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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (May 14, 2020) ‒ With complete disregard to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidance, this morning at 10 a.m. Gainesville Police Department and Florida Department of Corrections officers ordered those living in a homeless encampment near Grace Marketplace to vacate the area. 

About a half dozen officers issued trespass warnings to about 20 people living there, giving them until 5 p.m. today to remove their tents and personal property. In many cases, the trespass warnings were left outside empty tents. 

CDC guidance advises against dispersing those living in homeless encampments without providing alternative housing, stating:

“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Federal money is available to provide housing or non-congregate shelter like hotels to homeless people, including through FEMA and the CARES Act, but the Alachua County Health Department, Alachua County Commission, and  the City of Gainesville Commission so far have declined to do so. 

“It is irresponsible for state and local governments to evict homeless people from a current camp during a pandemic without providing alternative housing solutions,” said Southern Legal Counsel Litigation Director Kirsten Anderson. “We urge our local government to take immediate action to leverage federal funds, as other communities have done, to move homeless people into housing or, at a minimum, hotels.”

The trespass warning from Lancaster Correctional Institution and the Florida Department of Corrections identified the property as belonging to the DOC and threatened that law enforcement would be contacted and property disposed of in the case of anyone failing to comply.

The encampment formed recently after a larger encampment, Dignity Village, was gradually closed by the city, leaving many of its 200 residents with nowhere to go. Within the last week, the City of Gainesville shut off the water to Dignity Village and removed portable toilets and dumpsters.

SLC homeless outreach paralegal Kimber Tough observed and videotaped this morning’s law enforcement action after speaking at a recent Alachua County Commission meeting to urge the placement of homeless persons in hotels to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. In response to concerns SLC received from the residents of the camp, Tough has been doing continuous outreach there over the last several weeks.

“Continuing to displace people from one camp to another is dangerous and cruel,” said Tough, a trained social worker. “The City of Gainesville cannot keep turning to law enforcement to hide its failure to address a human rights crisis, which is a lack of adequate housing.”

A recent study demonstrates persons experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk for poor health outcomes if they contract COVID-19, including a higher projected rate of hospitalization, need for intensive care, and risk of death. The study concluded that immediate steps should be taken to move homeless individuals into adequate and humane housing solutions, including hotels, to save lives and protect public health and safety.

SLC’s homeless advocacy encourages local governments to pursue constructive solutions that target the root causes of homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing and services, instead of harassing and jailing homeless people with nowhere else to go. Policies and initiatives to end homelessness are more cost-effective than using the criminal justice system to punish homeless people for conduct necessary for survival.