Above: Pat Fitzpatrick, a longtime advocate for the homeless and hungry, keeps a close eye on the relationship between big developers and the City of Gainesville. (Photo by Erik Knudsen)

Criminal background checks replace meal limit at St. Francis House

After years of protests by activists, supporters and the needy, the meal limit at the St. Francis House, which allowed only 130 meals to be served per day, was finally repealed this November. Now St. Francis House can serve unlimited meals to the hungry men, women and children who line up every day within a three-hour window.

But on the first Wednesday without the limit, The Gainesville Sun reported that only 81 people received meals. Why?

An end to meal limits only meant there were new regulations to be made. The end of one restriction ushers in another.

Recipients of any St. Francis House service are now required to have a police clearance form and picture ID upon arrival at the front desk. Previously, this requirement was only for those who needed to stay overnight at the facility.  Now, it applies to anyone who wants a meal or even just wants to use the bathroom.

Every 30 days, anyone who plans on going to the St. Francis House for food or shelter must first go to the police station to receive a clearance form that states they are cleared from any warrants for arrest. They must also show valid ID, something many homeless people cannot provide. Because of this, the meals that were once expected to increase after the recent repeal have actually dwindled.

Unlike the meal limit law that was part of the City of Gainesville’s City Ordinance, these new rules stem from the St. Francis House’s own board of directors.

After the meal limit repeal, a series of meetings were held among downtown businesses and neighbors and the board members of the St. Francis House. Kent Vann, executive director of the St. Francis House, called the new rule “compromise.”

We were going to be serving more people, so we needed to monitor the people in a safe manner,” he said. “Increasing the crowds calls for increasing responsibility on our part.”

Vann said he had to present the city with a management plan that would address the safety issue. He says that’s when the extension of the background checks was proposed. The St. Francis House already has close to 500 current police clearances on file.

But, not all agree with the new “compromise.”

Arupa Freeman is the the director of The Home Van, a group of volunteers who drive to serve food to people in Gainesville.

As of November 2, the 130-person meal limit at the St. Francis House soup kitchen came to an end. It was replaced by requirements so harsh, so difficult to meet, and so humiliating and demeaning that St. Francis House is now serving lunch to between 70 and 90 people a day,” Freeman said on her blog.

She also addressed the ID requirement issue, citing how problematic it is for homeless people to get the documents they need.

Under the new laws passed as a result of the Homeland Security Act, it has become a long and complicated nightmare for homeless people to obtain state of Florida IDs or even to obtain the documents, such as birth certificates, necessary to obtain a state ID. Many homeless people do not have such IDs and have given up trying to get them,” she said.

Pat Fitzpatrick, a passionate advocate for Gainesville’s homeless, keeps a close eye on the relationship between big developers, like the McGurn and Collier families, and the City of Gainesville. McGurn Management Company is responsible for, among other things, the Union Street Station, the Sun Center, apartments and parking garages. The Collier Companies own and manage more than 9,600 apartments in Florida and Oklahoma.

It was Ken McGurn who, in March of 2009, presented data at a meeting with the City Planning Board indicating the St. Francis House was giving out more meals than was allowed in the permit.

Shortly thereafter, the limit was enforced.

If it seems odd that a homeless shelter would agree to more seemingly self-imposed restrictions on its meal giving, Fitzpatrick says one doesn’t have to look much further than the might of Big Business and developers promoting their interests.

It’s not St. Francis’ fault. They have to stay in good graces with the city. And the city — they just bow down to downtown developers.”

The self-regulation of the St. Francis House seems to be the only way the city would even agree to repeal the limit. And while many don’t like what’s happened, the need for compromise between the St. Francis House and influential forces was necessary in order to change the meal cap.

Ronald Young, 51, is a Gainesville resident who has been hanging around the St. Francis House for years. He says Vann’s a good guy and understands he had to make negotiations with the city.

However, Young knows the deeper implications of the requirements and how they will deter many from getting a police clearance form.

A lot of homeless people have warrants just for some petty 1s [first misdemeanor]. I mean, they have an open container on their record, they’re not about to go down to the Gainesville Police Department. They’re going to try to stay far away from there,” he said.

He says St. Francis House seems anti-homeless now, and that it almost feels like a jail.

This is a homeless shelter, you know? You can’t even use the restroom without a form. What if you just got in town and hopped off the bus?”

Young says these policies are pushing people away, and the long line of people that once stood outside St. Francis House before the limit was repealed has now disappeared.

You’ll still see a little bit of a crowd in the morning. But, it’s not like it used to be.”

The struggle between the homeless and the city has been going on for years.  Unfortunately, the St. Francis House receives a lot of the spotlight due to its mission to feed and shelter the poor.

Providing services to those confronted with homelessness or hunger is never an easy task. But it is even further complicated in a city like Gainesville, where downtown businesses and wealthy developers have strong, conflicting interests with Gainesville’s own population, including the poor and homeless.