Homeless Task Force formalizes recommendations

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

The Homeless Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida held its final meeting on Oct. 29, formalizing its pitch to the Pensacola City Council on how best to spend $3 million in federal funding to address the issue of homelessness in the region. The task force’s recommendations are designed to amount to a comprehensive plan to address homelessness and represent what Neighborhoods Administrator Lawrence Powell described as a “landmark collaboration.”

“This is huge, and this is important to the city and important to you,” Powell said during the opening minutes of Friday’s meetings.

Much of this final meeting consisted of an overview of projects already tossed upon the table of public consumption, previewed earlier this fall during a city council meeting. The task force has determined that the best way to put $3 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding is to dispense the funds across multiple existing service organizations in the area to either fund continued efforts or initiate new ones.

Organizations including Alford Washburn Center, Bright Bridge Ministries and Children’s Home Society are set to receive a half-million dollars collectively to fund counseling services and certified social workers. Waterfront Rescue Mention would like about $400,000 to develop more bed space, and Canopy Hope would like a bit less to do the same; each organization has also included care workers in their requests. Lakeview Center is requesting a half-million dollars to put towards a mobile response behavioral health unit, and Reentry Alliance of Pensacola, or REAP, would like nearly $700,000 to support services at its existing women and families shelter, as well as developing two other sites with camping-type amenities, as well as support services.

Response to the task force’s recommendations for the funding was mixed. Criticism came from both homeless service providers not included, residents concerned about specific recommendations—such as locating a shelter facility at the corner of North Palafox and Maxwell Street, and the existing homeless camp under a stretch on I-110 Overpass near downtown.

“The $3 million, I’m trying to figure out, where’s it going?” Caleb Houston, founder of Huts 4 Our Friends said, going on to say that the task force process had become “political”—telling the group, “I see through the dark glass.”

Joyce McDonald, the North Hill Preservation Association president, was among several residents that spoke in regards to conditions near the I-110 encampment, telling the task force that nearby residents are “afraid to go out of their homes after dark” and urging the task force to reconsider REAP’s plans to place a shelter and service center in the same area.

Linda Gibson, a North Hill resident who said that her son had lived on the streets for a period of time, said that the city was contributing to a problem with its current allowance of the I-110 encampment.

“Do not let those people camp out,” Gibson said. “If you give those people a place to camp out, it you give them food you’ve got blood on your hands,” Gibson said, adding that the best thing to do would be to allow homeless people to “suffer the natural consequences of their actions.” “And they need to suffer them over and over and over again until they’re not willing to suffer them anymore.”

Dan Lindemann, a downtown property and business owner, told the task force that he had visited the I-110 encampment and found the conditions “disgusting.” “It smells like a giant urinal” and is “downright scary.”

“I’d love to see some showers down there,” he said. “Let them feel like humans again.”

Connie Bookman, the task force co-chair, agreed and repeated her assertions that the group’s recommendations would result in the camp soon being emptied. She told Lindemann that his assessment of the camp was “exactly what the task force has had the pleasure to embrace.”

“That you for your prayers and your passion on this—we’re on it,” Bookman said, suggesting that local homeless people at the camp would be able to secure shelter space soon and that people not from this area could be sent on their way elsewhere: “Let us give you a bus ticket.”

The task force’s recommendations will go before city council at a workshop on Nov. 10. The council will then decide if the city should throw its ARPA funding towards the group’s recommendations.

Some of the group’s recommendations — such as REAP’s camp-style pallet-shelter sites — will require more the city than a nod from council. Certain city building codes will need to be tweaked or waived to allow for such developments, leading REAP founder Vinnie Whibbs to describe the scenario as a “field of dreams” situation.

“We haven’t got the funding, and we haven’t got the approval, so we haven’t got the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed,” Whibbs said, adding that he expects both elements to fall into place as this process continues.

