Gainesville Florida Downtown, Taking It Back:
To Control Gainesville’s Downtown Homeless During The Pandemic, Police Turned To A Private Security Contractor
Since then, a camp has grown at old Fire Station 1, a city property slated for redevelopment.
Tents of all sizes, makeshift bikes and art projects, and a table with food, drinks, clothes and hygiene products all sit on the driveway of old Fire Station 1 in downtown Gainesville. The abandoned fire station is now a new kind of safe space: a refuge of last resort for dozens of Gainesville’s homeless people.
James Scott, also known as Tygur, blasts “Last Call” by Kanye West from an FM radio in his tent. Robert Thomas, perched in a tattered folding chair, reads and reflects on Psalm 42, as he does most days. And Frank Edwards bides his time, doing what he can to get from one day to the next. All of the camp residents live on the edge of society, and each has their own way of coping with the all-pervading uncertainty that is being homeless.
On Sept. 15, the fire station camp will close for good – a familiar situation for many of the people living there. The city placed a sign at the old fire station on July 12 that reads: “Relocation assistance will be provided to persons who sign on to the official roster by July 31…”
Although Thomas asked to be added to the rehousing roster, there are people at the camp who don’t want to be rehoused.
“They’re gonna push them away because they’re gonna fence the area in,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for the outreach team to do what they have to do.”
The fire station camp has a complex backstory. The COVID-19 pandemic turned much of downtown Gainesville into unoccupied territory in 2020, and homeless people say they came to rely on the spaces that closed businesses, empty bus stops and vacant parking lots afforded them.
In early 2020, business owners and some downtown residents brought concerns to the city about what they saw as an increase in the homeless population in downtown, according to public records. One complaint bemoaned the state of Lynch Park, which is located directly across the street from old Fire Station 1.
“I found trash and drug garbage lying on the ground inside the fence,” the complaint reads. “Now it’s just become a homeless camp.”
Due in part to these complaints, the short-staffed Gainesville Police Department turned to a private security contractor named Excelsior Defense to conduct early-morning patrols and compel the downtown homeless to “move along.”
Legal advocates and some camp residents say systemic housing issues, the seizure of homeless people’s belongings by the city, and the private security patrols all contributed to the creation of a homeless encampment at the old fire station.
Private Security Patrols And Code Violations
“I just want to inform you that the security guard patrol seems to be very productive,” Excelsior Defense CEO Jeff Dunn wrote in an email to Gainesville Police Department lieutenant David Rowe on March 26, 2020. The patrols seemed to be working – Excelsior security guards compelled 19 homeless people to “move along” in a single shift, and they doubled back to make sure none of the homeless people returned to the locations they’d previously occupied.
This email is one of dozens Excelsior employees sent to police officials regarding the effectiveness of patrols the company conducted in 2020. Emails and other public records reviewed by WUFT News show close cooperation between Excelsior and Gainesville police as they tried to move homeless people out of downtown.
The city of Gainesville first contracted Excelsior Defense to provide security at City Hall and the now-closed Dignity Village homeless camp. City Manager Lee Feldman signed and approved the subsequent contract that expanded Excelsior’s responsibilities to include patrolling downtown Gainesville, according to city public information officer Rosanna Passaniti.
According to an email sent by Rowe in June 2020, Excelsior Defense employees started patrolling downtown Gainesville on March 23, 2020. The patrols, which occurred seven nights per week, covered locations where homeless people regularly sought shelter, such as public parks, parking garages, and near abandoned buildings.
Sean Pinion, who is homeless, remembers the night Excelsior guards made him move along. He states he was sleeping on United Methodist Church property and says he had permission from the church to be there.
“They sprayed me and kicked me,” Pinion said. “The cop that sprayed me, he was wearing that navy blue uniform, so he’s a security officer because he didn’t have a gun. But he had the flashlight, the nightstick.”
Pinion said the Excelsior security guards came early in the morning and without warning.
“They didn’t say ‘get up and move.’ That’s all you had to say. I would’ve got up and moved. I’m not gonna start trouble,” Pinion said.
Excelsior Defense declined to comment on this incident or any aspect of the downtown patrols, citing a non-disclosure agreement included in its contract with the city.
Excelsior Defense patrol reports recorded the number of homeless people the guards encountered during a shift and detailed the number of homeless people who’d taken up residence at various downtown locations, such as the old fire station.
In response to questions about these patrols, Passaniti said Gainesville’s approach to homelessness is more compassionate than many other cities.
“While other communities pursue criminalization as the solution to homelessness, Gainesville makes every effort to minimize arrests and encounters with law enforcement,” she said.
