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Gainesville ramps up efforts to clear local streets after latest property seizure notice at housing camp

An encampment of homeless individuals and their property is seen Friday along Southeast Fourth Place on Friday. Two days prior, the city of Gainesville warned camp members that tents and other property would be seized if left on public grounds. (David Lopez/WUFT News)
An encampment of homeless individuals and their property is seen Friday along Southeast Fourth Place on Friday. Two days prior, the city of Gainesville warned camp members that tents and other property would be seized if left on public grounds. (David Lopez/WUFT News)

A homeless encampment on Southeast Fourth Place received a notice April 24 from the City of Gainesville giving camp residents three days to remove all personal items from public property.

“We have to stay by our property just to show that it’s not abandoned,” said Mary Phillips, a 54-year-old resident of the encampment. “The notice they gave us said that we abandoned our property, but we were here when they came to put it up.”

Phillips regularly cooked for other individuals within the camp, a group that was forced to move across the street in February and now faces permanent removal from Southeast Fourth Place.

Although the notice intended to remove the encampment and its inhabitants by Saturday, opposition to the city’s notice provided by Southern Legal Counsel, a local non-profit legal group, has delayed the removal of any property.

Southern Legal Counsel, which represents some individuals within the camp, contacted the city Friday to raise concerns about the reasonings for the property seizure notice and explain legal precedents that would defend the individuals’ right to remain at the camp.

“There was a time when we really had no concerns about the city's respect for the property of individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Chelsea Dunn, the director of the Decriminalizing Poverty Project at SLC. “Through the years, there have been more times when we've had to reach out to advocate with the city to try to address these issues.”

In Friday’s message signed by Dunn and Southern Legal Counsel’s Homeless Outreach Advocate Kimber Tough, the organization added a public records request for all city documents involving the treatment, documentation and planning regarding homeless individuals within Gainesville.

As of Tuesday, the city has not provided any records to Southern Legal Counsel. A city spokesperson also declined to offer a response to WUFT’s questions by publication time.

The recent focus on removing individuals from public areas follows the legal standard put in motion by the state of Florida after House Bill 1365 was first filed in January.

The bill, signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis on March 20, was designed to prevent city and county governments across the state from allowing people to sleep in public areas.

However, the rising number of homeless individuals in Gainesville, especially unsheltered homeless people, raises the question of how the city will address the issue long term.

“The City of Gainesville is responsible for keeping its streets and rights-of-way (ROWs) clear for public transportation,” said city spokesperson Rossana Passaniti.

Those living in the camp at Southeast Fourth Place were told in February and as recently as last week to seek shelter at GRACE Marketplace, a nonprofit shelter that has been at capacity for several months.

“The city said GRACE had 14 extra beds, but they don’t have any beds,” Phillips said. “They said we could be moved to a hotel this month but were still out here.”

Passaniti explained that “several” of the shelter beds established at GRACE were available for homeless individuals.

Gainesville’s homeless population rose to 725 in 2023 according to Continuum of Care data, 417 of which included unsheltered individuals.

With those numbers rising each year and changing legal statutes that make it more difficult to maintain a steady shelter in public areas, all parties involved are searching for more permanent solutions.

“What we think is really important is that individuals experiencing homelessness aren't just shuttled around the city from place to place and constantly harassed and have their property taken,” Dunn said.

In Wednesday’s letter to the city, Dunn and Southern Legal Counsel emphasized the need for alternative living options to be provided if individuals are to be removed from their only form of shelter

The encampment of Southeast Fourth Place was not the first to be pressured by the city this year, with another downtown encampment at Lynch Park receiving similar notice in January.

Kimber Tough confirmed that some of her clients, individuals who were removed from Lynch Park, are now living in the camp at Southeast Fourth Place.

Individuals from both camps dealt with the same ordinance from the city, to remove any property that might be labeled as “abandoned” under certain city ordinances.

Passaniti cited the city’s procedure for removing personal property “that is not abandoned and is located and/or stored on the city’s real property” regarding last Wednesday’s notice.

She added that Gainesville’s Public Works Department would store any removed property for the owner to retrieve within 90 days.

“A lot of people still go to work out here,” Phillips said. “They don’t know if they leave for work, they come back and their property is gone.”

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