GAINESVILLE – During a Florida summer, the heat inland is far worse than by the coast. The humidity hangs in the atmosphere with no breeze to move it along. It feels hotter than Iraq under a tarp in Dignity Village. No moving air. No fans. “Welcome to Dignity Village!” a man calls to me. “Home of the homeless, land of the free!”
It’s not really a village. It’s a tent city. Both the administration and people living there tell me the city sits on about 12 acres (about 48,500 meters square) back into the woods.
Dignity Village is next to Grace Marketplace, a shelter set up by the city of Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (UF). It was formerly part of the Alachua County Jail that was closed for years and then retrofitted. Viewing the area from space, you can see the tents poking out from the tree-line. Staff administration tells me that residents of Dignity Village can go to Grace Marketplace to receive three meals a day from their kitchen and use the facilities. All services except for shelter are offered to the 200 people who live around the perimeter fence. The UF mobile medical clinic makes weekly visits, and a retired doctor from Gainesville volunteers his time to provide care once a week as well.
I go to the kitchen to speak with the residents preparing lunch. Shelly is making sandwiches, putting half-slices of yellow cheese and a ration of ham on top of mismatched, donated bread. She tells me that before she came to Grace Marketplace, she was working as a house cleaner in Gainesville making $9.50 an hour, or about $1,300 a month.
“When I graduate, when I get done, and when I get to where I need to be, I won’t be in Gainesville. Because I can’t afford Gainesville. And maybe that’s something, you know, it’s not just one town. It’s a lot.”
She tells me she’s been on a waiting list for public housing for three years.
“It ain’t happening.”
“If you’re paying $1,200 a month or whatever for rent, and your utilities, and all that, you can’t afford it. That’s why they got subleasing here, or you got to live with a bunch of people. I live with enough people. I really want to live by myself. But I can’t afford it. That’s why I’m here.”
“What is minimum wage? $8.05? Ok, you’re paying $800 a month rent, you’re getting 40 hours a week, how you gonna do that? How you gonna do that? You can’t.”
“Why isn’t it the same way everywhere? How come one state’s $7, the next state’s $10, why? We’re all underneath the same government, aren’t we?”
Shelly chalks up the high cost of living in Gainesville to its status as a college town. Students depend on their parents to pay.
“Take a homeless person’s child, you think it’s gonna get into UF? No. They don’t have that money.”
I ask her if she thinks the child of a homeless person is able to move up in the US.
“Yeah, I do believe that. Cuz you can do that, you can do whatever you want. But you know what, sometimes it’s a sad thing, you are a product of your environment. You know? And that’s a sad thing. My mom was a judge. My dad was retired from Cook’s nuclear plant, one of the biggest nuclear plants, and look at me. So, I wasn’t really — I have that take that statement back. I just had a lot of bad things fall on me at one time.”
She pauses. “I think they should help women more.”
Why do you think? I ask.
“I’m a single woman, but if I don’t have a bunch of kids hanging off my hip, I ain’t gonna get nothing. But I’m 55 years old. Not getting any younger.”
I ask if she think things have gotten better or worse since she was younger in this country.
“There’s not enough money. I don’t understand why there’s not enough money. I don’t understand why things are so expensive. Why does it have to be? Why are these people eating ham and cheese sandwich on dry bread? You know, they shouldn’t have to, but that’s how it is.”
Does she think housing should be a human right, that everyone should have a safe place to live?
“Wouldn’t you want a safe place to live?” she asks. “It has to be a number one priority. Everybody should. We got old people laying out there on the ground. Old people.”
I ask if she thinks there’s enough money in this country to make that happen.
“Yes I do. Soon as everybody stops picking over it. Just cut it loose. You got your grants, it’s the same way everywhere else. They give you a million-dollar grant, and you got all these high-society people, like the city councillors, whoever, pass it down the line, I don’t know how it goes. But they gonna have to take their chunk before it gets somewhere else. Cuz ain’t nobody doing nothing for free. Nobody’s doing nothing for free. So maybe if they quit taking so much of a chunk, it would probably go a little farther. It would.”
She tells me that the class she’s enrolled in only requires her to work four hours a day, five days a week, but that she chooses to put in extra time.
“You know, I only make $50 a week but I work 13-and-a-half hours a day here. To make sure that we’re clean, that they get fed. I don’t have to do this.”
