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A mere peer into the Gainesville Correctional Institution that will be transformed into a homeless wellness center come January 2014. Photo by Javier Edwards.

A prison will soon become a one-stop center for the homeless

After eight problematic years, a proposed one-stop wellness center for the homeless will finally have a permanent home in an unlikely place: a former prison.

Despite the chain link fences, barbed wire and disparagingly unkempt grass, the Gainesville Correctional Institution, located at 2845 NE 39th Ave., holds hidden potential as a place to help disadvantaged Gainesville locals. The January opening of the center is coming up, and with unprecedented community support.
But it wasn’t without a struggle.

What seemed like a dramatic soap opera was actually a nearly seven-year struggle to find a location for the center. The city faced neighborhood opposition, lawsuits and enormous public outcry as officials tried to find site after site.

Two locations fell through before the state-owned prison even appeared on city officials’ radars.

The first, a proposed North Main Terrace site, was met with steadfast opposition from local business owners and residents of the nearby Stephen Foster neighborhood in 2008.The two groups united to form the Association of Businesses and Citizens of North Main Street to pressure the City Commission to relocate the proposed center.

The second site at Northwest 53rd Avenue was set to be rezoned for construction in 2010. But a lawsuit from disgruntled nearby property-owner Ropen Nalbanian halted progress for nearly two years and forced the city to look elsewhere. Nalbandian objected to the site because he felt that the location was incompatible with the surrounding industrial environment.

The lawsuits are only now being resolved, with the city to likely to accept Nalbandian’s settlement of five annual installments of $250,000 that would go towards the center.

With a lot of the city’s desired options for the center off the table, the prison offered a glimmer of hope and little to no community resistance. The buildings had the potential to house a range of services such a job training, adult education, shelter and medical care.

But the acquisition of the prison was not without its own challenges.

The state department of corrections, which previously owned the prison, wanted to maintain a few of the prison buildings and the administrative office. The city offered the state corrections a building near the Duck Pond community in exchange for all of the prison buildings. Duck Pond homeowners opposed the state corrections building in their area, and the City Plan Board effectively rejected the land swap.

For the sake of progress, the city proposed to purchase the Gainesville Correctional Institution in its entirety, which the state will decide to sell on Nov. 19 for the cool sum of $953,000.

Theresa Lowe, executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for Homeless and Hungry, said that Gainesville locals have firm views about the homeless population, a main target for the wellness center’s services.

“There’s a preconceived notion of people wanting to be homeless, but they’re only a small portion of that population,” Lowe said. “There are also small children and families.“

Commissioner Randy Wells, a member of the Homelessness Implementation Committee, said that the community and city are offering unified support for the wellness center at last.

“The community wants to create an environment of betterment,” Wells said. “The center isn’t just for the homeless, but even folks who are in a bad place.”

Commissioner Wells believes that the services provided should overshadow any concern of the wellness center being located too far away for the homeless: the prison is about four miles from downtown, where the homeless mostly congregate. But Wells believes that the Gainesville Correctional Institution is an ideal place for progress.

“The center is not to be seen as isolated but rather a place for medical care and opportunities,” Wells said.

Commissioner Wells said he envisions the center as a one-stop place where a person can get a haircut, shower and sleep. He or she could get a nice meal and sit down with a professional to figure out an action plan for long-term betterment.

The guests of the one-stop center shouldn’t be thought of in terms of what they need but in terms of what they can offer, Wells said.

The wellness center is a component of a bigger city plan, known as Project Grace. It is a non profit 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Alachua County by strategically addressing core causes of homelessness such as affordable housing and proper living wages.

The gears of the center are in motion. Requests for an agency to operate the center are being sent out by the city commission.

Commissioner Wells doesn’t know which agencies have cast requests, but they will be presented before the commission on Dec. 5.

The agency will seek out and organize partnerships, funding, volunteers and donations.

With a long, strenuous journey and community involvement, the city wants the name to be a decision of Alachua County citizens.

“Come December, there will be a community discussion for historical names,” Wells said. “Where folks have an opportunity to choose something that reflects an image of a community campus.”