Interviewee: Terry Converse
Interviewer: Juan Mena
Date: April 1, 1993
M: The date is April 1, 1993. This is an oral [history] interview with Corporal Terry
Converse of the Gainesville Police Department conducted in his office at 721
NW 6th Avenue, Gainesville Police Headquarters.
Corporal Converse, thank you for agreeing to this interview on the homeless
situation in Gainesville. I would like to discuss the role of law enforcement as it
impacts on the homeless situation in Gainesville and in general. I also hope you
can give us some insight on this problem, both as a police officer and [as] a
M: First I would like to get a little biographical information. When were you born?
C: May 2, 1960.
C: In West Palm Beach, Florida.
M: Oh, I am from down there. Well, [I am from] Dade [County], but close enough.
Did you grow up down there?
C: Yes, until the age of ten. Then my father took a job with the University of Florida,
so we moved to Gainesville.
M: You have been kind of around Gainesville since then?
C: In the general area, yes.
M: Where did you go to high school?
C: Santa Fe High School in Alachua.
M: Did you go on from there?
C: I have an associate's degree from Santa Fe Community College.
M: In criminal justice?
C: Business management.
M: That is interesting. When did you decide to become a police officer?
C: I think it more or less happened, but it turned out to be very positive. I was a
jewelry store manager in 1980 when I applied with the Gainesville Police
Department, and through a fortunate set of events, mainly [that] the police
department decided to hire people [laughter], I was employed in October of
M: So that is twelve years.
C: Almost twelve years.
M: Are you still pretty excited?
C: Oh, I love the job.
M: Were you out on the street?
C: I have spent time on the street. I spent six and a half years in the training unit at
M: That must have been interesting.
C: Yes. It allows you to learn all aspects of the law enforcement and corrections
professions, as well as allows you to teach and know everybody in the
M: So I guess you like Gainesville? You just settled here. You like the size [and]
kind of the intimacy. That is one thing from being down South that really
strikes me is the intimacy of the city.
C: I have lived in different areas. When I was manager of the jewelry store, I spent
two months in Houston, Texas. I have lived in South Florida. There is an
attraction to North central Florida because you get a change of seasons [and]
the population in this city, particularly seems to be ever-changing. So there
is always a lot of variety, not only professionally, but personally. I do not know
what my future holds whether I am going to stay in Gainesville or relocate to
another area. But right now, it seems like every time I go away, something
draws me back to Gainesville.
M: That is true. I took a year off after my B. A., and I just love the city, especially
when you come from a big city. I think Houston is the same way.
C: Oh, it is unbelievable.
M: How does Gainesville in general rate with other cities of its size as far as crime
C: Gainesville kind of exceeds most cities its size. We compete with the big boys.
We compete with Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and New York, mainly because
for the size of the populous of Gainesville, the crime rate seems to be a little
higher. Some people attribute that to the fact that we have a lot of people
moving in and out of the area, the fact that we have some major interstates and
major highways that go through Alachua County, and for other reasons we do
not know. But we seem to have a pretty high crime rate. Over the last few
years, it has been leveling off, but in 1992, we had an abrupt increase again. So
it is hard to say.
M: Is that across the board, or is that property crimes? There are violent crimes
C: Both. We have had a drastic increase in homicides, sexual batteries, robberies,
and things of a violent nature. Property crimes are always real high, and we
attribute that probably mostly to the University of Florida; the students who are
getting a start in life maybe do not have the experience.
M: They make a vulnerable lot.
C: Exactly. They allot the opportunity for the bad guys to take advantage of them.
So that is why there is always such a high crime rate in the area.
M: Coming from Miami, I think of this like paradise.
C: Even in Miami, people take precautions because they expect crime, so it is not
as big a surprise, probably, when it happens. But in Gainesville, there is almost
an expectation that there will be no crime.
M: [People] leave the doors open at night.
C: Exactly. [They] leave their keys in the car. Stupid things that you would never
M: That you would never do someplace else, but you feel like this is an oasis.
