Last Modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 11:27 p.m.
The permits governing one of the city's largest homeless service providers come up for renewal tonight before the City Plan Board, and a large crowd of St. Francis House supporters and critics are expected to attend the public meeting.
St. Francis House provides more overnight shelter for the homeless than any other agency in Gainesville, and most people acknowledge that's important in a community with more than 1,600 homeless individuals.
Yet the impact of the destitute on downtown Gainesville is undeniable - and St. Francis is located just south of downtown.
Lynch Park, a tree-filled park across the street from St. Francis House, is often filled with people who appear vagrant.
And the park has become a hot spot for criminal activity such as drugs and prostitution, police say.
This conflict is what members of Gainesville's Plan Board will weigh tonight at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall.
Every five years, St. Francis House must renew special-use permits to house 35 people per night and serve 130 meals every day, and tonight both of those permits are on the line.
"This is about services being provided to people in need," said Kent Vann, executive director of St. Francis House.
Ken McGurn, whose name is synonymous with downtown redevelopment, said he and the downtown business association are only opposing the permit for "food distribution."
McGurn said he is opposing that permit because St. Francis House has habitually exceeded the number of permitted meals.
"We are not against the homeless," said McGurn, who has a track record of donating time and money to help the needy in Gainesville.
Vann admits that they frequently serve more than the allotted amount of meals, but not by much. Vann said they averaged serving 174 meals per day in 2008, and in 2007 they averaged 140 meals.
"It would be major if we couldn't serve lunch, because there's no alternative to this at this point," Vann said. "If we said no more than 130 people per day, then the 131st person, whether they're a child, an elderly citizen, cannot eat. If there was an alternative they could be taken to another location to eat, but without that, it would cause hunger, it would probably criminalize the situation."
McGurn said there are alternatives.
"It's very frustrating, because I have to obey the law, so why are they the exception and allowed to do it for years and years and years?" McGurn asked. "If there were no other place to serve food, then you might have an argument, but you used to be able to get four meals a day free. If that's the case, why is it required for St. Francis House to provide lunch?"
Vann said the situation in Lynch Park is difficult, but that it is city property and out of his control.
Gail Monahan, executive director of the Alachua County Housing Coalition, emphasized that it's important to look at this issue with compassion.
"They're human beings and they are broken. It's a long hard road," Monahan said. "We've done a lot with the homeless, but they are hard to keep housed, and they are victims."
However, Monahan said it's important to set standards and regulations for the homeless.
"All of us who deal with the homeless need to set high expectations, and maybe some of us aren't doing that," she said.
Both city and county officials and downtown business owners are looking to the proposed One Stop Homeless Service Center - which will be located outside central Gainesville - as an eventual solution to the concentration of the destitute in the downtown area.
City Manager Russ Blackburn said the City Commission will consider, for the third time, location options next month for the One Stop center. He said eventually the hope is that meals would be provided there.
However, until that time, tonight a decision likely will be made.
City staff has recommended both permits be renewed, citing that there have been no recorded incidents or violations of the permits at St. Francis House.