By Jon DeCarmine,
Executive Director, GRACE Marketplace
Dignity Village, the 200+ person homeless camp operated by the City of Gainesville, will close at the end of the year, and be replaced with a temporary campground focused entirely on moving campers into affordable housing.
There are all kinds of ways to close a homeless camp. Most of them are terrible.
The quickest (and least effective) way to do it is what we see most often – communities send in cops and bulldozers and evict people without regard for their safety or well-being.
GRACE has developed a plan to close Dignity Village (DV) centered around access to housing. We’ve vetted the plan with activists, advocates, local officials, and national organizations, and – most importantly – with the people who live in the camp. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is evaluating this massive transformation for adaptation into a national best practice.
Why close the camp?
Tent cities are not a solution to homelessness, but they are increasingly common as housing prices soar and wages and benefits stagnate.
GRACE opened in 2014, and shortly after, City officials worked with a private landowner to shut down a large tent city off of South Main Street. People were told, “You can’t stay here, but you can set up a tent near GRACE and have access to services.”
Our community recreated the tent city but added the basics of public health – clean water, bathrooms, showers, and trash pickup. Campers could walk 100 feet to GRACE for meals, laundry, computers, medical services, and a dozen other agencies ready to help.
For a while, it worked. But with no resources dedicated to housing, people have lived there for years, and are no closer to having a home today than they were when they got there. It is time to fix that. We can do better.
For months, our team has met with campers to find out what would work best for them. Universally, people want a place to stay that is safe and peaceful. They want a good night’s sleep, and for their stuff to not get stolen. The policies we’ve set up – on visitors, storage, pets, and campground layout and expectations – have been set by the people who will live there.
The GRACE proposal tackles the two biggest problems identified by campers – no control over who comes in and out of the camp, and no one working with them to get off the streets.
What happens next?
As of today, no one new can move into DV. The City will fence the area in October, and an unarmed security guard – requested by the residents – will ensure only people who live there can enter.
Meanwhile, we’re setting up a temporary campground on the GRACE campus that will open in December. We’ll provide tents, platforms, and shade, and treat each tent as a shelter bed. Only existing DV residents can use this campground. Anyone who shows up looking for DV will be prioritized for a shelter bed at GRACE. Every local agency providing permanent housing has agreed to prioritize DV campers for the next two years to speed up the housing process.
As soon as someone is housed, the tent and platform come down, and the size of the campground shrinks. Campers can use all the services at GRACE, and we’ll assign someone whose only job is to find that person safe, affordable housing. We’ll offer bus tickets to people who have friends or family they can stay with, but only if we can confirm that the ticket will take them to a safe housing situation. Through these programs, we expect to have almost everyone living in DV housed over the next two years.
GRACE’s mission is simple: to end homelessness. Housing — not life skills, not case management, not sobriety — is the only solution to homelessness. Those other things may help, but all the research shows that they are most effective after someone has a home.
Dignity Village has never been about ending the homelessness of people living there. Instead, it has been a community tool to manage the homeless population and keep the majority of unsheltered people away from downtown.
Dignity Village has long been one of the biggest broken pieces of our community’s housing crisis response system. With this plan, GRACE will transform Dignity Village into an effective tool to end homelessness by providing housing engagement, outreach, and support.