C: You are not an exception to the rule as far as being a victim of a crime.
Gainesville is a small city, but has a big city crime mentality.
M: You have been in Gainesville for a while. Has there always been a sizable
amount of homeless people? Twenty years ago, they would have been called
bums or hobos with the negative connotations. But a lot of people say there
seems to be less of them or it has been growing throughout the past few years.
Do you see that?
C: There is a large number. There is a very large population in this county and this
city. I would not say the numbers are shrinking. I would say there are as many
people you say over the last twenty years I would say at the end of the
Vietnam War is when we saw such a large influx. There probably have not been
that many homeless people since the Depression days. The reason is a lot of
the vets that were returning from Vietnam were not assimilating into society like
they had in previous wartimes or in previous eras. So a lot of those people
turned to the streets, traveled from city to city, and basically lived off the land and
whatever else they could find. So that is why there was such a high increase
during the 1970s of homeless people. A lot of those homeless people who took
to the streets during that time are now getting up in age [they] are in their
forties and fifties and it is becoming more and more difficult for them to stay on
the streets, so they are turning to other places like shelters and trying to
assimilate. Of course, the hard-core street people will always be on the streets
until the day they die.
M: A lot of people talk of Gainesville as almost being a regional magnet for
C: I think there is something about this area that attracts the homeless people. It
could be the fact that we do not really mess with them. If they commit a crime,
or if they are involved in something, they are going to be the people that we
either turn to for information or suspects. It all depends on whether somebody
may have the appearance of a homeless or transient person. I think we have a
reputation of just not bothering them, so they kind of come to the area and stay.
M: We have interviewed a couple of homeless people, and they have said that the
Gainesville police are much more tolerant vis-a-vis other municipalities in the
area, as far as how they treat them. There is also [the factor] you talked about.
Since the Veterans' Administration Hospital is here, they are attracted to that.
C: Yes, and that would be another reason why they would come to Gainesville.
M: What is law enforcement's primary contact with the homeless? Are they victims
of crime, perpetrators of crime, or witnesses?
C: We get a little bit of everything. I think that we have a lot of homeless shelters in
the area as well. The St. Francis House is probably the main one in the city that
deals with a lot of homeless and transient people. The biggest problem that I
have seen in looking through reports and crimes that we have responded to is
that homeless people become victims when they have been drinking, or they get
in an argument with somebody. If you are drinking, and you pass out, there is a
thing called "rolling." You have heard "rolling the bums" or something of that
nature, which is a term they used to use, where, if you pass out, they go through
your clothes, and they take your wallet, your money, and your valuables. That is
just one of the ways they become victims. Another way is if a homeless person
is intoxicated, they become victims of robbery because someone uses force to
take advantage of them. The other side of the coin is they are not afraid to stand
up for themselves. Some of these people are pretty hardened because they
have been on the street, they have lived off the land, they live outside a good
percentage of the time, and because they are so hardened, they do not put up
with anything. You can only push them so far. When they get to that point, they
are going to strike back. Therefore, they become the suspect of a crime
because they have committed an act against somebody else. We get a lot of
things like aggravated batteries, thefts, and robberies where they are the
victims of the crimes, but they are also the perpetrators of the crimes. As far as
witnesses are concerned, they become very good witnesses because if
something happens in an area where they are available to witness a crime, then
they may be helpful for us or they may not be. It all depends on whether they
want to cooperate.
M: Is that difficult? I mean, if someone is homeless and you have them as a
witness in a major crime, how do you keep track of them?
C: There is no way you can, unless you list them as a confidential informant, and
then they do not have to come forward in court. But you have to be able to prove
their reliability as a confidential informant.
M: We were talking a little bit about the impact of law enforcement on the homeless.