While there are several local shelters, such as Grace Marketplace, located off Northeast 28th Avenue, these places aren’t for everyone. Some recovering addicts say they avoid shelters due to drug activity. Others say shelters sometimes house people they’re afraid to live with. These complicating factors, according to advocates, lead some people to live downtown even though they’d technically qualify to live in a shelter.
“If they made everybody move from here, I’m not going to Grace because of that past addiction problem,” Edwards said. “I go to Grace like a fool and… then start using again myself. I’m not gonna let the city do this to me.”
Some homeless people from the area and their legal advocates say the patrols had unintended consequences, causing homeless people who were previously spread out across downtown to congregate together.
Kirsten Anderson, former litigation director at the Southern Legal Counsel, said the lack of public debate surrounding the use of private security guards downtown is, for her, problematic.
“The fact that it was private security and not the police meant there kind of wasn’t the same level of accountability that usually exists,” she said.
Anderson wishes the community could’ve had a say in whether a private security company should compel homeless people to vacate public areas, even if the guards were enforcing existing trespassing laws.
“There’s a reason that you have legislative bodies meeting (openly) where you give the public a notice that you want to adopt a policy or an ordinance, and people have an opportunity to comment,” Anderson said.
Excelsior guards state in emails that their primary focus was on homeless people who were sleeping on private property and closed public property. An Excelsior Defense email from April 9, 2020, states that guards encountered 41 people during that night’s shift, but clarifies “this is only a list of individuals we found sleeping.”
Gainesville Police Department spokesperson Graham Glover said the Excelsior Defense patrols ended in August 2020, when the police department rectified a staffing shortage. But the city of Gainesville offers a different reason for the patrols ending.
“When it was brought to the city manager’s attention these patrolling operations were being executed in a manner that runs counter to our compassionate approach, the patrolling assignment was cancelled promptly,” Passaniti said.
According to Kimber Tough, a social worker and homeless outreach advocate at the Southern Legal Counsel, the patrols prompted volunteers at the Civic Media Center, located at 433 S. Main Street, to post signage notifying the unhoused and authorities that people were allowed to store belongings and sleep outside there. The building is directly adjacent to the old fire station.
The increasing number of homeless people in front of the Civic Media Center led to citizen complaints, and on Oct. 26, 2020, the city of Gainesville issued a code violation to Chris Fillie, the owner of the building housing the Civic Media Center.
“There are homeless individuals living in the entryway to each business of the building,” the notice of violation states. “The encampments have created complaints regarding trash and the smell of human waste.”
The code violation prompted Fillie to place some of the homeless people’s belongings next door at the old fire station, and he told the people sheltered around the Civic Media Center to leave. The old fire station, which had been a hangout for homeless people for several years, would soon become a bonafide makeshift shelter.
The city of Gainesville disputes the notion that the Excelsior Defense patrols or the seizure of homeless people’s belongings had any impact on the formation of the downtown homeless camp.
“The pandemic has increased economic hardship for all neighbors, including those experiencing homelessness,” Passaniti said.
Homeless people who’d been pushed out of parks and off of bus stop benches were now forced off the sidewalk in front of the Civic Media Center. With few other places to go and nowhere to call home, people drifted toward the old fire station. A community sprang up there, and passersby began to drop off donations and supplies, further cementing the camp’s place on South Main Street.
It was the kind of situation law enforcement and the city tried to prevent all along: a homeless camp in the heart of Gainesville.
Tygur lives in a large blue and orange tent in front of the old fire station. The tent’s entrance is marked by a patch of artificial grass, personal relics and a yellow, wooden tiger head wearing a crown. Some days he paints and draws on makeshift canvases and in sketchbooks; his work has an abstract and spiritual focus. Other days he builds motorized bikes from scrap parts he collects. Whether he’s organizing food donations or securing tents and personal belongings for camp residents, the process of making vacant space a home is nothing new for Tygur.
“It’s just what I do,” he said. “I’m out here myself but I’m also trying to help people in any way I can; you just have to.”
Although a daily gathering at the camp may see 20 to 30 people, Executive Director of Grace Marketplace Jon DeCarmine said only about 15 people routinely stay overnight.
Patrick Dodds, director of the North Central Florida Alliance for the Homeless and the Hungry, said one of the factors that helped this camp was the sense of community that built up over time.
“There are plenty of folks who want to be isolated, they want to be on their own, they want to be left to their own devices,” he said. “But the majority of them are just like you and I; they want community, they want security.”
Camp residents and their advocates pushed the city to change its policy toward the old fire station encampment in late 2020 and early 2021.
Edwards, Tygur and others helped secure two portable restrooms and a set of lockers for homeless people to use at the camp, although the city later stated it plans to move the lockers to Grace Marketplace because they were underutilized.
