Homeless shelter fate in city's hands

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Thursday night, seven Gainesville City Commissioners will likely decide the fate of hundreds of homeless people sprawled throughout the city.

City leaders will choose between two proposals to run its one-stop-shop homeless center, Grace Marketplace.

The shelter, at 3055 NE 28th Ave., provides help to about 115 people at a time with food, beds, showers and health services. It offers many of the same services to 100-plus homeless people outside its fence, an area referred to as Dignity Village, which city officials want to phase out.

Homeless people living at Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village likely could not be less interested in the bureaucratic machinations that have taken place at City Hall, as long as they get the help they seek.

But Thursday’s decision could very well determine things like who is allowed to stay at the shelter after April 1.

One proposal calls for offering mostly the same level of services being offered now, which includes providing food, meals, health services and helping people move into homes. The other calls for much of the same, but comes with a crackdown on those who use drugs and will put people into shed-like “micro homes” on the campus.

For months, employees for the City of Gainesville and Alachua County have haggled over money with the current shelter operators, the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry. After coming to an impasse, the city officials shifted its goals for the shelter.

The latest figures show the coalition wants about $1.1 million in assistance from the city and county. The other proposal, led by Gainesville Housing Authority chairman Art Stockwell, was recently updated, and now asks for $970,000.

Both Stockwell and the coalition’s proposals were submitted to the city on Jan. 12, but have been in the "blackout period" since December. The city's blackout period restricts detailed communciation about and lobbying for proposals between the groups that submit a proposal and those who will make the decision.

Stockwell said he can end homelessness within two years, but only if the city changes its ordinance to allow the micro homes to house some 200 homeless people. He would then charge homeless people about $300 in rent, giving some people the ability to work for rent.

Stockwell’s plan is modeled after the “Community First! Village” in Austin, Texas.

In January, he organized and took a trip with other local homeless advocates, including Gainesville For All Director James Lawrence, Commissioner Harvey Ward and the county’s director of community support services, Claudia Tuck.

Ward and Tuck told The Sun Wednesday that they both went on the trip between Jan. 8-10, not realizing Stockwell had plans to submit a proposal.

Tuck, who was on the evaluation and negotiations team that ranked Stockwell’s plan above the coalition's, said she doesn't believe she violated any policy.

Ward said it was “inappropriate” for Stockwell to invite him on the trip without disclosing his plans for a proposal.

Stockwell says city policy blocked him from telling either Ward or Tuck about his plan.

Some city officials have said they fear Stockwell's proposal could push homeless people away from the shelter, while others say it's a quick fix to a major issue.

Four city and two county officials were involved in the negotiations and evaluation process for the proposals. The Grace Marketplace is a city contract, but is equally funded by county taxpayers.

Whichever plan gets the commission’s support would also need to make an agreement with Alachua County officials before taking over the facility.

The City Commission meeting starts at 1 p.m. at Gainesville's City Hall, at 200 E. University Ave. The homeless shelter discussion is expected to take place about 5:30 p.m.

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