(This editorial that appeared in the Key West Citizen on August 17, 2017 originally appeared in the Ocala Star-Banner)
The city of Ocala’s proposal to build a pavilion adjacent to Interfaith Emergency Services to serve as a place for homeless people to gather and receive food and other services is a worthy undertaking. It will not, however, solve the downtown’s “homeless problem” or the broader problem of an uncoordinated community response to what is an ageless human condition.
The city is proposing to build a 50-by-20-foot shelter next to Interfaith’s food warehouse, just a few blocks west of downtown. The facility would have restrooms, wash sinks and picnic tables, as well as security, and provide homeless residents with a place for a respite. The cost of the project is estimated at about a quarter-million dollars.
The city’s stated goal is to “create a focal point where wrap-around services can be developed” and provide “organized access to food, clothing, voluntary support and mental health counseling.” Those are admirable objectives, although as the city’s own assessment of homeless services in our community shows, there are 52 different agencies and organizations in Ocala alone, from churches to charities to civic groups, providing services of some kind to the homeless. No doubt each of these providers does noble work, and the notion that they will move their efforts to the new pavilion is, well, not practical.
Of course, opponents of the plan, and they so far are few, say the real reason the city is willing to invest in the project is to get homeless people out of the downtown, away from the shops and restaurant and bars that draw patrons to the center city. And the critics would be right. Yet, we ask them, what is wrong with providing a gathering place with facilities and food, just a few blocks from where most such activities are occurring now? What is wrong with removing the homeless from our central business district as much as possible? The answer is, there is nothing wrong with it.
In fact, it would seem to us that the new pavilion does provide better opportunities for the homeless to not only get food but health care, mental health counseling, medication, clothing and other services as well.
The downtown has always had issues with the homeless, largely caused by a handful of vagrants. But with organizations now holding regular mass feedings at the county parking owned lot north of Silver Springs Boulevard and the Salvation Army being at near-capacity much of the time as the economy continues to recover, the impact is greater than ever. Creating a gathering place for the homeless away from businesses is not unreasonable.
The city’s long-term goal is to bring about a coordinated plan for dealing with the homeless in Ocala and Marion County. It has invested significantly in addressing homelessness, even creating a homeless liaison in former police major Dennis Yonce, to further the cause. Nonetheless, given the number of groups engaged in this charitable work makes such plan a challenge that will require years of cajoling and coordination, if it ever can be accomplished.
For now, though, the proposed pavilion is a sensible idea that benefits the homeless and the downtown business district as well. It is an idea that has been floated off and on for more than decade. It is time to make it a reality.