Do you see homelessness as a problem afflicting every community? Do you
see it as a greater problem in Gainesville as compared to Ocala or other cities
C: I do not know much about Ocala. Other cities large, metropolitan areas all
have homeless people that live on the street, some in greater numbers than
others. I know for a fact that New York has a lot, Los Angeles has a lot, Houston
has a lot, Miami has a whole lot. I think for the numbers, we probably do not
have as many as they do, but again, Gainesville seems to attract people.
You do not see a lot of the street people here. A lot of them really do hold down
jobs. They are homeless, meaning that they do not actually live in an apartment
or a home or a hotel. They may live in a box or a shanty that they have built in
the woods, but they truly do hold down a job, and they earn money. So you
cannot say that they are indigent and living off the United States government or
something like that. A lot of them actually do hold down [jobs], whether it be
migrant-worker types of work or some type of labor where they are out humping
it from sunrise to sunset. But there are also a lot of people in town who are living
off the government, whether it be veterans or other people. Some of them do
cause problems. There are a lot of good people out there living in shanties and
tents in the woods who have never bothered anybody. It is really hard to
pinpoint any one problem that there might be. We do run across them
occasionally. I think I was pretty shocked to find out how many people actually
live in the woods, under bridges, in abandoned houses or tents right in the
Gainesville area in very influential neighborhoods where the people who live in
these neighborhoods probably do not even know these people are right on their
M: We interviewed a homeless person. I heard the interview yesterday, and he was
talking about living in the lot behind St. Francis House. He was saying that you
guys were much more easy going than [the law enforcement in] Ocala, for
example. Do you have set guidelines or policy toward the homeless that kind of
evolved into this kind of tolerant attitude?
C: I think it is more of a "If you don't mess with us, we won't mess with you" type of
thing. You could call it a law of the street more than anything. There is not any
law that prohibits them from being where they are, with the exception of
trespassing on private property, but that cannot be enforced unless there is
someone who complains about them being there. There is no ordinance that we
know of in the city that prohibits them from being street people. I think that was
ruled unconstitutional many years ago. In reality, there is no policy that I know of
that pertains to how you deal with street people or homeless people. We treat
everybody like human beings.
M: Some homeless people camping in a place like a wooded area is not a problem
if they are not doing anything?
C: I do not know what the legalities of it are. We have a lot of people that live in
wooded areas. Gainesville is Tree City, USA, and it has millions and millions of
trees. If they are living there, and they are not bothering anybody, and nobody
has made a complaint about it, we do not have the resources to go out and
round all these people up and chase them out of town.
M: One of the criticisms of Miami's policy has been that they really only pay
attention to the homeless when there is a big event the Super Bowl or the NBA
All-Star game and then they kind of round them up for whatever infraction.
Gainesville never goes through something like that?
C: We do not have a problem with that.
M: Not Homecoming weekend or anything?
C: There are some statistics. Again, the numbers are so great for Homecoming or
Gator football games that you see the street people, but they do not mess with
anybody. The worse thing they may do is panhandle or ask for money. Now
they are violating a law. If we get a complaint about that, then we are either
going to make an arrest or cite the person and get them off the street, but I do
not know of that many incidences where that happens. We have people who
work in the areas where these people might be panhandling or asking for money,
and most of the time that is going to be handled by chasing them off.
M: What is the general character of the complaints you do receive about the
homeless? Are they mostly from businesspersons?
C: [There are] probably more from residents than businesses. The only businesses
that seem to get bothered are the businesses that might be close to the plasma
centers (where they go to sell their plasma to get money). If we get a complaint
from a business, it is because a person is panhandling in front of their business
and disrupting their business a restaurant, for instance, or something of that
nature [like] a service organization. It is not as prevalent as it is to a resident; a
resident will complain because they are in fear for their safety. And that is just
because of the unknown. They do not know what to expect from these people
because they look kind of bad a lot of times. The homeless people may be
without baths, have long hair, and may be unshaven. Their appearance is more
frightening. In those cases, we will make contact with the person and then just
kind of shoo them on their way, especially if they have not violated any laws or
ordinances. Of course, if they violate the laws or ordinances, they are going to
go to jail or be cited. They know that. They probably have a better grasp of
open container laws and things like that than we do because they know we do
arrest them for those things in the downtown area and anyplace they might be
publicly drinking or in violation of a city ordinance.
