Steve Dennis, a Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic who struggled with homelessness for almost 40 years, takes a walk at the Alachua County Veterans Memorial. He is now a speaker for Alachua County’s chapter of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Photo by Henry Taksier.

130-Meal Limit Takes Its Toll on Gainesville’s Homeless

Steve Dennis has a slew of numbers floating in his head. When you ask him about poverty, they all come pouring out.

It took two years serving in the Vietnam War and one bag of feces thrown at him from an anti-war protester for Dennis to realize he wasn’t exactly welcomed back. It took three war-related health conditions (diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and post-traumatic stress disorder) and zero job opportunities during the 1970s recession to land him in debt. It took almost 40 years of homelessness for Dennis to call the woods his only home. And it takes 130 people arriving before him at the St. Francis House for Dennis to be turned away.

“Even when they have enough food for me, if I don’t get in line before the 131st person, then I just don’t eat that day,” he said, “unless I choose to go to the grocery store and shoplift something, but I’m trying to be a law-abiding citizen.”

A speaker for Alachua County’s chapter of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Dennis is most concerned about the number 131 now that he’s back on his feet with assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Through a sturdy, 60-year-old former Marine’s frame, Dennis managed to project a soft-spoken voice from the steps of City Hall on the night of Thursday, Oct. 21, a voice that barely captures his frustration with the city’s 130-meal limit on soup kitchens.

He’s one of about 30 citizens who rallied at City Hall and told the Gainesville City Commission to get rid of the limit, an ordinance meant to disperse the homeless population currently concentrated downtown.

“It doesn’t work,” Dennis said. “If they get denied from St. Francis, the homeless are just going to panhandle around downtown until they collect enough money to eat something. You’re not dispersing them anywhere. You’re just starving them.”

The commission passed the ordinance in 1992 but never enforced it until last year, which long-term homeless advocate and social worker Pat Fitzpatrick says coincided with the August 2009 opening of downtown’s Hampton Inn.

“Some of these older men are giving up their place in line so kids and pregnant women can eat,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just bizarre. When is the city going to put people before profits?”

But City Commissioner Jack Donovan said prioritizing is a balancing act. He said the ordinance is the best compromise among the city’s varying interest groups, and “sometimes that includes the neighborhood businesses.”

The businesses complained of homeless people urinating in their bushes and panhandling around customers. Donovan said much of the damage downtown, however, is done by students but blamed on homeless people.

He said residents and businesses support the ordinance because of people using the homeless as a cover for criminal activity. A 2008 report on Gainesville’s homeless conditions stated 45 percent of respondents said unemployment and job loss caused their homelessness, and the majority of respondents said this was their first homeless episode.

“Unfortunately, what most of us have as an image of homelessness is what we periodically encounter downtown: the chronically homeless,” he said. “As opposed to the temporarily homeless, these people tend to have a lot more problems and can sometimes even be dangerous. But for the most part, homeless people aren’t any more likely to misbehave than the rest of the community.”

Donovan favored lifting the 130-meal limit until the city eventually completes its construction of a one-stop homeless center five miles north of St. Francis, which will feature about 60 beds, showers, telephones, healthcare services and counseling services. The commission, however, rejected the moratorium. Donovan said they’re doing their best, but he’s seen commissioners influenced by the funding they depend upon for re-election.

“Sometimes economic interests and getting campaign funding weigh more heavily than some of us would wish,” Donovan said of other commissioners. “But it’s a matter of balancing and asking yourself, ‘Will I get campaign money from wealthier business owners or not?’ We’re at a temporary stalemate until we see what happens with the one-stop center.”

But the issue isn’t completely dead in the water. Joseph S. Jackson, a UF legal skills professor and long-term homeless advocate, said the Bo Diddley Community Plaza has become even more concentrated with people hoping to beat the 131st rejection, and the best alternative is to grant the St. Francis House longer hours of operation.

“It makes so much more sense to provide meals only during certain hours,” Jackson said. “Then people wouldn’t have to crowd downtown during its opening hours. It would allow for food to be given in an orderly fashion with fewer external impacts on the downtown community.”

On Oct. 21, the commission allowed the St. Francis House to begin petitioning to extend its hours of operation, feeding more people throughout the day but keeping a 130-person capacity.

Jackson said opening more soup kitchens would also ameliorate the crowding, but zoning restrictions “make it impossible for other soup kitchens to be established.” The effect, he said, has been to prevent services from being provided instead of dispersing the homeless population.

Fitzpatrick said despite all the legislation tangled in the issue, it boils down to a simple question: “Are these people going to eat or are they not going to eat?”

Fitzpatrick will host a fast on the steps of City Hall during the three days before Thanksgiving to raise awareness that food sharing is not a handout but a basic human necessity.

Dennis says he prefers calling it a leg up. Of all the homeless people he’s met in the past 40 years, he said most are more than willing to work their way out of poverty if given the chance, and the only thing the city can disperse is the act of one homeless person helping another.

“It multiplies,” he said. “I got mine, so why can’t I help others now? These commissioners think when they look at us that they’re looking at crap, but what they don’t see is that with a little help, a pile of crap turns into a garden.”

To learn about Steve Dennis and his personal struggle with PTSD, watch our documentary video.