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Resilience amidst adversity: How Gainesville's homeless population weathered Hurricane Idalia

Aaron Williams, a 50-year-old former performer, stands in front of the stage he performed at years ago when visiting Gainesville, Fla., before being struck by homelessness. Williams has been homeless in Gainesville for about a year. (Gabriel Velasquez-Neira/WUFT)
Aaron Williams, a 50-year-old former performer, stands in front of the stage he performed at years ago when visiting Gainesville, Fla., before being struck by homelessness. Williams has been homeless in Gainesville for about a year. (Gabriel Velasquez-Neira/WUFT)

When a storm like Hurricane Idalia approaches, Florida residents know they need to stock up on water, toilet paper and non-perishable food. But for homeless people, they are left wondering where to sleep safely as heavy rain floods the sidewalks they often rest on.

“When I’m not sleeping at the Starbucks, I’m sleeping at the Bo Diddley stage,” said Brandon Jimenez. But as Idalia passed through Gainesville, Jimenez joined other homeless people at St. Francis House.

While Gainesville mostly sustained chunks of fallen trees and heavy rain, people living on the streets had to contemplate what to do when weather forecasters predicted a storm that might bring 115 mile-per-hour winds.

In Gainesville, most went where they were accepted — which included a list of familiar homeless shelters like St. Francis.

Jimenez, a 25-year-old hip-hop enthusiast, moved to Gainesville six years ago and has been homeless ever since.

He went to theSt. Francis House, a non-profit organization, which took people in for Hurricane Idalia. He was unhappy that St. Francis asked overnight residents to leave at 8 a.m. the following day.

Katelyn Drummet, St. Francis House director of marketing and community engagement, said doors opened for emergency shelter at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

She said homeless people who were taken in were provided with snacks and meals and said at 8 a.m., residents were free to leave if the weather was good, but they could come back at 9 a.m. during regular hours of operation.

According to Drummet, about 40 people were taken in by St. Francis during the storm.

From 9 a.m. to noon, the St. Francis House is open to the public and serves community meals, but Drummet said their services and staff are still available 24/7 for the families they house and those who may need it.

“We have nine rooms and those are for women and families with children that are experiencing homelessness,” Drummet said. “Which is about 35 to 45 people each night.”

Jimenez said Gainesville Fire Rescue has consistently been the most helpful to him when he’s needed assistance.

“The only one that helps me is Gainesville Fire Rescue,” Jimenez said.

While the fire department has been a great help to Jimenez, he wishes there were more resources — especially during Florida’s hurricane season.

He is currently looking for a job to eventually rent an apartment, but it’s hard to get hired, he said.

David Sutton, assistant chief of Gainesville Fire Rescue, said they have a robust system for emergency management.

His department specifically runs emergency management for the city of Gainesville. Alachua County has an emergency management function for the entire county.

Sutton noted Idalia came with very short notice, but they made an effort to reach out to bigger homeless service providers to ask if they had any needs and if they were successfully reaching out to the known locations of homeless individuals.

This included activating their Emergency Operations Centers and providing regular updates on the storm and the status of shelters in the community including when they became open, and the location of pet shelters and special needs shelters.

 “The city uses [an emergency communications system] to send out information and also give community organizations a mechanism to reach out with needs that they may have related to storm preparation and updates,” Sutton wrote in an email.

During an ordinary day, Jimenez said the Starbucks workers in the area provide him with water and snacks.

“The workers here, they don’t bother,” Jimenez said. “They give me water, and I’ll walk around other places for food.”

Aaron Williams, a 50-year-old former musician, has lived in Gainesville for about a year. Originally from New Jersey, Williams studied mass communications growing up and had a love for making podcasts.

Now, Williams finds himself hopping from place to place. He struggles to fall asleep at night because all his belongings were stolen from him the night before Idalia hit.

Williams believes Gainesville shouldn’t have shut down many of the businesses and bus routes.

“There's no reason why not to drive [the buses] yesterday as needed,” Williams said. “That shut me down right from getting from A to B.”

Williams said the stage he performed at years ago when visiting Gainesville is the same stage he lays on when he needs to rest now that he’s homeless.

Sagar Kumar, a 33-year-old Gainesville resident, is the president and executive director of theKrishna House.

Kumar said while the Krishna House is not a homeless shelter, the Hare Krishnas provide meals to homeless people and others in need.

In preparation for Idalia, they sent meals to shelters such as Peaceful Paths,Grace Marketplace and other homeless organizations.

“Informally, Krishna House has been doing [this for] 20 years or so,” Kumar said. “But [making meals] became slightly more structured during the pandemic.”

Kumar said Krishna began going door-to-door during the COVID-19 pandemic to see who needed a meal — even when there aren’t natural disasters, the Hare Krishnas want homeless people and the impoverished community to enjoy a meal.

The Hare Krishnas spent Thursday preparing more meals for homeless people and others in need now that Idalia’s winds have subsided.

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