M: You may not know [the answer to] this. Are there more complaints around these
homeless shelters like St. Francis House?
C: The only complaints that we really get around St. Francis House are going to be
complaints from either the people who run the St. Francis House (because of a
problem that they have and they want this person taken off which does not
happen very often) or we get a crime that has been perpetrated against another
homeless person by a homeless person, and then we have to go down and
investigate that. But most of the time, they are very orderly around the shelters.
M: It is rather interesting. We came to understand it as a little conflict between the
business interests of downtown Gainesville and these homeless centers. It is
interesting to hear that it is actually residents that make [complaints].
C: There is a conflict going on between the Downtown Redevelopment Center (if
that is what you are referring to) and St. Francis House. They are, of course,
trying to fix up and redevelop the downtown area. They have some legitimate
concerns, I am sure. But as far as I know, we really do not get a lot of calls
about St. Francis House by the business owners.
M: We were led to understand that sometimes some of the homeless shelters will
send the homeless people here to get a clearance before [they can stay].
C: They all have to do that. That is a policy that the shelters have and that the
police department has worked within for years. They are required before they
check in to make sure they have a clearance that they are not wanted by police
and that they are able to stay in that shelter. So everyone that comes into town
from out of the area has to check in with the Gainesville Police Department. We
will run a warrants check on them at their request--if they come in and say they
need a clearance. If everything is OK, then we clear them. They have to have
some form of identification. We do not just arbitrarily take your name because
you could take a name off of a tombstone.
M: Do a lot of them not have identification?
C: Probably the ones that do not have identification are the ones who live in the
woods. But the majority of them that come into the department have some form
M: Is a considerable amount of the contact that law enforcement has with the
homeless due to [problems with] alcohol or drugs?
C: We have some alcohol contacts. We do run across people who are suffering
from some type of [malady], whether it be a mental disorder or something else.
But very rarely is there any drug contact. [The contact] is mostly alcohol-related.
They get together in a certain location, and then they consume copious amounts
of alcoholic beverages. [They] usually stick to themselves. It is when they start
causing trouble that we have that negative contact that creates an arrest
situation where someone is going to go to jail. It is usually not us; it is them.
That does happen. But alcohol would probably be the most prevalent contact
that we have. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any time I have ever seen
a homeless person really on any kind of drugs illegal or not in twelve years
[of working in law enforcement].
M: You were talking about the Vietnam era individuals who kind of slipped through
the cracks. We have heard a lot about younger men even families that are
homeless. Is this something that you see?
C: I see a lot of younger people whole families not just young females or males
coming out on the street. You see mothers with children [and] whole families
living out of a car, moving around. I do not know what the reason behind that is.
Either they cannot hold down a job, or maybe it is an education thing. I really do
not know why they are out on the street. Maybe they were kicked out. Maybe
they were put out. Maybe there is a criminal problem. There are still a lot of the
old-timers out there; I see more of them than I do anybody else. It is really kind
of ironic I traveled across the country a few years ago and on Interstate 10 in
Arizona, I saw a guy I recognized. I knew his name from Gainesville. He was a
person who travels the roads. It goes back to being drawn to Gainesville, but I
also saw this person in Arizona. So there are a lot of people that travel around.
I do not know how in-depth your studies have been, but there have been a lot of
statistics and studies done on homeless people and their incomes and such. It
was found several years ago that the average national untaxed income for
people who panhandle was like $15,000 to $17,000. That is an annual income.
