Ocala Mainstreet proposes homeless plan

Homeless people sleep and rest in the Agape Garden at Interfaith Emergency Services on Northwest 2nd Street in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted June 4, 2021 | By Ainslie Lee, ainslie@ocalagazette.com

While city leadership and homeless advocates continue to wrestle with the question of how to resolve Ocala’s homeless issue, one local organization has pieced together a plan of action.

Homeless people sleep and rest in the Agape Garden at Interfaith Emergency Services. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Ocala Mainstreet, a non-profit organization that focuses on revitalizing Ocala’s downtown area, proposed its “Pathway Home Project” to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) on May 18 – the same night the Ocala City Council denied a special use permit for an outdoor emergency shelter.

Ted Schatt, a local attorney and president of Ocala Mainstreet, presented the proposal to the board during the regularly scheduled CRA meeting, which comes just before council meetings.

According to Schatt, Ocala Mainstreet has been in discussion with Interfaith Emergency Services and Lisa Rice, director of the Ocala/Marion County Joint Office on Homelessness, over the last year while they constructed the Pathway Home Project.

Schatt told CRA board members that the lack of affordable housing in the Ocala area has been identified as “the major problem” as community leaders look to transition into a housing-first model.

Rentals going for less than $1,000 a month are in high demand, Schatt explained. And of those lower-priced rentals that do exist, most are one or two-bedroom and are subject to a waiting list.

Earlier this year, the Ocala Housing Authority was reporting its longest waiting times on record.

“That is not an unusual problem. We have a lack of affordable housing,” Schatt said. “That’s not a homeless issue. That’s just an us issue. And we’ve got to figure out how to do that. Ocala Mainstreet thinks that we can be helpful in that regard and we’re working towards that.”

With soaring rental prices, Ocala’s homeless population continues to swell.

According to the annual Point in Time census, which counts the number of unsheltered individuals in an area, there were 210 unsheltered individuals when the count was conducted Jan. 27-29. This year’s number was up from 2020’s count of 150.

With a growing homeless population and all of Ocala’s emergency shelters having barriers and requirements for entry, Ocala Mainstreet’s proposal hinges on the creation of campuses that would include a community center featuring public restrooms and a public kitchen.

“This is the type of thing that can be opened during the day and provide services,” Schatt said. “What we think we have come to the conclusion on is we are better served with multiple shelters located around the community than we are with one shelter in one specific location.”

However, finding multiple sites around the city to accommodate these hubs come with the challenge of finding communities that won’t oppose the addition.

But Schatt makes the argument that the community centers would only temporarily serve as a hub for the homeless until transitions to permanent housing begin flowing again.

“The concept here is this is a community center that is only necessary to service the community in a homeless-center capacity while we are working towards a housing-first model,” Schatt said. “When you get to a housing-first model, and you’re taking people that have a homeless issue and placing them in housing, you don’t need them in shelter beds anymore.

“That’s what we’re working towards. What is the bridge between where we are now and where we’re going?”

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