults who are not escaping domestic violence. If a person is banned from Grace, or if a traditional shelter space is not a good fit, there are no other options. Local shelters, including Grace, are often at capacity.

Houselessness is not a new issue, but some contributing factors are.

To abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to space beds six feet apart, Grace reduced its general shelter capacity during the coronavirus pandemic, from 120 beds to 60. Though the bed count was subsequently raised to 100, it’s still not at its former capacity. 

Shelter leadership also recently changed the procedure for trespasses. A person used to be able to appeal a trespass on any Monday. But in order to maintain a good relationship with the Gainesville Police Department, whose officers DeCarmine said were reluctant to enforce trespasses that were so quickly appealed and overturned, appeals can now only be made after six months.

DeCarmine estimated about half of the neighboring camp was on the trespass list.

He said his team only trespasses people for severe or repeated violence or predatory behavior, including sexual assault and drug dealing – a necessary measure to safely serve the most people. The 44 people currently on the trespass list represent just over 1% of the thousands Grace serves each year.

And there’s the housing crisis. Gainesville rent historically increased between 2 to 4% annually. Last year it rose 20%, and wages failed to keep pace.

Developers have bought, renovated and raised rents on many units that used to be priced at what someone living off a Social Security check could afford.

In 2019, for every 100 renters making 30% or less of Gainesville’s median income, there were only 31 units available – and those are pre-pandemic numbers.

“On our worst days,” DeCarmine said, “it feels like we’re waiting for the very, very few remaining affordable housing complexes to evict one person only for us to be able to move somebody else in – which has a net impact of zero on homelessness.”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it’s never been easy to move people into housing,” he said.

“But it has never been as difficult as it is right now.”

The progressive past and the uncertain future

The 2021 point-in-time count found 521 unhoused people in the county.

The issue disproportionately affects Black neighbors, who DeCarmine said make up about half of Grace’s clients despite being only one-fifth of the general population. He said they also experience longer shelter stays on average than white neighbors.

Despite its cracks, Gainesville’s system appears to be working better than most.

While some places in the country have seen more than an 800% increase in the unsheltered houseless population in recent years, Alachua County’s has decreased by almost 70% since 2014, partly because of an ambitious rehousing effort.

The next count in January should reveal whether this year’s housing crisis has begun to reverse Gainesville’s progress.

In addition to being the county’s largest shelter, Grace is also the one with the lowest barriers to services. It allows people to enter with pets, as couples, actively using drugs or alcohol or without identification.

It also formed the county’s first housing-focused outreach team last year. Besides meeting immediate needs like food, blankets and bus passes, they connect people with housing resources. Sometimes that means directly contacting landlords, other times paying the security deposit or working with the county’s broader continuum of care. They only measure success by how many people they house.

More recently, Grace also formed an “inreach” team that works with people who live on the shelter’s periphery. DeCarmine said these people are doing better than many who live farther out in the community, because they can still access the shelter’s food and services during daytime hours.

In addition to the more than 30 people in Littles’ camp, DeCarmine said there’s another dozen visible tents between the shelter and the work release center, and his team just found out about another two dozen living in what was formerly Dignity Village.

Dignity was the county’s largest homeless tent camp – and the only formally sanctioned one – before it was closed down in 2020. While Grace managed to rehouse most of the people who lived in Dignity, the role the camp played in the local ecosystem of resources hasn’t been replaced.

The upcoming vacate date will disperse many of these new periphery campers out farther into the community – away from the services on which they rely.

It will also be harder for outreach teams to work with them if they’re not centralized; not just Grace’s case workers but other local services like mobile medical clinics.

“Ultimately,” DeCarmine said, “sweeping and displacing people out of camps makes it even less likely that they will be able to get housed quickly.”

It’s part of the cyclical problem that tent camp sweeps cause.

Kimber Tough, a homeless outreach advocate paralegal for Southern Legal Counsel, said they observed about 10 local sweeps in the last four years. The problem just moves around.

Cracking down on tent camping, Southern Legal Counsel attorney Chelsea Dunn said, can also cause people to turn to more dangerous and less comfortable forms of existing outside, like the exposed street sleeping often seen downtown.

Because the land isn’t open to the public, Dunn said the campers don’t have as much legal standing to fight back against the Dec. 1 eviction. She did say the posted signs don’t appear to meet the requirements for trespass enforcement, something echoed by DeCarmine and Tough.

DeCarmine said a plan could be developed to properly match the campers with services rather than just dispersing them, but his team would need more time than the current vacate date allows. He was explicit that Grace would not play a role in enforcement.

A Gainesville Police Department spokesperson said they will only perform a sweep if requested by the landowner after the Dec. 1 vacate date.

“It’s probably a tit for tat thing,” Littles said, considering what the campers would do if they’re forced to leave. “Keep moving until no one bothers us.”

They all voiced a similar answer to what they wanted the rest of the community to understand.

We are just trying to survive. 

With Gainesville’s rapidly rising rents, many more may soon find themselves in their shoes.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.