Published on gainesville.com // July 16, 2016
When a leading advocate on homelessness solutions toured Gainesville’s homeless facilities, he wasn't impressed.
“A walkthrough of Dignity Village is devastating,” Iain De Jong, president and CEO of OrgCode Consulting, Inc., wrote in a report. “The catastrophe of the policy response to street homelessness is anything but a demonstration of dignity.”
Michael J. Burris, 45, has been residing for three weeks in the dorms at GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville, Fla., shown Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (Erica Brough/Staff Photographer)
De Jong wrote the 15-page report for the city of Gainesville and Alachua County in June. The study cost $3,750, said Mark Sexton, Alachua County communications and legislative affairs director.
De Jong’s job was to assess how the county is dealing with homelessness and to provide suggestions for improvement. During his visit, he met with city and county commissioners and toured Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village.
Since submitting his report, De Jong’s comments have sparked controversy — especially his remarks about Dignity Village.
Dignity Village is a homeless encampment located outside of Grace Marketplace, the city’s homeless center off Waldo Road. According to last month’s count, about 200 people live there, said Assistant City Manager Fred Murry.
Before Dignity Village was established in 2014, some homeless people created tent cities in the woods. When the city bought the former state prison complex and created Grace Marketplace, some homeless people set up camp, which expanded into Dignity Village.
“Dignity Village was an unintended consequence of us beginning to talk about opening up the Grace Marketplace,” Murry said.
De Jong’s report lists a number of safety issues at Dignity Village, including substance abuse and drug dealing, conflicts between people living there and potential human trafficking. It also mentioned that “an overwhelming loss of life” could occur if open fire spread among the tents and shelters.
“I think as a homeless encampment, it’s a terrible one,” De Jong told The Sun. “I think that it is a vector for disease transmission and violence.”
De Jong’s safety concerns do not come as a surprise. There are multiple reports of violent incidents at the campsite in The Sun’s archives, including physical fights, stabbings, sexual assault and an ax attack.
The Grace Marketplace oversight board voted unanimously last August to adopt rules for the encampment, including bans on illegal drugs and weapons. Residents were supposed to check in with a Dignity Village manager, provide identification and pass a background check to get a 90-day permit for a campsite.
The city also enacted quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and banned registered sex offenders and people under 18 or with an active arrest warrant.
Additionally, GPD spokesperson Officer Ben Tobias said two City Commission-approved officers patrol Dignity Village, typically four to five days a week for 11½ hours a day.
“We have a lot of disturbances, some of which end in fights,” Tobias said.
In addition to violence, drugs are one of the most common problems, from frequent marijuana sightings to meth, he said.
“You’re going to have those calls from any homeless encampment,” he said.
GPD has not seen any evidence of human trafficking, he said.
To fix the problems at Dignity Village, De Jong suggested shutting down the homeless encampment, bulldozing it no later than Dec. 31 of this year.
County Commissioner Mike Byerly said while there are problems with Dignity Village, De Jong’s termination date for the encampment is not realistic.
“It’s clearly not an ideal situation, but if there’s no Dignity Village, those individuals don’t disappear,” said Byerly, who sits on the oversight board for Grace Marketplace. “They go back into the woods behind people’s houses, taking the problem and kind of shoving it out of sight.”
While De Jong is an expert in his field and generally well-informed, his report had some flaws, said Theresa Lowe, executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry.
“He doesn’t have 100 percent of the information needed, I think, to really make a true assessment,” Lowe said. “The amount of time he spent here was very short, so he didn’t really look much into the background of things.”
De Jong came to Gainesville on a Sunday evening and met with people on Monday and Tuesday. He didn’t speak with many service providers, and while he did interview a few homeless people, Lowe isn’t sure that his methods were thorough.
“I’m not too confident because the responses he got were not necessarily the same that we get when we ask similar questions,” she said. “I would have more faith in that report had it been based on more actual data that’s local rather than information that’s simply pulled from talking to a few people.”
Homeless advocates aren’t completely discounting the report, however. De Jong’s suggestion to try the Housing First model is being considered.
Housing First aims to solve homelessness, in short, by putting people in homes and then providing support, services and assistance as needed. It has been successful in communities such as West Palm Beach and states such as Utah, Michigan and Connecticut.
“I think the focus should not be on tenting people or having them live outside, the focus should be getting people to live inside permanently,” De Jong said.
Housing First is not a solution to end all types of homelessness. But it has been shown to work for people who are stuck in the cycle of chronic homelessness, Byerly said.
“First and foremost you keep them in a safe secure place that takes them out of the jail-to-homeless cycle and allows them to turn their attention to other personal difficulties that they may be having,” Byerly said.
Housing First provides long-term support, while a similar model called Rapid Re-Housing provides housing for about 3 to 6 months. Both models cost more up front, but research shows they are less expensive than other programs in the long run, Lowe said.
The Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing models are being strongly considered by commissioners and homeless advocates, but one thing is still missing: housing.
Ideas for securing affordable housing include refurbishing old motels, building new homes and implementing a voucher system. The Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry has hired a specialist to search for affordable housing, and it is also looking for additional sources of funding, Lowe said.
Tiny houses, homes that range from about 100 to 400 square feet, were also discussed as a potential housing option at the Alachua County Affordable Housing Summit in February.
The report has been distributed among city and county staff, who will analyze its contents and return with suggestions in a few months, Byerly said.
“At this point we’re all sort of absorbing it and thinking about it, but it does seem to be a way of dealing with homelessness that has been measurably very effective and cost effective in other communities,” Byerly said. “We’re looking for solutions that have a track record of working, so I personally think it’s something we seriously need to consider.”
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