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Frenchtown Residents Challenge Their Role as Home to the Homeless

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-886502.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Tallahassee's emergency homeless shelter is located in Frenchtown, a mostly black community with a rich past near downtown Tallahassee. But some residents say their neighborhood bears the brunt of homelessness for the whole city. Margie Menzel reports.

[Siren.]

"I never stayed in a mission before. But since I've been here, I've enjoyed every bit of it. They feed you real good, and you get clean linens and you get towels every day and you bathes every day and everything is just very nice. I have nothing bad to say about it."

Delores Bonner, a nurse from New York whose move to Florida went awry and landed her at The Shelter. She's looking for work and a place to live. And The Shelter, she says, hasn't suffered from over-crowding since the temporary cold-nights shelter opened at nearby Lincoln Neighborhood Center. But if Bonner has no complaints, many residents of Frenchtown do.

"We have to live with it 24-7."

Jim Bellemy is president of the Frenchtown Neighborhood Improvement Association. He drives a reporter through the streets where he grew up.

"We have most of them hanging out here all day long, all day long hanging around doing nothing," said Bellemy. "Most of these folks are folks from The Shelter. They here all the time, begging folks at the Family Dollar store, "You got a dollar? You got 50 cents?"

Alexis Roberts McMillan is the pharmacist and manager of Economy Drug Store, on the same northeast corner of Tennessee and Macomb as The Shelter. The store has been in her family since 1951. Her parents were distinguished professionals with close ties to Florida A&M University and models of community service, another family tradition.

"I'm always being optimistic and will always be optimistic," said McMillan. "We're here to help people. We're here to serve the community. My dad would roll over in his grave if we were not serving the community."

McMillan is concerned for the homeless, but acknowledges that before The Shelter opened, the neighborhood was different.

"You didn't necessarily have to wipe the concrete because someone would have defecated or urinated in front of your business before you could open. You would not have to wake up people who for whatever reason left The Shelter early or didn't quite get into The Shelter. It would cause more shoplifting."

McMillan's pharmacy gets some business from The Shelter, individual residents, and from the Homeless Project at Apalachee Mental Health Center. She's had to ask people not to panhandle in front of the store, and seen a few passed out on the sidewalk. She was held up by a homeless person.

"That was one of the most frightening things that's ever happened to me. I've never been violated. And I definitely felt like I had been violated."

Jim Bellemy, driving through Frenchtown, points to another homeless facility, smaller than The Shelter.

"Now we got a shelter here, Haven of Rest. Different kind of place," he said. "You don't even know the people are here." [Why is it different?] "Because they don't let their people hang out and stuff!"

Christie Koontz, vice president of The Shelter's board, says the facility has worked hard to get along with the neighbors.

"Actually, The Shelter has ameliorated its appearance and the way people traffic in and out of The Shelter to accommodate concerns from the Frenchtown area," said Koontz. "We actually have a good rapport, we think, with all of our neighbors."

She says the Shelter's central location means better access for homeless people from the bus stations or main roads that intersect downtown.

"We really believe that we are providing a safety mechanism for the people who are homeless who could be victims of crime through our location. At one time we did a study - it's been a while - that crime actually went down in the area after The Shelter opened and over time, because of getting people off the streets by a good time, by around 9 o'clock."

But Jim Bellemy says the behavior of The Shelter's residents isn't good for business.

"That's one of the reasons people don't want to come in here and develop. Would you want to put a business in here? Honestly? And that's the kind of thing we have to contend with. But they don't see any reason why we should not want them to leave. You know what I'm saying? But we need to in order for this community to develop. We've got a poor image as it is. We need to be trying to change that image, really."

Sylvester Beckwith, who owns the barber shop a few doors down from Alexis McMillan, says some Shelter residents get their hair cut at his place.

"We have had some that I've talked into going to church. Some of them got good jobs, some of them is married and got families now. Some people you could help and some you can't. Like in all walks of life you got some crew you could help, some you can't help. We have some good people over there."

Now, as Lincoln Neighborhood Center in the heart of Frenchtown serves as an emergency cold-nights shelter, many residents are asking why their neighborhood is the one tapped to serve the homeless. Sylvester Beckwith sums up their dilemma.

"I like to say I'm praying for 'em. And all the help we can get 'em, get it for 'em. Some of 'em need help, and some just plain lazy. [Laughs.] Some of 'em just plain lazy."