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Gainesville homeless campers fear arrest, lack legal alternative

Karen's camp at Dignity Village.
Karen's camp at Dignity Village.

A few dozen people were told to leave the empty state land where they lived in tents near Alachua County’s largest homeless shelter.

On Thursday, the deadline, Willie Littles was helping to move the last two tents to the camp’s new location  – about 200 feet to the south. 

Their tents were now behind a fence and a trespassing sign: “Deadly force is authorized.”

Other signs listing the city’s trespassing statute now lined the border between city and state land.

Confusion buzzed through the camp.

Littles believed “the fire chief” told them it was OK to move back there, but trespassing signs typically protect the land behind them – the land their tents were now on.

Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief Joseph Dixon told WUFT the directive Littles was acting on did not come from anyone in the fire department, and guessed the campers were confusing someone in uniform.

Stress was high. It takes a lot of effort to move camp, and it was impossible to feel settled with the threat of arrest and deadly force hanging over them.

But where else could they go?

They’d been given no legal alternatives.

Grace Marketplace is the county’s only shelter for single adults who are not fleeing domestic violence. About half of the campers were on the trespass list for Grace, which was at-capacity anyway.

One camper, who said she was a veteran, couldn’t access Grace’s veteran dorm because it’s only for men. She said she lost her shelter bed in the general dorms after missing two consecutive nights when she was hospitalized and couldn’t provide documentation. Like some of the other campers, she said she has a housing voucher but can’t find a landlord who will take it.

Besides, staying within walking distance to the shelter was a matter of survival. Many of the campers depended on Grace for three meals a day, bathrooms and access to case workers.

Church volunteers finished handing out supplies, closed their trunks and rolled down the new dirt road that cut through the lot.

“I’ve never seen no sign like that before,” one camper said, eyeing the wording about deadly force.

Littles rubbed his head, eyes darting between the tents, the fence, the sign and the campers.

“I don’t want to get arrested,” another said.

Stacy Scott, public defender for the 8th Judicial Circuit, said she typically sees trespassing charges sentenced with time served or no more than 10 days in jail.

Every arrest, no matter how short, furthers the cycle that keeps people stuck in homelessness. And when they return with a new mark on their record, there’s no guarantee their vital possessions will be where they left them.

Scott said there is constitutional authority that punishing people for an involuntary status like homelessness is considered cruel and unusual punishment; it violates the 8 th Amendment. 

She said mandates to go to a shelter space have been used as a way to try to get around the 8th amendment, but come with other concerns.

A mandate may be meaningless to those who can’t access shelter.

Both Grace Marketplace’s director Jon DeCarmine and Chief Dixon said they don’t play a role in enforcement. The Gainesville Police Department said it will only respond to enforcement requests from the property owner.

The camp had been on land believed to be managed by the National Guard, but they migrated closer to the city-owned land that used to hold the county’s only sanctioned tent camp, Dignity Village.

Dixon said his department and the service providers they work with want to prevent another Dignity Village from sprouting up again. DeCarmine’s team recently discovered dozens of other tents there.

Local agencies may not want to see Dignity Village resurface, but the campers are hesitant to move away from the shelter’s resources. And the authorities that tell them to leave don’t tell them where to go.

For the landowners, it may be a matter of property rights. 

For the campers, it’s a fight to survive.

Read the initial reporting: Gainesville homeless campers told to move by Dec. 1

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