That is not bad money for somebody who is living off the land or living in a
shanty or a tent someplace and not having to pay Uncle Sam any taxes. I am
not sure whether that statistic is true. People usually give money to someone
who is out panhandling money, even though it is a violation of the law, just to get
them away from them and be left alone. The panhandlers are living pretty well,
especially if you are living in a car and you have to travel or get gas. I do not
know if the Gainesville Police Department still gives gas vouchers, but we used
to give a certain dollar amount gas voucher that was paid for by a local church.
They may still do it; I am not really sure. People would come in, give some
identification, say that they were homeless, traveling through in a car, and they
needed gas. We would give them a voucher, and they would go to a local gas
station (that would bill the church), and they would get gas for their car and go on
to the next city or wherever they needed gas again. So there are people who
travel not only by foot or hitchhiking, but also by vehicle.
M: Could you put a number on the homeless in Gainesville a ballpark estimate?
C: I do not think I could even begin to guess.
M: It is an elusive number, and it is ever-changing.
C: I could not even begin to guess. If I said 1,000 there could be 500. There could
be 100. But I know there are quite a few.
M: Do their numbers change seasonally? Do they grow in the winter?
C: Actually, they shrink in the winter. Of course, we get an influx from the North, but
they have a tendency to go further South because it gets cold in Gainesville as
M: So this is kind of a stopping point.
C: Sure. Or they may go West. It is hard to say. We do get an influx prior to
winter. Once the winter hits in the northern states, they have a tendency to
move through the area and move further South. But in the summertime, it
definitely increases. Right now, we will start seeing people come in.
I used to never see anybody at the interstate sitting with a sign saying, "I'll work
for food," or "I'm homeless and I need money." But in the last few years, it
seems like you see more and more people at every exit on the interstate or [at]
major intersections with these signs. You used to never see those people. And
if you look at them, they do not look like they are starving or hungry, so it is kind
of hard to say.
M: It is a difficult problem. This has been a national problem for the past five or
eight years or so. It has come to national attention.
C: I would say that it has been very well-known for the past twenty-plus years
because of the Vietnam war ending in the early 1970s. I think it has come to
national attention, yes, but I do not know if there is a resolution or any solution to
it. A lot of people that are on the street are on the street because they want to
be on the street, not because it is out of choice or necessity. In some hard
cases, that could very well be true, but the majority of them, I would say, are
probably on the street because they have chosen to be on the street and maybe
cannot assimilate or blend with society or even other people. There are people
out there that do not like other people and do not want to be around them.
M: The alarming thing must be the growth [in numbers] of families that are on the
street. It is a lifestyle choice for an individual, but for kids out there ...
C: It amazes me that there would be kids out there because even affluent people
who do very well economically still have a hard time making ends meet when
they have children. Raising children and educating children is very expensive.
To think that there are children on the street who move from town to town that
are not getting education [astonishes me]. I wonder how the parents can afford
to keep them fed or clothed or educated, considering that the parents
themselves may not be educated. Again, that is hypothetical. But that is the
hard part of dealing with this, especially with the law enforcement profession.
What do you do in a situation where you find a family who is living in a car and
there are three kids in the car with them? Do you contact HRS and have them
handle it through their means, or do you turn the other cheek and let it go on?
M: Is it better that the family is intact?
C: It is the welfare of the children that you need to be concerned about. The family
is all fine and good, but if the family itself is not allowing the children to have a
quality of life that is good for them at least to help their future be brighter than it
is right now [something should be done other than] letting them remain in the
gloom of poverty. The whole country has a lot of poverty. Even people who live
in homes suffer from poverty.
M: As a person, what are you inclined to do in a situation like that?
C: I do not know. Personally and I would probably do it professionally as well I
would probably have HRS step in. They would have to prove to Health and
Rehabilitative Services that they can provide for their children and that they have
provided for their children. I do not believe that they would have the means of
doing that. I would hate to see the family broken up, but in reality, what do you
do? Either you stand by and just let children live in a car and have dirty clothes
all the time or you could probably provide for them in a foster home. I am not
saying that that is any better. Our system breaks down in a lot of areas. But I
am not one of those people that wants to stand by and see that. Who knows?