Greg and Nicole are talking about representation while smoking outside the “Welcome Center” at Grace, an open space with a some books and tables.
“I don’t think we’re getting represented right, really,” says Nicole.
“But see, let me put a little input on that,” Greg says. “If we didn’t have this place right here, where would you be?”
“We’d be right back on the streets and the cops would be putting us in jail like they been trying to do all along.”
They agree Grace Marketplace is better than the alternative. Greg, from Philadelphia originally, tells her to look up North at other cities like Chicago and New York, that things are worse there.
“They have a soup kitchen, ok, and if you ain’t in line on time, you ain’t gonna get none of that. And you not getting nowhere to sleep that night. They got like, maybe, 30 beds. Ain’t no tent city or nothing like that.”
I ask if they can tell me what they think the bigger-picture problems are with the United States.
Nicole answers first: “In my opinion? I think we need to get more jobs, opportunities to get jobs, people to get to work, and get the job. Be able to help themselves.”
Greg says: “This is the one big issue that I have about the State of Florida. Any other state, when you go to jail, and your pay your debt to society, you come back out with a clean record. Ok. Nobody looking up did he do this, did he do that. So you have a second chance at life.” He pauses. “That’s why the state of Florida has so many homeless people, because nobody wants to hire nobody that they can see a record on.”
They go back and forth on this point, building off each other.
“Or if you’re middle aged, they’re looking for younger people.”
“Especially if you’re construction, cuz if you’re not young or you ain’t got that skill, you’re not getting hired,” Greg says.
“Or if you have a handicap, they’re not gonna hire you.”
Do they think politicians in Washington D.C. care about that?
“I would hope they do,” Nicole says. Both agree that perhaps there are good people in government, but they are being held up by something. “Their hands are tied.”
Greg and Nicole can’t agree to say exactly who or what is doing the tying.
“Maybe if they got off their seats and came down here, and seen what’s going on with their eyes, maybe they would wake up,” says Nicole.
“No no no no, I don’t want them to see it,” Greg says. “I don’t want them to see it. I want them to live it for a week.”
“Yeah, that too.”
“Live it for a week. Then you would see – you would see what’s really going on.”
“Originally, I’m from Levy County, so, there’s nothing in Levy County at all.”
“There’s no transportation there. Did they ever get busses running in there?” asks Greg.
“They don’t have any busses. They don’t have nothing.”
How do you get around if you don’t have a car? I ask.
“You walk. Or bike. Or you pray to God that somebody’s going that way and you hitch a ride.”
“Like he says, if they just came down here and lived it for a week. Let’s just see what they would say after that week.”
Greg says he used to work at the facility back when it was part of the prison, over ten years ago, as a head dietician, the head chef – “the overseer of the kitchen” he tells me.
Did you ever think you’d be living here?
“That part? No. I never thought that, no. But with the disability I receive, it’s not enough to afford any apartment here in Gainesville. And I don’t want to leave Gainesville, because I got an 8-year-old daughter here.”
He tells me he has four children altogether, the oldest in her late 30s. He tells me he’s 68 years old.
The Executive Director of the facility, Theresa Lowe, says there are 50 beds in the dorms and 55 in the open air pavilion. I go to the pavilion area, where the people here sleep on cots and mattresses on the ground, their belongings forming a perimeter around each individual’s space. Unlike the dorms, the pavilion is not segregated by gender. The chain link enclosures of the pavilion are half-covered by various sheets and tarps.
Lowe tells me that the facility does not have any subscriptions to newspapers or television, but that they do have access to bus passes and 45-minute vouchers they can use on computers at the facility.
Few people are present at this time of day, but there is a man willing to speak with me, laying on his bed with a copy of the Independent Florida Alligator newspaper at his feet.
Sam tells me he’s been in Florida for about 20 years, and has been in the pavilion since Christmas 2015. He says he was arrested on a drug charge and in jail for 45 days, and this is where he ended up when he got out.
He too says there aren’t enough good jobs, that they were all shipped overseas years ago and that nobody wants to make anything in the US anymore. He tells me he used to be a maintenance mechanic on buildings, that he’s been a mechanic all his life – he went to college for it.
I ask him how long he’s been out of work. He says he’s been without steady work for five years. He’s 61.
“I went to CMS three, four months ago. The only job they had that I was qualified for was up, way out in Alachua. There’s no transportation.”
