Room for improvement

Ocala has long struggled with a large homeless population, a consequence of our sizable number of working poor, lack of affordable housing and temporary shelters.

It should be a source of pride that so many churches, social service agencies and grassroots organizations are so passionately devoted to caring for the homeless and so driven to help many hundreds of individuals and families in crisis from joining their ranks.

And yet, there is a class of people – the chronically homeless – whose numbers seem to swell year in and year out. These are the hard cases. Some are mentally ill. Others are drug addicted. Some have criminal pasts, anti-social behaviors and other problems that make them ineligible for help from well-meaning programs that place conditions on their assistance.

They are imperfect people, many terribly so. The gospels call them “the least of our brothers,” but they are our brothers – and sisters – nonetheless.

If Ocala, as a community, has fallen short in its mission to help the homeless, it is here, with this group of people, who number in the hundreds.

To date, it seems many of the community’s efforts regarding the chronic homeless are punitive in nature. We have enacted and tweaked anti-panhandling ordinances to keep them off street corners and away from citizens who feel threatened or uncomfortable being approached by them. Recently, the City Council’s prohibition against “open lodging” was successfully challenged in federal court because it specifically criminalized homelessness and violates the Constitution’s due process requirement.

But enforcement of an ordinance alone is an insufficient remedy for this problem. Enforcement ensures only that you keep the herd moving down the road until the homeless become someone else’s problem. It’s an unforgiving cycle where taxpayers foot the bill of jailing the same people for the same violation, sometimes over and over again, and the fines taxed against the homeless person following each conviction only exacerbate their struggle.

In his federal order, Judge James Moody pointed to the insufficient shelter space in Ocala in his decision, “Currently, there is a minimum of 150 homeless persons on any given night who sleep in unsheltered locations across Ocala and Marion counties. There are 65 emergency shelter beds for single adults in two emergency shelters: (1) Salvation Army (40 beds for men and 20 beds for women), and (2) Interfaith (5 beds for women). The shelters have eligibility criteria.”

In the case of Salvation Army shelter, the only shelter who takes men, the homeless person must have identification, pass a criminal background check, and meet sobriety requirements. And even then, they are limited to utilizing the shelter 14 days each calendar year, after which he or she is ineligible for admission for a year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Salvation Army has cut its capacity by half.

What is desperately needed is a place for the chronically homeless to go, a place where they can take care of their basic needs, be it a hot meal, a shower, a safe place to sleep and wash their clothes, and beyond that a chance to redeem themselves and improve their lives. We need a low-barrier shelter that accepts people with pets, people who don’t have IDs, who have criminal pasts, eviction records, drug and behavior problems.

We have toyed with the notion for years. Rev. Pat Sheedy, pastor of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Ocala, led the charge to create a pavilion near the downtown area where the homeless could take care of some of their needs, but the City Council rejected the concept. And Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn has investigated the idea of creating a complex similar to Pinellas County’s wildly successful Safe Harbor in an industrial area of Clearwater, but to this point it is still just an idea.

But maybe the time is right.

An organization called Saving Mercy recently began demolishing part of the former Motor Inns and RV Park at Interstate 75 and State Road 40, which it acquired in May 2018 for $2.3 million, as its next step in creating the Mercy Inn and RV Park.

Dozens of people currently live in the old motel and in RVs on the site. Saving Mercy leaders have ambitious plans to vastly expand the complex to feature 35 “tiny house” duplexes as well as about a dozen family units and five small apartment buildings.

Saving Mercy is employing a Housing First model that welcomes all comers without requirements. Only designated sexual predators are forbidden.

Once situated, clients are assigned case workers and services are made available. Those include things like mental health or substance abuse treatment or counseling, like skills classes, assistance obtaining employment, spiritual guidance and planning for a long-term housing and employment solution.

As you might expect, funding is a massive hurdle for Saving Mercy. The organization, which is supported in large part by Rev. Sheedy and Blessed Trinity, has been thrifty in selling off some pieces of the property to pay off its debt. But bringing their vision to life will require millions of dollars in additional capital.

This may be the opportunity we’ve been waiting for, the chance to turn a derelict motel into a life-giving community where shattered people find hope and begin to see a path to a better life under the guidance of dedicated professionals and volunteers.

This is something we can and should get behind. Imagine the possibilities if area churches, citizens, business leaders and government officials committed their time, talent and treasure to this worthwhile endeavor. How many lives would be changed? How many saved?

As Saving Mercy struggles to get its financial footing, we would ask our leaders – civic, professional, faith and government – to reach out and see what you can do to help. Let’s not let one or two groups shoulder the burden for the chronic homeless problem alone. Let’s make it a community project, a shared act of love and mercy.

For information about the organization, visit Savingmercy.org

Read the full federal order here: 20210208 Order

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