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County Hotel Owners Complain About Homeless Under the Interstate at U.S. 90 – FDOT to Step In

I-75 U.S. 90 interchange

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – As the January 23, 2019 Tourist Development Council (TDC) meeting got underway, TDC Director Paula Vann announced, "At the last TDC meeting I brought up that the hotel owners were asking that we do some improvements or ask DOT to do some improvements at the I-75 and Highway 90 exit." As a result, Ms. Vann invited Florida Department of Transportation's (FDOT) landscape team to the TDC. Twenty minutes after the meeting began, DOTs Marty Humphreys said, "We have a little issue out there... We've been working with law enforcement."

Anyone that drives under I-75 on U.S. 90 will, at one time or another, notice a group of men, or men and women, hanging out under the overpass.

The south bound exit ramp from I-75 to U.S. 90 usually also has a panhandler or two at the stop sign.

Commissiner Ronald Williams and TDC Director Paula Vann
County 5 and TDC Chair, Commissioner Ronald Williams gestures to demonstrate his perception of the enormity of the problem as TDC Director Paula Vann looks on.

This appears to be the complaint of the hotel owners and many others.

Looking For a Solution
TDC Calls in FDOT's Landscape Crew

District 2's landscape architect, Ken Cheek, introduced himself and gave an overview of the district, which is quite expansive. The district includes 18 counties and 7 major cities and has a population of 1.9 million residents.

Over view of FDOT District 2

Columbia County has a population of approximately 69,000 and political influence.

Mr. Cheek introduced the FDOTree program which he said establishes relationships with civic leaders and "communities that are environmentally impacted."

The FDOTree program also "develops internal design partnerships within the District to take advantage of landscape opportunities prior to construction."

There was nothing in the FDOT PowerPoint presentation which included solving the County's homeless and panhandler issues.

There is also no County agency or County employee that has been tasked with dealing with those issues.

People hanging out under the I-75 overpass at U.S. 90
The County, hotel owners, and others claim this as a problem for the image of Columbia County, folk under the underpass.

Landscape Funding

Mr. Cheek told the group, "Funding requests take from 2 to 5 years."

Discussing the I-75 U.S. 90 interchange he continued, "If we come to an agreement today that we're going to landscape it, it may take from 2 to 5 years. That's just the way it works. "Trust me; it's a long process... A standard project takes a long time to get done."

"A Little Issue Out There, It's Called Panhandlers"

FDOT's Marty Humphreys, the District's Operations Engineer was next to address the group. Mr. Humphries oversees all construction, which would include landscaping, around the Lake City area.

Mr. Humphreys said, "I know there's a challenge at I-75 and U.S. 90. We have a little issue out there. I'm sure you've all seen it. It's called panhandlers. They crawl up in it [the grass] and sleep. We're tryin' to figure out a way to limit the panhandler. We've been working with law enforcement."

homeless items in the tall grass by the I-75 interchange at U.S. 90
A barbeque and sleeping items in the high grass and brush. DOT agreed to remove the brush.

TDC Director Vann asked, "What is the process to get the ball rolling if we decided today we would like to look into this more?"

Mr. Cheek answered, "Send me an email."

Ms. Vann asked if there would be a cost for the County.

Mr. Cheek answered, "No. It can be done, but it will take time."

Commissioner Ronald Williams asked, "I hear you say it would take a year to design?"

Mr. Cheek:  "Yes," adding, "We can do a conceptual plan if that is what you would like us to do."

After a brief discussion the TDC said they wanted the landscaping changed so that people could not be hidden by the tall grass and shrubs at the interchange.

Mr. Humphries attempted a joke, "Did I hear you right when you said you didn't want any of that grass under there?"

The group had a collective chuckle.

Mr. Humphries followed up, "So if I was to take it out you'd be OK with that?"

Commissioner Murphy added, "I think that all need to be rock."

Everyone agreed that it was important to see what was going on.

Mr. Cheek said, "Very good, we'll set something up."

The Homeless & Panhandlers

DOT will rip out this landscaped area and re-do it - for free.
It is not clear how many thousands of dollars DOT will spend remodeling the already landscaped areas of the interchange, or if that money could be put to better use.

Presently, there are no real time figures in the County regarding the homeless.

Recently, United Way of Suwannee Valley sent volunteers to the known homeless spots, including the I-75 U.S. 90 interchange.

According to Executive Director Jennifer Anchors, a report regarding the County's homeless should be available in about two weeks.

On February 4, 2019, your reporter spoke with some of the folk hanging out under the interchange. None would give their names. There were only a handful of people. They weren't bothering anybody.

Your reporter advised the group that the County was working with DOT to cut down and remove all the brush and tall grass so that no one could sleep there.

One person said, "What do they want to do that for?"

Another said, "What's it to them. We're not bothering anybody. Why shouldn't we be able to sleep there?"

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On February 17, 2019, Terry Rauch of Lake City, radio personality and former Republican leader,  wrote:

Want the panhandlers to go away, make the corner they stand at "unprofitable" for them. Which means you either cut the funding to the source of revenue or create competition for the handouts.

Place a city police or sheriff cruiser with their 4-way flashers on (not the strobes) and tell the officers to eat lunch or write reports while sitting there. Hell, put the janitor in the seat of the cruiser but create the illusion they may be a problem and people will avoid getting involved in a law enforcement seen. The panhandlers will get nervous with an officer sitting there watching them.

Encourage churches, youth groups, everybody to stand with the panhandlers with signs asking for money too. I'll give money to support youth activities or a church before I give to a panhandler. Think about it, a teen in a sports jersey asking for donation for their sport to cut their over cost. Who wouldn't give to that.

When you give money to a panhandler all you are doing is inviting them to stay longer. So quit giving if you want them to leave. They don't want any help, they want there next fix. What ever it may be.


On February 13, 2019, Eean of Lake City wrote:

This seems to be a "sore spot" for so many in this County

The negative effects of an increasing transient population has been studied and reported in numerous socioeconomic studies. Tourism, business, crime, and disease can all be impacted in a negative way. Transient populations tend to congregate and remain in areas that support their activities. The homeless are distinct among a transient population as they tend to eventually move forward or improve their situation in time. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.

Supporting this population is not only detrimental to the area, but rarely has the desired effect. Rather than helping these individuals improve their daily lives, you end up with an even larger population of people that ultimately create a larger problem.

Having empathy for the individual or their circumstances is understandable and human nature. However, providing a source of income to many of these individuals is not helping them or the problem. It's actually making it worse.

Instead, offer them a list of resources available to help them improve their situation. They will either use that information to help themselves, or move to another area that provides the cash flow they seek.

Locally, (at one time) there were more of those resources in Columbia County. The problem was, most of the transient population does not use them. (the homeless do) These resources are designed to provide assistance and advice on how to become a productive member of society. This is not what a transient wants. A transient is looking for funding to support his current situation, not improve it. A transient population will migrate and follow the most lucrative path. By not giving them money, you'll force them to move on.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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