By Everitt Rosen

Published July 20, 2020

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Closing a homeless encampment amid a pandemic is no easy task, but Gainesville has done just that.

The tents that rose on the outskirts of town just off Waldo Road are now gone. The community of about 350 people that came to be known as Dignity Village is again just a patch of land, slowly reverting to its natural woody state.

This work is a collaboration among the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service, the University of Oregon, Stanford University, Arizona State University, the University of Arkansas, Boston University and the University of Florida.

The man who oversaw the shuttering of the homeless encampment — Jon DeCarmine, executive director of GRACE Marketplace, the city’s largest homeless shelter — said he was proud of the way it was done. It was slow, methodical and without any arrests or known cases of COVID-19, even though the homeless are among the most vulnerable amid the ongoing pandemic.

Gainesville has managed to humanely shut down the encampment in hopes that its residents will finally be able to find permanent shelter, DeCarmine said. GRACE sits about 100 feet from what was Dignity Village, on the other side of a chain-link fence.

City and county officials had decided the fate of Dignity Village in May 2019, when they voted unanimously to shut it down amid frequent emergency calls to police and fire rescue, according to Gainesville city records. Interviews with dozens of Dignity Village residents revealed that some were concerned with the amount of violence, property theft and drug use in the increasingly overcrowded tent community.

An encampment like Dignity, city and county officials said, was not a viable solution for solving homelessness. Instead, the plan was to allow Dignity residents temporary space within the GRACE compound before they could be moved into permanent housing.

“It provided people a place to be that was safer and cleaner than Dignity Village had been,” DeCarmine said. “It prioritized their very urgent housing needs. It addressed the community need of tackling homelessness like a problem that could be ended, as opposed to one that had to be managed.”

The slow shuttering of Dignity, which began last fall, sounded seamless on paper. Reality was different.

The dismantling of the tent city was well on its way when it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus paused the relocation of the last few Dignity residents into GRACE. On March 20, the shelter announced a voluntary quarantine and stopped accepting new residents on the campus. But on June 1, the shelter began accepting people again, with mandatory testing and adhesion to strict guidelines followed at nursing homes.

DeCarmine said 222 Dignity residents were on the roster in October, when the dismantling began. Of those, 78 have been permanently housed — 65 are still living within the GRACE compound, where they have access to food, water and services and 20 people have moved elsewhere.

GRACE has implemented a slow, phased reopening with extra disinfection and cleaning, mandatory testing and social distancing requirements.

“At this point, I am incredibly pleased with how we have fared with the pandemic,” DeCarmine said.

The slow shuttering of Dignity, which began last fall, sounded seamless on paper. Reality was different. 

Many residents were wary of moving inside the fence; they saw the GRACE campus, built in a former prison facility, as confining. Some said they would be forced to seek shelter not at GRACE but elsewhere. Maybe they’d move into the woods, hidden from society. Maybe they’d be forgotten, even. Stress and fear were common as the dismantling of this homeless community swung into full gear. All of it was heightened by the coronavirus.

Newly constructed tent platforms line the inside fence of GRACE days before Dignity Village is set to close. (Chris Day/WUFT)

There were, of course, easier ways to get rid of Dignity Village. Do what other cities have done by calling in cops and bulldozers. Evict everyone on site. Let them scatter about the city. Bring them nowhere closer to having roofs over their heads.

But Gainesville had elected to take a kinder approach. DeCarmine saw it as the only option.

“As homeless populations grow, municipalities tend to revert to criminalizing homelessness rather than trying to deal with it as a housing issue,” he said. 

At a recent meeting, weeks before the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders came down, the Gainesville City Commission voted not to arrest anyone for trespassing until after Dignity Village officially closed. Even after that, the city mandated that officials make multiple attempts to work with those still living in the camp before evicting or arresting them.

The homeless, said Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, are not criminals. They are human beings.

“Homelessness is a problem that has a lot of causes, but none of them is criminality, and our position and our stance on that has not changed,” Poe said.

DeCarmine, who has overseen the Dignity closure, said he believes Gainesville is a “bright spot” in that it has worked to find alternatives to criminalizing the homeless. 

“Being homeless is not friendly or easy for anybody,” he said. “It is among the most traumatic events anyone will ever experience. There’s no excuse for communities that make it more difficult for it to be homeless.”