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2 thoughts on “Homeless Task Force formalizes recommendations

  1. This has all been telegraphed since the very first rumblings of the Task Force.

    And from the beginning, a lot of us were saying “why isn’t this committee Sunshine?”

    Now the City is covering its bases with the ARPA funding per the Sunshine, but oddly enough saying nothing else needs to be Sunshine. The problem is, it ALL falls under ARPA funding, so literally every discussion they have about homelessness, feedings, etc are in the Sunshine. Every aspect, every Facebook post, every backdoor meeting, every sub committee meeting that is closed to public participation (and the legal sub committee meeting in the Sheriff’s department can’t even be video’d per ESCO rules).

    What an absolute mess. I suppose it might hold up in court, as Charlie Peppler is an excellent litigator. But man, you couldn’t pay me to sit any of those committees or sub committees with the dangerous legal ground the participants have been left in with that opinion.

    The problem is, nobody heading the various iterations of non-government, quasi government, or pseudo government homeless initiatives in the City or County actually understand homelessness. And people who actually understand how a continue of care should work are not happy at what they see happening. It’s sad, tragic really, if all the politicking blows this up, because we do have a pressing need to solve the problem. And there are real solutions.

    But the desire to monetize a solution and all the power grabs have assured from the get-go that this thing was going to get nowhere at the County. I hope the BOCC stands firm in not letting Escambia taxpayers get bilked unless there is leadership that understands the issue and isn’t working in part with a goal of using it as yet another tool to try to blow up the County. All the backdoor war games won’t work; it will just continue to sew divisiveness and vitriol in the community, and hold us back from the progress that we really need on this issue and so many others.

  2. In a few years time, a future mayor and set of council members will be cursing this current crew for wasting an opportunity to invest the $19.1 million in American Rescue Plan dollars in the city. When the dust settles, the current elected officials will have squandered it with nothing to show for it. They didn’t like my recommendation to use it all to build the promised parking garage at the Community Maritime Park with a memorial to honor the city dead killed by COVID-19. The $19.1 million could also have been spent on projects already on the books to include stormwater projects, community center upgrades and a first ever community center for District 2. The current budget year Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) spend plan is $9.6 million. If the city council had only used the $19.1 million for projects eligible for LOST funding, all current projects on the books could be accelerated by two years. Instead the money is going to be wasted on projects demanded by this or that special interest group. The city should definitely not spend any money on projects to help the county’s homeless. Every square inch of the City of Pensacola is in Escambia County. This is a “county” problem that they have ignored for too long. The BCC is just laughing itself silly as the city deals with a homeless crisis only made worse every time they do something to make it more inviting to be homeless in Pensacola. Homeless people with whom I have spoken are not city residents. People interviewed by the media have openly said that they came to live under I-110 because that was where the benefits are. Connie Bookman whom I sure would not want the homeless living at Roger Scott Park near her own home has described them as “our people.” I have asked. The city council does not know who these people are and where they lived before they became homeless. They are not “our people.” Pensacola is a caring place. If a local family is down on their luck because of any combination of issues, people do help them out. But these people are not local. They came here because the city has made itself an “attractive nuisance” giving handouts. Does the City of Pensacola really want to be the homeless capital of Northwest Florida? No. We even had a homeless guy from Pace with three big dogs spend the night of October 23 in Eastgate Park in Scenic Heights. I called the police after I saw him harassing a couple walking their dog because he was upset that they did not want to help him recharge his cell phone. What next, cell phone chargers in city parks for the homeless? I have a good idea for this current $3 million. Build the Tippin Park Community Center in District 2. Myers has been fighting for it for 7-8+ years. $3 million would pay for it. Or accelerate completion of stormwater projects already approved. The $3 million could pay for all of the $2.5 million worth of stormwater projects waiting to be done in 2023. Instead of thinking of American Rescue Plan dollars as what Commissioner Underhill recently described as “mad money,” it should be used to make permanent investments in the community. The problem in our city hall is a lack of backbone.

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