Even though there’s now a firm date set for the camp’s closure, residents face an incredibly uncertain future.
Tygur has vivid memories of police sweeping past camps, such as a camp he helped to found off of the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail near the Sweetwater Wetlands preserve.
“We have cops that are out here to patrol to help the homeless,” he said. “We have other cops that are out here that just want to put you in jail. It shouldn’t be like that.”
This history of getting pushed from one camp to another looms over the old fire station. Some residents say they won’t leave unless they’re forced to, and even then, some claim they would put up a fight.
But the strategy the city and outreach organizations employed when the Dignity Village camp closed provides a beacon of hope. The fire station camp residents, just like those at Dignity Village, will be put at the top of the rehousing list, a policy both the city and advocates consider to be highly effective.
What Comes Next For Camp Residents And The Property
Even before the signs went up declaring the fire station camp would close Sept. 15, DeCarmine and Grace’s downtown outreach team were actively working to rehouse those living there.
DeCarmine said this type of street outreach targets people who may not feel comfortable going to the Grace Marketplace campus or other homeless shelters.
“You don’t have to come into Grace to talk to a case manager, you don’t have to come in to use a shelter bed,” he said.
Along with traditional shelter services, DeCarmine says Grace increasingly deploys outreach teams that function like social workers. They manage cases and help connect homeless people with rehousing assistance.
Outreach workers are compiling a roster of people who are officially living at the old fire station. DeCarmine said the team is working with the Alachua County government to provide one of two housing options to people: permanent supportive housing, where a person’s housing expenses are paid for indefinitely, and rapid rehousing, which consists of short-term rental assistance.
Thomas, who has been homeless for several years, said he has mixed feelings about the housing outreach but wants other unhoused individuals to put “pride to the side” and accept the help.
“In certain areas, I’m excited about it,” Thomas said. Still, he knows some people won’t want to take advantage of the programs.
Edwards, Thomas and Pinion are all on a path to being rehoused. And as of July 21, outreach workers had added 24 people connected to the fire station camp to a prioritized rehousing roster.
However, some camp residents, including Tygur, say they aren’t planning to accept assistance from the city or Alachua County.
Dodds said Grace’s outreach initiative, which recently received about $200,000 in city funding, works to provide housing to people who are wary of accepting public help.
We’re seeing a lot of the folks who have always been difficult to serve, regardless, are still very difficult to get to,” he said.
To recover from COVID-19 expenses, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the Coalition of Care a one time budget of $4.8 million to spend in a year.
“We will be essentially increasing our annual funding for the next year, fivefold, six fold,” he said. “We’ll be able to see what we can do with $5 million.”
With both funding and outreach work combined, DeCarmine hopes Grace and other organizations will be able to make a major impact on homelessness in north central Florida.
“So the combination of closing Dignity Village, working to get folks from the fire station into permanent supportive housing, and then catching other people before they get to that stage, I think is going to be a game changer for homelessness in our community,.” DeCarmine said.
There are major plans for the old fire station property. The University of Florida and the city hope to transform the property in the coming years, turning the station that closed in 2015 into a multi-million dollar arts and culture center, known as SPARC 352. The project is part of a larger city plan to revitalize downtown Gainesville.
Dionne Champion, a research assistant professor in the Center for Arts and Medicine and one of the two co-directors of the SPARC 352 initiative, said they envision this project as a “knowledge and empowerment hub.”
Andrew Telles, director of UF’s Office of Collaborative Initiatives, said the project kicked off in 2020 when the city drafted plans to revamp some downtown properties, the old firehouse being one of them.
“They wanted to see this available and open in the evenings and on weekends – programming that addresses needs by the community, for the community,” Telles said. “We weren’t asked in the context of addressing an issue regarding homelessness or any other kind of specific issues.”
Edwards looks forward to being housed but said he wishes the old fire station could have become a place of shelter rather than an arts center.
“This right here proves that they’re not concerned about the homeless in Gainesville,” he said.
For Tygur, moving along has become a way of life. After the fire station camp closes in September, Tygur plans to move to a camp in a wooded area near the East Gainesville Walmart. Once there, he says he’ll try to secure new tents and supplies for the people living there.
“I’ll be doing something like the same thing I’m doing here but over there,” he said. “Them people need it. I’ll try to connect them with the outreach teams from Grace, get them on the housing list.”
According to Tough and Anderson, the homeless camp at the old fire station was and is a symptom of long term, systemic problems that aren’t unique to Gainesville. They view shortages of affordable housing and the police department’s use of private security guards to control the downtown homeless population as troubling policy failures.
“We need real solutions,” Anderson said. “We can’t just be moving people along.”