It’s generally accepted that no one knows the breadth of homelessness in Gainesville and surrounding Alachua County better than DeCarmine. He has, after all, been thinking of ways to get people off the streets since one of his first encounters with homeless people in 1996. He was then a young volunteer for the group Food Not Bombs and asked a simple question of people he met on the streets: Who is helping you find a home? The answer was shocking: No one. 

Jon DeCarmine, right, directs setup of the tent platforms inside GRACE. (Chris Day/WUFT)

DeCarmine had moved to Florida from New York, where homelessness was so rampant it had been accepted as a part of life. But he didn’t want his two sons growing up thinking it was normal for human beings in the 21st century to be sleeping outside, without shelter.

And how would he explain to them he had decided to not do anything about it? That question set him on a path to conquer the problem. And even though the number of homeless people in Alachua County has dropped from a recent high of 1,814 in 2012 to 804 last year, DeCarmine fears he may still be continuing his battle for some time. 

When DeCarmine began his career in social work, Gainesville was not a friendly place for the homeless. In 2004, the city earned the dubious distinction of having the National Coalition for the Homeless label it the fifth-meanest city in America, in terms of its policies toward the homeless. The organization cited Gainesville’s efforts to close tent cities, restrict access to homeless shelters and clear the homeless from parks and other public places.

In 2009, the city, once again, appeared in the top five of the coalition’s list. Not much had changed. 

DeCarmine was determined to make things better. The people on the streets, he said, were just one step removed from him. He, too, had once struggled to pay his monthly rent. The difference was he had been lucky enough to land on friends’ couches and not on the streets.

“I had made the same mistakes they had made,” he said. “I just had a softer landing pad.

Much of DeCarmine’s passion was fueled by music. He’s a fan of punk rock and used to play in the bands Baker Act and Today Doesn’t Count. 

“There’s two competing ideas of punk rock,” he said. “The idea that the system sucks, so let’s burn it all down, and there’s this idea that the world is a brutal place, let’s do our very best to take care of each other.” 

DeCarmine chose the latter. 

He became executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, and helped author a 10-year plan that, among other things, aimed to provide more affordable housing in Alachua County, increase the number of beds available to the homeless and provide better access to services.

Jon DeCarmine delivers an update to Gainesville city commissioners and the mayor about GRACE Marketplace during a public meeting on Feb. 27, 2020. (Sam Thomas/WUFT)

In some ways, the ambitious plan was yet another document destined to gather dust on a city hall shelf. But in DeCarmine’s view, it led to one critical accomplishment: the 2014 opening of GRACE, a one-stop center for the homeless.

It used to be that a homeless person would have to navigate complex bureaucracy at myriad agencies and offices, all while trying to figure out where to sleep at night. GRACE changed that, DeCarmine said.

“The central piece was that housing should be provided quickly and we should not make people jump through hoops,” he said. “People needed a place to go. They needed shelter, a shower, a place to do laundry.”

GRACE offers all that, as well as trash pickup, computers, meals and medical services.

Since opening, GRACE has been DeCarmine’s project of love. Immediately, many folks moved from a large tent city off South Main Street in downtown to GRACE. 

These days, 200 to 300 people come in daily seeking help. The shelter provides 114 shelter beds and a campground that accommodates another 85 people, including those who relocated from Dignity Village. 

GRACE also provides bus tickets to those who have family and friends elsewhere who are willing to take them in. Even then, the staff at GRACE work to ensure the survival of former residents by helping with necessary items like groceries.

“If somebody moves off of a campus, that doesn’t mean we stop working with them,” DeCarmine said. “That means we have a relationship with them. We know where they’ve moved to, and we continue doing outreach engagement with them on a weekly basis.”

DeCarmine credits the opening of GRACE for reducing homelessness in Alachua County by 36%. He said GRACE was able to find permanent housing for 406 people in 2019. 

But if GRACE was a success, Dignity Village represented a black splotch. It wasn’t a place that strived to get people into homes, he said. It was a stopgap measure for those who had nowhere to turn.

“Dignity Village was the biggest broken piece in an otherwise very effective homeless services system in our community,” DeCarmine said. “It functioned more as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind place not designed to improve the lives of homeless.”

Ultimately, DeCarmine asked himself the question that has kept him going all these years. Do people deserve something better? The answer at Dignity Village was a resounding yes. 

That answer led to the closure of the encampment. One day, it will go back to being part of the forested land it once was and all that will be left of Dignity Village will be the tales of people who were desperate enough to live there.

Lead photo: A tent encampment at Dignity Village, outside of the fence of GRACE Marketplace. (Chris Day/WUFT)