Gillespie Park in Sarasota, FL faces homeless problem — Pay attention ACLU!
by: David Conway via The Observer
Linda Holland moved to Gillespie Park nearly 35 years ago. During that time, she’s seen the area make significant strides toward addressing issues with drug dealing and other crime.
That progress — and the work she’s done as the head of the Gillespie Park neighborhood watch group to help achieve that progress — explains her weariness when she talks about a new issue affecting the area: the recent influx of homeless individuals at the neighborhood park.
“We have worked so hard for so many years, and we’ve come such a long way that it’s just very discouraging,” Holland said. “We feel like there’s nothing that can be done.”
Earlier this month, at a meeting of the Coalition of Community Neighborhood Associations, Holland reported that a new group of individuals were populating the pavilion at Gillespie Park throughout the day. The issue was not with the mere presence of the homeless, she said, but with their behavior.
Holland said that, for some time, residents in the area have had a relatively harmonious relationship with the homeless population. Both sides were respectful, and residents were understanding of the circumstances that could put people in such a situation.
Echoing complaints that Rosemary District residents made in September, Holland said the new homeless population was significantly different. They were less respectful and more prone to smoking, using vulgar language and leaving trash strewn about the park. They monopolized the pavilion at the park, making it increasingly difficult for residents to use the neighborhood amenity.
“In the past, there have been times when everyone has been extremely compatible and respectful to each other,” Holland said. “Everyone can get along and utilize the park the way it’s supposed to be used. But not now.”
Holland expressed a frustration with inaction from the city, as well. She was disappointed to see talks between the city and county regarding a come-as-you-are homeless shelter fall apart, though she acknowledged residents in the area were divided on that issue.
Dissatisfaction with city leaders is more widespread, she said. She acknowledged that there are no easy solutions for addressing homelessness issues, but Holland said Gillespie Park residents felt they had done all they could do — whereas those in charge had failed to take strides to tackle the neighborhood’s problems.
“You guys are the elected officials,” Holland said. “You’re running the city, and guess what — it’s not working. It’s not working here over in the park.”
At the Nov. 3 City Commission meeting, Vice Mayor Susan Chapman brought up the Gillespie Park homeless population. She said she had been getting a significant number of complaints, and suggested restricting access to the park to Gillespie Park residents as a possible option.
Mayor Willie Shaw was hesitant to embrace that idea, concerned that taxpayers near Gillespie Park would be boxed out. City Attorney Robert Fournier said less-extreme options were available, and could be presented at a future meeting.
Although the history of improvement in Gillespie Park contributed to Holland’s frustration, she was emphatic that this didn’t represent a significant step backward for the community. As a manager of dozens of properties in the area, she said she hasn’t seen any curtailed interest, and she didn’t believe the issue should cause people to avoid the neighborhood.
Still, she was hopeful that the harmonious atmosphere between all occupants of the Gillespie Park area could be restored.
“We don’t like what’s going on right now, but it’s a small part of the neighborhood,” Holland said. “The neighborhood is so much more and is going to continue to be so much more than that — but we would like to get this resolved.”