By Kyle Hayes
View of Tent City. Photos by Ashley Crane
Just beyond the brush of the Hawthorne State Trail, there is the faint outline of a self-enclosed camp. A short walk along an overgrown path will lead to the outskirts of the camp known as Tent City. Gainesville’s Tent City has served as the convergent meeting and living space for the city’s homeless for decades.
Nina McNeal is a long-time resident of this space. She’s in her sixties and affectionately known as “Ma” around the camp. McNeal keeps a Bible in her tent along with the clothes and food she brings in from the St. Francis House. McNeal says she likes the community that has formed in the area.
“Everybody knows everybody,” said McNeal, who thinks the residents are mostly content with their makeshift neighborhood. “Some like it, some don’t.”
Tent City sits on land that belongs to Larry Calton. Calton allows the tent site for the city’s homeless to stay on his property. His land has been the sole location for Tent City since the City Commission voted in 2007 to evict all homeless people that had been using public land to set up tents. This decision was intended to help the homeless by forcing them to find proper housing. Instead, it just caused them to move on to Calton’s private property.
Jack Donovan, Executive Director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, says that if the city had kept its stake in Tent City, it could have used city funds to improve the conditions and expand the site to offer services and more legitimate housing.
“Pinellas Hope is an example of what can happen if the city helps improve the [tent city] it already has,” said Donovan.
Pinellas Hope, a “tent city” in Pinellas County, receives over $1 million in public funding every year and is able to effectively regulate who passes through, which in turn helps keep out illegal activity and violence. However, since Gainesville’s Tent City now illegally resides on private land, it can’t be effectively controlled, and the city has been forced to search for a new location.
Unfortunately, this city-wide search has been slowed down by opposition since it began and has gone on much longer than initially expected. The city went through a few cycles of first proposing new locations to transition to, then looking into these locations, and then finally shutting down plans after facing opposition from neighboring businesses who were resistant to the idea of an influx of the city’s homeless to their area. Progress was slow at best, and meanwhile, Calton was having to deal with violence and other issues on his property, including one incident of an alligator attack.
A significant step was reached in 2008 when the city decided on a publicly-owned site near NW 53rd Ave. for a new “one-stop” homeless shelter called the Grace Marketplace. The proposed shelter would include facilities with beds and housing for families and services like job training and medical care. In the four years since its announcement, however, the city hasn’t even broken ground on the site.
A major factor in the holdup is the requirement of a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The land under the proposed shelter contains wetlands, and although there is no expected environmental damage, the permit is still required. Without it, the land can’t even be used as a campsite, much less begin to undergo the construction of the shelter. This delay, according to Donovan, won’t defeat the shelter but can definitely prolong its construction. He says the process in issuing the permit is usually much quicker, and thinks there may be some political motivation behind the delay.
Another obstacle to the shelter’s progress has been the efforts of Ropen Nalbandian, a local business owner with factories near the proposed site. Nalbandian is attempting to block the project by issuing a series of four different zoning lawsuits. These lawsuits center around the idea that the city can’t use the land for the shelter in an otherwise industrial area. Donovan calls the basis for these suits ridiculous. He believes their intent is to try to defeat the proposed shelter by prolonging it until it dies. The lawsuits remain pending, with one already having been dismissed. Nalbandian has offered to donate land on Waldo Road that is owned by his company, Vital Properties, in a settlement. This site, however, was already considered and dismissed as a location for the shelter before it was bought by Nalbandian in 2011.
Nalbandian isn’t the only one who opposes the shelter’s location being set in the area around NW 53rd. Cindy Lacoste works close to the site of the proposed shelter at the offices of Charles Berg Enterprises, Inc.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Lacoste. “It’s all wetlands, there are no sidewalks, no bus stops, and it’s nowhere near St. Francis or the other places that offer services to the homeless.”
Nina “Ma” McNeal has lived in Tent City for four years. She says Tent City has a real sense of community; some people like that, others don’t.
Lacoste is in favor of one possible solution being discussed: the former correctional institute out by NW 39th Ave which is currently sitting vacant. This site could easily be transformed into a more cost-effective location for a shelter. However, this idea faces powerful opposition, this time from Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe. Mayor Lowe cites the failure of a previously proposed site near the correctional institute, which faced opposition in part due to its proximity to the Alachua County Fairgrounds, as evidence that the new proposal would suffer the same fate.
Many people disagree with the mayor on this issue, including both Donovan and Lacoste. They see the idea as a more practical and cost-effective solution than building completely new facilities out on 53rd Ave.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Lacoste. “It’s already there; it just needs to be improved. And if a jail didn’t affect the surrounding area,” she added, “why would a homeless shelter?”
However, the city has remained steadfast in its plan of moving forward with construction on the site on 53rd Ave. once the wetlands permit is issued, regardless of the status of the Nalbandian lawsuits.
Though the city cites a waiting period of just six months before the start of any real changes, Donovan thinks a timeline of two years is more realistic.
As a result of this frustrating waiting game, residents of Tent City have grown skeptical of the possibility of changing sites or bringing improvements. They’ve heard talk like this before, and have yet to see results. Nina McNeal thinks the transfer to NW 53rd Ave. is not going to happen. She carries on with her daily routine in Tent City where she’s lived for four years — restocking her tent with food, swapping supplies with the neighbors and praying with others at the cross whenever she gets the chance. McNeal plans to continue to live in Tent City until she sees real improvements like the ones being discussed.
“Nothing’s changed since I’ve been here,” said McNeal. “But anything will help.”