Tears stream down Venettia Moultrie’s face as she recalls the day that she was evicted from her encampment in Gainesville, Florida. Her tent had space for up to twenty people and included a meditation room. About twenty others lived in tents nearby, and residents looked out for one another. In May, law enforcement arrived at the camp with bulldozers.
Officers from the Gainesville Police Department and Florida Department of Corrections announced over a loudspeaker that residents had six hours to vacate before demolition of the camp, in defiance of the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation to leave encampments intact during COVID-19. Florida’s state public health website provides no guidance on protecting people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19. Moultrie left with just one change of clothes.
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When the 37-year-old set up camp in November of last year, she made strong connections with others who lived there, people at higher risk of contracting illnesses even before COVID-19. Since the eviction, she’s been worried about their safety.
“I lost my community, and it’s hard to know if my friends are alright,” Moultrie said. “I can’t pay to keep my phone on all the time and neither can they. I’m so angry at what happened […] I worry about my former neighbors who probably don’t have a place to stay now. At our camp, many of them had houseplants and pets, it was nice. We weren’t a typical community, but we were still a community.”
She holds a handwritten list with her lost friend’s phone numbers as we speak outside of her current homeless shelter, GRACE Marketplace. GRACE, formerly Gainesville Correctional Institution, was converted to a secular shelter in 2014. The shelter does ‘bed checks’ to make sure residents are in their rooms three times a night, which Moultrie is not used to after living freely in her camp.
“If you’re not there for bed checks two nights in a row, they kick you out,” Moultrie said, “You have to be on the street until you’re allowed back in.”
The camp was established in November of last year, after other options had failed. GRACE was at full capacity, so people started camping around the edges of the shelter’s property, which the campers and GRACE called “Dignity Village.” At its peak, the camp was home to around 220 people.
They camped there so they could use GRACE’s hygiene services and other resources. When the City of Gainesville ordered Dignity Village to shut down in January, Moultrie and about 50 others set up a new camp in the woods nearby, on Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) property. FDOC officers were upset by their presence, and asked Gainesville PD to threaten the campers with trespassing charges if they refused to leave.
Many camp members left between March and May, for fear of arrest. Moultrie and the last 20 residents were evicted on May 14th by the Gainesville PD and officers from the FDOC.
According to a 2019 survey, there are an estimated 752 homeless people in Gainesville’s Alachua County, 191 of whom were in shelters. GRACE currently has the ability to house 141 people. Their capacity has been reduced by 25 percent to reduce risk of spreading COVID-19. Those who can’t make it in are often waiting outside of the facility, hoping for a chance at a roof over their heads.
“I think the big question raised by this eviction is, if they can’t be in these places, then where can they be?” asked Kirsten Anderson, litigation director at Southern Legal Counsel. “GRACE doesn’t have enough space for everyone, and you’re going to see more situations like this because people have to exist somewhere. But it’s often criminalized.”
Shelter access is particularly important during the current pandemic.
CDC guidelines specifically state: “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” This is a precautionary measure meant to control the spread of COVID-19.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the guidelines say. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
A Southern Legal Counsel press release says that the CDC also encourages federal aid from FEMA and the CARES Act to be used for emergency housing, but that Gainesville officials have not secured housing for the people they are displacing.
Requests for comment were made to the Gainesville PD and FDOC. Shelby Taylor, City of Gainesville Communications Director responded in their stead.
“The Gainesville Police Department has worked compassionately with representatives from GRACE Marketplace over several months to transition people experiencing homelessness into a more stable housing environment,” Taylor said. “But GPD serves to protect the rights and property of all property owners in the city of Gainesville. In May, at the request of FDOC officials, GPD was asked to notify people camping on the property that they were trespassing.”
Taylor went on to say that the eviction effort was coordinated with representatives at GRACE.
“It would be safe to say that the capacity of all the shelters in Gainesville is about half of the homeless population,” said GRACE Executive Director Jon DeCarmine. “For all of the narrative that people are safer at home, it does not make sense to evict anybody in the middle of a pandemic.”
However, DeCarmine confirmed that GRACE worked with Gainesville PD and FDOC to evict Moultrie and other campers from the nearby encampment, claiming that it was done out of fear for residents’ safety after an incident involving a drunk driver nearly hitting people in their tents.
DeCarmine said GRACE offered beds and services to those who were displaced. However, Moultrie said she was only offered a bed at GRACE after she went to the local university’s newspaper, The Alligator, about the eviction. She claimed her fellow campers did not get beds, and said she feels lonely and constantly under surveillance at GRACE.
She still hopes to see her friends again, but doesn’t know if it will ever happen. In the meantime, she’s working on forming a nonprofit that helps fellow homeless people by providing food, first aid equipment and the basic necessities of life. She recently got accepted to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville to study Public Health. She’s going to stay at GRACE for as long as she can. While it’s not her ideal situation, she knows that it’s hard to survive without shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People aren’t asking for much,” Moultrie said. “Just three meals a day and suitable shelter. This city, any city, should provide that to everyone during a time like this.”