Local leaders tout shuttered homeless encampment

Two years ago this month Alachua County and city commissioners unanimously voted to close Dignity Village, a 25-acre homeless encampment in east Gainesville.

That proved easier said than done—particularly since officials wanted to empty the camp without making arrests. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help.

But now, after a long transition process, local leaders are crediting the city’s partnership with GRACE Marketplace for providing permanent housing solutions for hundreds of people who had been experiencing homelessness.

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“In the first three months of 2021, we’ve moved 125 people into permanent housing,” GRACE executive director Jon DeCarmine said in an email interview.

Even though Dignity Village closed last year, many of the residents moved next door into GRACE Marketplace, which provides housing, food, and health care services. It took time to transition former village residents into more stable situations.

But those efforts have paid off, according to the city. It reported three to four emergency service calls per day when Dignity Village was at its peak, but after residents were moved onto the GRACE property, the calls dropped to less than one per day.

The efforts have also drawn national attention. American City & County—which covers state and local governments—recently named Gainesville one of its 2020 Crown Communities awardees for the successful closure of Dignity Village.

“This award recognizes the efforts of all those who remain committed to transitioning people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing,” Assistant City Manager Deborah Bowie said in a press release. “That’s the only solution to homelessness, and we do so with a focus on treating each neighbor with love, dignity and respect.”

As the pandemic winds down, GRACE is looking ahead to resuming volunteer programs in the fall. DeCarmine said that before COVID-19 partners invested about 2,000 volunteer hours at GRACE monthly. He expects the end of the pandemic to boost the organization’s efforts.

“After spending a year managing our response to the pandemic, and finding every way we could to keep people healthy and housed, we’re really looking forward to getting back to what we do best—ending homelessness,” DeCarmine said.

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