City actions make homelessness effectively illegal
The following is an open letter to Fredrick Murry with the City of Gainesville from John DeCarmine of the Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness.
February 29, 2008--We're receiving more and more reports of actions directed against homeless campers in the City, including statements by police informing people that they must leave encampments within 24 hours or face arrest, despite a lack of clarity as to whether the encampment in question was on public or private land, and with no trespass order in place for the private portions of the land. Further, someone has recently posted a number of new "No Trespassing" signs all along the publicly owned Depot Building near the new bus terminal, and officers have been receiving requests to clear people from that structure over the past three days, though no notice has been given to the Office on Homelessness or any homeless advocates about the planned clearance.
At our meeting on February 25th we discussed the potential problems with the ongoing clearance of homeless campers from the NE 1st Blvd. area (NW of the Winn-Dixie/Big Lots shopping plaza on N Main St. & 23rd Ave), particularly with the acknowledged uncertainty as to the public or private ownership of portions of the land on which people were camped. I confirmed the lack of a trespass order with Lt. Seal of the Gainesville Police Dept., and when asked about how the ENTIRE area had been cleared of homeless people, he agreed to look into it after we first spoke on Tuesday, 2/26. He called me back on Wednesday, 2/27 and stated that due to police error, an officer had mistakenly informed campers that they had 24 hours to leave, despite the lack of a signed trespass order, and with no notice given to the Office on Homelessness relating to any potential public portions of said property. Lt. Seal was courteous and extremely helpful in ascertaining this information, but the fact stands that up to 15 people have AGAIN been displaced by City actions, told to move on or face arrest, and had it not been for advocates' relationship with those campers, none of us would have been any the wiser.
Regarding this incident, the initial officer who came to tell the campers they would be arrested if they stayed on the property for more than 24 hours was a short, red-haired male who came out around dusk on Thursday, February 21. In addition to telling all campers he found that they must leave, two individuals have told me that he informed them they could "not stay anywhere in the City of Gainesville," that this clearance was part of a City-wide crackdown and the campers would not be able to find anyplace else to go legally. Since that initial contact, two other officers came out to the site three days ago, in the early afternoon, to ensure campers were gone and/or in the process of leaving. These officers were reported to us as a blonde-haired female and a male GPD Corporal.
This morning, a gentleman who lives at "The Dome" house in SE Gainesville arrived to find a notice on his door informing him that he was in violation of City Codes for "illegally operating a social services agency" (the notice was dated 2/29) and that he had 10 days to cease activities. The Dome is a private residence that allows people to take showers, use the bathroom and do laundry on occasion. It is one of the ONLY locations in the City where people have access to hygiene facilities of any type, particularly given today's announcement by St. Francis House that it can no longer afford to maintain its normal business hours due to recent budget problems, thereby further limiting access to such amenities.
At this point, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the City is making an all-out effort to criminalize any and all activities related to homelessness, or any efforts to help people without shelter. Actions by the City this week alone send the message that homeless people do not have the right to sleep, to use laundry facilities or have access to basic human dignities such as access to a bathroom -- quite simply, that homeless people do not have the right to exist within the City limits of Gainesville, nor do faith-based organizations have the capability to attempt to assist these individuals without coming into conflict with increasingly restrictive city codes and ordinances.
We need an immediate answer to the following question: Where does the City of Gainesville expect homeless people to go? On Tuesday night, City staff put forth recommendations to extend RLUIPA provisions to effectively prohibit faith-based facilities from establishing outdoor sleeping facilities. Alongside statements, although improperly made, by officers of the City Police Department that homeless people will not be able to occupy any outdoor places where they may find even the most rudimentary forms of shelter, it is impossible to classify the City's relationship with the Office on Homelessness, the Homeless Coalition, or any number of agencies and individuals committed to ending homelessness, as any form of effective partnership. According to the most recent homeless point-in-time survey, homelessness has increased by 43% from this time last year, and more people are homeless in the City than at any time since surveys were initiated in 2003. We remain committed to attempting to work together, but the statements and actions of City officials and representatives do not add up to a reciprocal commitment to work with advocates and service providers to remedy this situation.
Thank you in advance for looking into these matters,
Jon DeCarmine, Executive Director,Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness, 352.372.2549 // 352.373.4097 (fax)
[Activist Miriam Welly Elliott suggests we inundate the City Manager with phone calls: 334-5010. - editors]
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