Police in Gainesville, Florida, clear a homeless encampment downtown

The city of Gainesville cleared a downtown homeless encampment Thursday, the latest step in a series of efforts to remove people living outside from the area around Southeast Fourth Place.

Gainesville officials largely cleared the encampment in February, tagging people’s belongings with notices telling them to move off public roads or face removal by city crews.

“Total resources were assigned on the day in question to assist our neighbors in moving to a shelter or alternative space so that plans to address areas in need throughout the downtown area could move forward,” Gainesville Fire Rescue said Chief Joe Dixon in a comment to The Gainesville Sun. “Accommodations are available at both Grace and St. Francis House.”

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According to reporting from TV20, the city used large equipment, such as excavators, to remove people’s belongings from the area around St. Francis House. This is the third time this year the city has swept a downtown encampment.

“We are committed to providing people with tools and opportunities to live better lives, but we must also hold people accountable,” Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward said in comments to The Gainesville Sun. “It is not fair or kind to anyone – not to the people sleeping on the ground or to the other people in the neighborhood – to pretend that sleeping on the sidewalk is a good solution.”

In February, the Gainesville City Commission allocated $700,000 to reduce homelessness in the city and create 20 additional bed spaces at Grace Marketplace.

Although it is illegal to block public passageways such as sidewalks and roads, people are generally allowed to sleep outside in many public areas. But a new law in Florida that takes effect in October will change that.

The anti-public camping law, which was mainly announced by Republicans and Governor Ron DeSantis, will prohibit municipalities from allowing camping on public land. Instead, municipalities are required to provide a designated specific public space for camping, along with mental health facilities, bathrooms and security.

Supporters of the legislation see it as a way to ensure homeless people have the resources needed to “get back on their feet,” while creating cleaner and safer streets. Critics say the law unfairly targets and harms a vulnerable population.

The only Democrat to support the bill was District 21 Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson. The local politician said a designated encampment with resources is a better alternative to sleeping outside without power or facilities.

“An encampment is better than what we see here in Gainesville: people sleeping on the streets, taking over the streets, no sanitation, no running water, no power. This at least gives them a place that is being watched,” she said. “I couldn’t close my eyes to what we have. We have a great physical shelter, we’ve had an encampment that didn’t meet all our needs, and despite everything, we still have public sleeping areas.