M: It has been twenty years, then. Have you seen any programs that you really
think are [helpful]? It seems that every couple of years, everybody has a new
program that is going to help the homeless, and it seems like after a couple of
years, it dies off. It is ebb and flow. That may speak more to what you were
talking about that for a lot of people, this is a lifestyle choice.
C: And I think that is a big part of it. I think it is a lifestyle choice. I think it is
something they want to do, and if you try to change that, [you are not
successful]. The last thing that they want is influence or contact with anybody
who is trying to change it or even help them. I think if you even spoke to a lot of
people who live on the street, you will find that they do not want any help. Now, I
do not know what your findings have been by interviews or such, but the people
that want help are the people who were forced to live on the street. If they do
not want help, do not help them. They have been able to survive. Especially if
they have been out there for twenty-plus years, [that says] they have survived
twenty years. That is more than some people can do when they are making
money. You have a greater chance of being run over by a car and not making
that twenty years than you do having to hoof it and bust your back every night to
make ends meet.
Most of the people that we have encountered who live off the land or live on the
hoof are hardened people who really do not want to be bothered by anybody.
The majority of them are not negative or nasty. They are human beings like
everyone else. A lot of them are very pleasant to be around. But they do not
want to be around people all the time, and that is their life choice. That is what
they have decided they want to do.
M: So how effective do you think St. Francis House and Salvation Army are?
C: I think they are effective to the degree that they provide meals and some security
from the weather. I think they are very effective in that St. Francis House
requires certain things from the people that stay there. Again, I do not know their
procedures because I have not ever been inside except on calls. That seems to
be a very positive thing in the community even though the community leaders
and other people do not look on it very positively a lot of times. It seems to help
them as far as meals.
I know an old man who basically lives in a box on SW 6th Street. He is so feeble
that he has a very hard time getting to and from St. Francis House. But I know
he takes his meals there every day. It is good for people like that. He cannot
fend for himself anymore, and he does not get any money from the government,
and he does not have any family. For him to be able to go there and get a meal,
that is a good thing. That is the positive aspect of that. There are a lot of people
that could go out and fend for themselves and get jobs and do what they have to
do to either support themselves or the other people in their families. But people
like him who cannot fend for themselves at least have a place to go.
M: But you do not envision some kind of program that can help get the majority of
people permanently off the streets? Job training?
C: No. I do not think it would do any good. Again, it comes back to people who do
not want to be a part of society. There is a good number of them I would say
probably better than half of them do not really want to be part of what we have
created for ourselves. In some ways, you really cannot blame them with the
trends and ways that we are going [laughter]. I do not think it would really make
a difference to them at all.
M: Is Gainesville a safe city for the homeless?
C: I would say it is safer than most. Plus, you do not find areas where there is a lot
of congregation. In other words, you used to see more people sleeping on
benches downtown. You do not see that as much anymore. I mean, they still
congregate at the downtown plaza and places like that.
M: If you see somebody sleeping on a bench ...
C: We usually will wake them and tell them to move on. There are ordinances
about sleeping in parks, and that is considered a park. They are not allowed to
stay in places like that. They do not have to if they have these communities that
are out in the woods. There are numerous communities where you can stand at
a tent and look across the woods and see another tent and another little shack
over here. They have built little communities where they all share. There is
probably some criminal activity that goes on. Occasionally we will run across
these camps, and we will find things that we know were stolen during a burglary
someplace, so we end up recovering some property. But the majority of them
just want to be alone and away from everyone else. I think it is safe from that
aspect in that they are not in alleyways or under bridges or living in vacant,
abandoned, [or] condemned buildings. They are able to go out in the woods and
stay separate, not only from themselves but from other people as well.
M: So most of them are loners. I mean, they do not group off.
C: Only for occasional companionship and drinking or smoking or whatever.
M: Well, thank you very much.
C: You are welcome.