Public Alert: April 24 MCHD workshop may lead to low-barrier shelter without public input or notice to the neighborhood

Panoramic photo of old domestic violence shelter located at 2001 SW 3rd Avenue, Ocala, reflecting access from Pine Avenue on April 22, 2024. [Ocala Gazette]

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Posted April 22, 2024 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

It’s no secret to the homeless community in Marion County, as well as those who seek to help them, that the county needs a so-called low-barrier shelter for those who, because of an arrest record, cannot gain access to local shelters.

A discussion by the Marion County Hospital District board of trustees about acquiring a closed domestic violence shelter from one of its members to be used for this purpose, however, appears to be shrouded in secrecy from both the building’s neighbors and the community at large.

The MCHD is planning a workshop Wednesday to consider adding “homelessness” to its list of strategic initiatives so that the agency can entertain Bianculli’s real estate offer which he hopes will lead to the opening of a low-barrier shelter- a potentially controversial topic for nearby residents. However, details of the plan—including the address of the building under consideration—are under wraps even though it would be purchased with public money.

When the “Gazette,’’ which has been following this issue for the past month, reached out to the MCHD on Monday for an update on when the next workshop would be scheduled, the newspaper was informed that a legal notice published in the “Ocala Star-Banner’’ on Friday notified the community that the meeting is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday at 2547 E Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala.

The notice, however, says only that the meeting is being held “for the purpose of conducting a Pillar Discussion Workshop to identify data and resources needed for health focus areas.” The legal notice’s vague wording, the lack of meeting agenda or any supporting documentation, and uncertainty about the building’s address leave the public in the dark.

While there is no doubt that the community is in dire need of a low-barrier shelter, under the proposal before the MCHD, the public and Ocala city officials may have no say on whether the hospital district can use the property for a low-barrier shelter because of the zoning the facility already has in place.

However, the impact of a shelter for women and children is a far cry from the type of low-barrier shelter discussed by the district.

Attorney Robert Batsel, who represents both the MCHD and trustee Rich Bianculli, who is at the center of the discussion, said the contract for acquiring the site is not public record and therefore he would not provide a copy of it to the “Gazette.”

An agenda for the workshop has not been published, and a copy of the contract has not been made available in advance of Wednesday’s workshop.

The issue was first raised during a March 25 MCHD meeting when Bianculli offered to transfer to the district a contract to purchase a building that could eventually be used to meet the increasing demand for housing the homeless.

Although the topic was not on the March 25 meeting agenda, Bianculli told his fellow trustees the board should include serving the homelessness as a “pillar initiative” of the district and hence fund the purchase of the real estate.

To meet the growing need for shelter beds, Bianculli proposed the board take over a real estate contract from him. He told the trustees that he had entered into the contract to purchase the property for $625,000, with the intent to assign it to some agency to fund and close on the sale and use it for a homeless shelter.

Bianculli told the trustees they had approximately 60 days under the contract to close the sale, adding that they would not find a better deal.

Bianculli did not provide the address to the property during the meeting but described the parcel as the “old domestic violence shelter.” The “Gazette” believes the building Bianculli was referencing is located at 2001 SW 3rd Avenue, Ocala. The property has an access driveway off Pine Avenue, just two doors from a popular Ocala restaurant, Latino y Mas.

The domestic violence facility was operated by Creative Services, Inc., an Ocala-based not-for-profit agency. It closed Aug. 1, 2023, after losing funding last year after nearly five decades of providing services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The closure, a move the agency’s founder said was driven by “personal vendettas,’’ comes after a year of investigations by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, United Way of Marion County, and the Florida Department of Children and Families. Ultimately, suspended funding from both United Way and a string of private donors forced the closure, said Dr. Judy Wilson, who founded both services in 1975.

Bianculli pointed to a new law recently signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that prohibits homeless people from sleeping on public property. The law has left communities across the state wondering how they will fund solutions to their homeless situation and how they will enforce the measure when it goes into effect on Oct. 1.

Most, if not all, local shelters require a valid ID and a background check that denies access to those with a criminal history. This shelter would become the only low-barrier shelter in Marion County.

As previously reported by the “Gazette,” the MCHD decided to hold a workshop to consider whether homelessness should be added to the list of pillars the agency will support. If there is consensus that it should be added, the Trustees are likely to be asked to support acquiring the former domestic violence shelter.

The fact that the facility sits on favorable zoning in the City of Ocala was considered a plus.

According to the city’s website, B-4 zoning allows for a community residential home with a “maximum of 14 unrelated residents per single-family residential dwelling” or a fraternity or sorority house. Special exceptions can be sought for a boarding house with increased capacity.

Previously, the “Gazette” reported another homeless low-barrier project called Saving Mercy was in the works. This site, located closer to Interstate 75 and not in a residential area, backs up to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. That project has been slow to gain traction and likely not be operable on Oct. 1 when the new law prohibiting homeless sleeping goes into effect.


Watch the March 25 meeting using the link below (the homelessness conversation starts at 1:09)


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