GRACE’s street outreach saves lives

by Jon DeCarmine
Executive Director, GRACE Marketplace

There is perhaps no program that has a bigger impact on the quality of life—for housed and unhoused people alike—in Gainesville than GRACE’s street outreach program. 

This five-person team meets people where they are, literally, to provide services, housing, and other support to people who can’t, or won’t, seek shelter. 

The program launched in 2021, intent on capturing the spirit of the HOME Van, a long-standing Gainesville institution. 

The HOME Van was a legendary mobile soup kitchen and free store that visited homeless camps with volunteers committed to working with people as equals. 

GRACE’s street outreach team picks up where the HOME Van left off, with staff and volunteers helping to connect people with housing and making sure they have what they need to survive while living outdoors. 

GRACE’s street outreach distributes condoms to sex workers, safe use equipment to substance users, food and medications to the elderly, and bus passes to help people who are stranded here get back to their own communities. 

We give out cold drinks on hot days, and warm food on cold ones. We are a community harm reduction program that has had unprecedented success.

GRACE’s street outreach team was the first in town to focus on housing—the only solution to homelessness. Since June 2021, the five-person team has moved 248 people off the streets and into housing. 

Last year, we added a psychiatrist to the team once a week to provide mental health treatment, support, and medications. From the very beginning, we positioned the team as an alternative to law enforcement responses, and have handled more than 60 calls that the Gainesville Police Department would have otherwise responded to. 

This has moved our community closer to a world where we are responding to human suffering with compassionate, supportive responses, rather than the threat of arrest if someone isn’t willing or able to move along. 

This incredible team is at risk of losing its funding. 

At the Aug. 28 joint City/County Commission meeting, City commissioners acknowledged that they cannot afford to fund the program due to massive budget cuts related to the Tallahassee takeover of Gainesville Regional Utilities. 

County Commissioners, on the other hand, acknowledged that they support and value the program, but would be unwilling to provide funding unless their staff takes control of the program and claims it as a County program. 

Without $350,000 of funding for the next year, the program will end in November. 

In 2005, and again in 2009, Gainesville was named one of the 10 meanest cities in the country based on its treatment of people without housing. 

Since that time, we’ve built GRACE, an award-winning collaborative response that has reduced local homelessness, developed new national best practices, and reenergized the community’s response to homelessness, leading to massive reductions in total and unsheltered homelessness. 

We have had two major, visible encampments in the past five years—Dignity Village, and the Fire Station camp on South Main Street. This outreach team, in both instances, developed a solution that not only solved the problems, but did so by moving more than 170 campers into permanent housing instead of just bulldozing the encampments and arresting the occupants. 

GRACE has extensive experience and demonstrated success tackling the most complex homeless services problems in our community, and a track record of delivering services in a respectful, effective, and efficient way. 

County government is too bureaucratic to provide the flexible, on-the-ground solutions street outreach demands. If the street outreach program were struggling, and not delivering in terms of housing placements or other outcomes, a takeover by the government might be warranted. 

Initiating a government takeover of a thriving local program is something we’d expect to see out of Tallahassee, but never from our local leaders. 

GRACE’s successes

In its first two years, the GRACE outreach team has accomplished:

  • 248 housing placements
  • 1,445 case management visits
  • 4,364 instances of “contact”– the initial work of engaging with people on the streets, building rapport, and seeing how we can help
  • Helped 233 people secure the documents they need to sign a lease (ID, birth certificate) or obtain income (social security card)
  • 252 psychiatric visits (in the one year since we’ve added a psychiatrist to the team)
  • Responded to 65 referrals from law enforcement, ensuring we solve social service problems with social services, and not law enforcement
  • Six referrals from business owners and other community members
  • 59 referrals from local government, including staff on the Downtown Plaza
  • 60 referrals from social service agencies
  • Nearly 100 referrals from the local Continuum of Care. 

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