“No. There isn’t a bus that goes out there or anything.”
He tells me that he doesn’t have a car, that the last time he had a car was about 20 years ago.
“I tried [to find a job] around here, but they just don’t have anything. Day labor? That’ll kill me. That’s a young man’s job. Go down and dig a ditch in the sun? No.”
I ask him why he thinks there are no good jobs in this country.
“They’re all overseas. I believe we should have manufacturing over here. They charge what, they charge $100 for a pair of Nikes? What do they do? Give em a bowl o’rice per day? Should be over here where they used to be.”
He says American labor is more expensive compared to the rest of the world. I ask if he thinks people here should get paid less, but he says no. People should simply buy American. “If you want quality, you gotta pay for it.”
“I think ever since Clinton signed NAFTA, this country went downhill. We gotta suffer this for the rest of the world to catch up. China? Everything comes from China right now, but they’re going through a bunch of trouble, economic trouble.”
I ask how things could change that might make the country better.
“Rebuild this country.”
What do you mean?
“Bridges. Trains. Roads.”
I ask why he thinks no one’s putting up the money for that.
“Because the government won’t do it.”
He blames the Republicans, but admits the Democrats are doing the same thing.
“The rich, they don’t want to part with their money. They don’t want to invest in America.”
How does he think they should be convinced to invest their money then? “We need to take the money from the rich. Make em pay taxes. That’ll help.”
I move on from the pavilion and walk outside the chain link fence to Dignity Village. While there are 105 beds available inside Grace Marketplace, Alachua county counted approximately 200 living in the tents surrounding in April of 2015. Lowe tells me that, while the admissions policy is currently being revamped, to be on the waiting list for a bed in the dorms or the pavilion “…requires the commitment to work with a case manager on an exit plan, have or be working on income to pay for housing and be sober or working on it.”
Two people are bathing near a water pipe, and I ask if the water is provided by the city. To the best of their knowledge, it is. There are portable toilets and a dumpster. I see signs in front of tents that say “Keep Out”, “No Trespassing” and “Beware of the Dog”. A few tattered US flags hang limp in the humidity. Tents, RVs and makeshift structures all show different degrees of wear or upkeep.
I speak with Paul, who is lives in a tent with between four and six people at any given time. He shows me his living space. Under a large grey tarp, the heat and humidity is unbearable. No air. He tells me he hangs up his clothes to avoid them getting moldy. The set-up inside is quite different from the tents of the people I met who were displaced by war in Iraq, but eerily similar at the same time. The tarp is so familiar that I keep thinking I see a UNHCR logo out the corner of my eye.
He tells me he’s involved on different government committees in the area that deal with homelessness.
“I found another purpose. And that is being on the inside. If I can, I’ll help.”
I ask him how people make community decisions in Dignity Village.
Everyone’s just on their own?
“You got a strong back and everybody just gotta behave themselves.”
His phone starts to make noises, and he turns it off, saying it might be time for him to catch a bus downtown for a 1pm community meeting.
“The bottom line on that is, yeah, it’s mob rule in a lot of ways. Or big man rule, you know? Personally, I go to sleep when the sun goes on down. I got my stumps out here, and you welcome to ’em, but at dark, everybody knows Paul goes to sleep, and I wake up when the birds start making noise. You know? And get my breakfast.”
Paul speaks to me about how even though he feels basic needs are being met on site, he feels as though it’s “enabling” the people who live there as well, that the core issues of homelessness aren’t being addressed by society. He tells me he’s on the housing committee, and “it’s cool as hell”.
“It’s all about putting people first into housing, and then giving them the social services they need, you know, instead of putting the cart before the horse.”
I ask him how they get the houses they’ll need to put people in. He laughs.
“I don’t know! We’re working on that one, you know? There’s $35,000 gonna cost you every year for every homeless person to a community. It only takes $10,000 to house one, house one of us. Then you don’t have these EMS calls, these people can be offered services because you know where to find them. It’s a great idea.”
“You know, someone was asking me – how do you cure homelessness? And I put it right on em – we were sitting right over there on the bench – and I said, how do you cure apathy? How do you cure apathy, and complacency?”
And how do you cure it?
“You show ’em an alternative.”
Due to the vulnerable status of some of the people this project features, some names and identifying information have been changed or omitted for publication. Photos were taken with permission of the people portrayed.