April 3 rally against homelessness recalls King's last speech
Lars Din
April 2008

"We stand here today in support of people in our city who are also under siege," said Rev. Griner at a rally on the steps of Gainesville City Hall this past April 3. The city commission was to vote that evening on a zoning change for property designated for the city's GRACE Marketplace One-Stop Center.

As part of the city and county's much vaunted GRACE 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, there has been incremental movement toward the establishment of a One-Stop Center, which would provide counseling and support facilities for people without housing.

April 3 was also the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last speech, the day before he was assassinated.

To the crowd of just under a hundred people, Reverend Griner drew parallels between King's "Mountaintop" speech in support of sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, and the calling of people of conscience to "not stop until compassion rules here in the city of Gainesville."

Compassion has not been evident lately, according to advocates.

Commissioner Braddy rankled many two weeks ago by requesting GPD arrest statistics that allegedly show a correlation between homelessness and criminality. But University of Florida Law Professor Joe Jackson, who also spoke at the rally, said the numbers show that the homeless are actually arrested less often than one would expect, an observation also made by Mayor Hanrahan in the meeting.

The number of arrests is surprisingly low, said Jackson, because many activities that housed people take for granted, such as sleeping, drinking alcohol and urinating, are illegal on the street.

Taking into account the large number of these misdemeanor offenses, people without housing are no more inclined to violence or anti-social behavior than any other population, such as mortgage brokers, say, or people who like to garden.

But advocates say that this supposed criminality of the homeless is only the most obvious sign of a widespread antipathy among people with homes to addressing economic inequality here.

In the Commission meeting after the rally, after presentations by city staff outlining the lengthy 3-year process of siting the GRACE Marketplace, residents and business representatives from the North Main and Stephen Foster areas assailed the plan as the "right idea, wrong location."

Along with projections of construction cost over-runs and questions about the legality of the proposed zoning change, the citizens also presented anecdotal evidence that their neighborhood is already at risk from people camping in woods nearby, a problem they say would be worsened by establishing the center in the industrial park at 3335 N. Main Terr.

For advocates and city staff who have been involved in this process since the city adopted the GRACE plan, the parade of opposition from passionate tax-payers must have been wearily familiar. In March 2007, the N. Main location was adopted almost by default, when organized opposition from East Gainesville effectively disqualified city-owned property on Waldo Road, north of NE 39 Ave.

In that meeting, residents pointed out that the east side of the city already hosts a concentration of the area's "undesirable" social services, such as the County Jail on NE 39th Ave. These facilities are faulted for discouraging development that would benefit the community, and are seen by some as evidence of bias in regional planning.

In comments after citizen testimony, Commissioners Henry and Bryant both alluded to prejudices at play in the city's search for a location. Apparently addressing the historically more working class Stephen Foster area, Bryant said, "I don't see us trying to put this on the west side, I just don't," while Commissioner Henry expressed pointed frustration that East Gainesville might even still be considered, in response to Commissioner Donovan's comment that he still favored the Waldo Rd. location. "To even bring this up at this point, that's not moving toward dispersal of services."

Ironically, residents and business-owners of the Stephen Foster neighborhood and North Main industrial park were enthusiastic in offering an alternative site for the One-Stop Center, and quick to profess their support for the city plan, as long as it was located elsewhere. On hearing someone from the rally outside ask about people with "right idea, wrong location" badges, one resident sitting nearby turned to snap, "excuse me, we are not anti-homeless."

This conflict between residents and advocates is not new. Homelessness has been polarizing residents of this town for a while now, and the halls of city government have been in the middle of the fray.

In 2006 the city commission agreed to settle with Fire of God, a ministry on NE 23rd Ave, rather than risk a costly court battle over the constitutionality of a church serving food to its congregation. And this year the city, under pressure from some business owners and a small group of residents, is reviewing its regulations for churches with respect to serving food and offering shelter to those in need. Even the GRACE 10 Year Plan has benefited from the enlightened self-interest of businesses who champion reduced visibility of the poor, presumed bad for business.

But making homelessness invisible isn't the same as ending it. The good citizens of Gainesville may be forgiven for being confused by the housing issue. National discourse on the topic in the last twenty years has been short-circuited by addressing it primarily as a law enforcement issue, without inquiry into the origin of such widespread desperation. Local fears of predators among the homeless are a good distraction from thornier questions of how and why.

Homelessness on the scale that we see today dates to the 1980's. Although they rarely become a part of policy debate, the origins of it are not mysterious. Affordable housing everywhere has disappeared.

In the six years leading up to 1982, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development built 3/4 of a million new public housing units. But in the 25 years since 1983, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, HUD built only a 1/4 million units.

In other words, averaging over time there were more than 12 times as many new public housing units built before 1982 as in the last two and a half decades.

To make matters worse, in recent years 200,000 private sector housing units have been lost every single year, while 1.2 million unsubsidized affordable housing units vanished from 1993-2003.*

Combined with the crumbling of manufacturing, public sector, and other employment possibilities for working Americans, homelessness becomes a logical consequence of a public policy that favors corporations and punishes the poor.

Coordinator of the HOME Van, Arupa Freeman said, "it's time to stop hating people for being poor." But public policy that favors the wealthy is as old as government, if not its primary responsibility. On the question of housing, only the people of Gainesville can change that.

One UF student drew the loudest laughter of the meeting when she said, most of the "public urination in Gainesville is by university students, and no one is talking about banning university students." Tongue in cheek, Mayor Hanrahan quipped, "that's a whole other meeting.

In the end, perhaps it isn't that the homeless are criminal, predatory, stubbornly self-destructive or bad for business.

Perhaps it is just easier to suspect that there must be something wrong with people who have lost their means. Easier than to address the problem. Easier than to admit how close we are to similar circumstances, as Commissioner Henry said, "just one catastrophic medical emergency away." Perhaps at issue is that homelessness reminds us of the brutality built into our battered economy, even here in a carefully-landscaped southern town.

In his last speech, 40 years before this Gainesville City Commission meeting in which the needs of the homeless were tabled for further discussion, Dr. King talked of a trip he took with Mrs. King from Jerusalem to Jericho, down the steep winding road that became the setting for Jesus' most famous parable, about an injured man and those who passed him by.

"That's a dangerous road," said King. Maybe the priest and the Levite were afraid that the "robbers were still around," said King, or that the bleeding man was "merely faking" in order to do them harm.

Prophetically, and speaking on behalf of the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, King said that like the Samaritan, we are called on not to ask, "if I stop to help these people, what will happen to me? The question is," he said the day before he was shot, "if I don't stop to help them, what will happen to them?"

These days there are signs of even harder times ahead. With more than 200,000 home foreclosures every month since the end of 2007, this may be the beginning of a new epidemic of homelessness and desperation. These days, what we need to ask is: "if we don't stop to help these residents of our community, what will happen to all of us?"

*Source: U.S. Congress & Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (2006). America's Rental Housing: Homes for a Diverse Nation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, quoted in "Without Housing" by the Western Regional Advocacy Project, http://wraphome.org

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