Municipal homeless efforts ‘frustrating’

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

A leading homeless advocate took city officials to task this week, telling them that municipal efforts to address the issue of homelessness are falling short.

“Y’all are not addressing homelessness,” said Mike Kimbrel. “It’s very frustrating.”

Kimbrel, the director of the Alfred Washburn Center and co-founder of Satoshi Forest, both of which serve the area’s homeless community, had been invited to the Pensacola City Council’s agenda conference Oct. 19 by Councilwoman Sherri Myers to speak about the recent installation of benches at Pensacola City Hall, but the conversation quickly evolved into a discussion about the city’s efforts to address the issue of homelessness.

“It’s paramount that we address this holistically and from every angle,” Kimbrel said.

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson pointed to efforts launched in 2019 between the city and Escambia County, as well as organizations serving the homeless community, as evident of the city’s intent to address the issue. He said that the coronavirus pandemic had stalled that conversation this year.

“It’s been one of the more challenging times that we’ve had,” Robinson said.

The mayor said that ultimately “a whole series of different small solutions” would need to be realized in order to have an impact on homelessness — mentioning day centers and tiny houses, among other potentials — but also that such efforts would need to be coordinated, both logistically and budgetarily, with entities such as Escambia County.

“Everybody’s going to have to buy into it,” he said. “That’s the only way it’s going to be sustainable.”

But Robinson also focused on what he described as a monopolization by homeless people of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Plaza downtown on Palafox.

“All these spaces are public,” he said. “That means they are open to all the people, they are not to be monopolized by a certain group of people.”

And the mayor mentioned that the downtown business community was not pleased with the scene and that there had been a number of instances — a stabbing at a restaurant, tire slashings and a homicide — that were raising concerns and creating a “conflict of space.”

Mayor Robinson suggested other locations to be used by organizations working to provide food to the homeless community, such as in Hollice T. Williams greenway, a healthy distance from the downtown core.

And as for the new benches — benches that Kimbrel said were installed to “lure the homeless to city hall” — the mayor said they were an improvement on the existing offerings.

“I do believe that they are considerably more comfortable than the current slabs that are out there that were probably archetiectuly designed to keep people from sleeping and sitting and doing other things,” Robinson said.

Kimbrel disagreed.

“They are unsightly,” he said. “There doesn’t seem like there was much planning to it. One of the benches is facing a brick wall.”

As did Councilwoman Myers: “We’re getting ready to do millions of dollars of streetscaping and we put in benches like that?”

But these new benches severed only as an impetus for the wider discussion. Kimbrel used the opportunity to point toward $50,000 in the city’s budget dedicated to address the issue of homelessness and described it as “kind of insulting.”

“It’s pennies,” he said.

And also to suggest that some financial responsibility may lie with private downtown business owners.

“What we need is compassion and what I’m hearing — and I hope you don’t take offense to this Mr. Mayor — but I’m hearing more interest in what the business community feels on this,” Kimbrel said. “And the business community, at this point, needs to put up. They need to put some money on the table.”

Council members seemed generally sympathetic to Kimbrel’s argument. Myers said the city needed to find the “political will” needed to commit, President Jewel Cannada-Wynn pointed to the need for a day center in her district, and Councilman Jared Moore told Kimbrel that, “I appreciate how you’ve dedicated your life to improving the situation.”

“We’re going to have to put this on the top shelf, and deal with it at once,” concluded Councilman John Jerralds.

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3 thoughts on “Municipal homeless efforts ‘frustrating’

  1. Thank you, Jeremy Morrison, for your attention on this. Your piece on the CPAC was great, also.

    We attended this item on the Council agenda and were hoping to see that things are moving in a better direction in the City than they are at the County with homelessness. Sadly, it looks to be at the same impasse there, if not worse, although we left trying to take heart that enough councilpeople will get engaged to actually start helping towards a real solution.

    We were really disappointed in, and even shocked by, the Councilpeople who didn’t speak to the issue.

    News flash to the City–Janice Gilley ain’t parting with any of that CARES money to help you guys out on homelessness any time soon. Hell, it’s not even clear that the BOCC understands exactly what she has planned for that money, let alone where it will land once she gets to moving it around.

    The only small glimpse of hope we’ve had at the County on this issue is Jeff Bergosh bringing it for discussion at the COW so that he could lay out for people shouting “lock them up” that you can’t just round up homeless people and throw them in jail, and that they have constitutional rights just like any other citizen.

    And yet, somehow, that remains the solution at the County–force the Sheriff’s department to enforce Janice Gilley’s no trespassing orders, move people along–contrary to CDC guidelines for homeless camps during the pandemic (not that Janice cares about people catching coronavirus), and, if they have the sufficient number of prior trespasses, send them to Covid Castle Greyskull.

    Our elected officials need to stop running the game of placating Michael Kimberl once in a while publicly but, for the most part, giving him the back of the hand because he isn’t interested in solutions that won’t work. Nobody understands the homeless problem better than he does, and it floors me that people continue to try to run “solutions” around him while he is nearly single-handedly sustaining what help he can continue to offer while other agencies shut their doors and send homeless to Washburn, even knowing they are at capacity (or now, operating at partial capacity due to Sally).

    I’m pegging my hopes on there being a willingness from a new sheriff to roll his sleeves up and finally work in earnest towards a meaningful solution–or at least mitigation–of this crippling problem for our community. We are about to see the homeless population soar all across this country as more and more people are evicted, and yet there are zero plans in place here–zero–for dealing with that. If Gilley won’t work with the new sheriff, then people will just have to work around her. That’s what we have to do on everything else.

    While I understand Mayor Robinson’s comment that the pandemic had put a halt to a lot of the planning, and recognized he was referring to logistical problems with remaining operational, at the same time there are certain issues that should have risen to the very top of the priority list when covid hit. Feedings happened on a dime, due mostly to the leadership of him and Lumon May. Testing got up and operational even with DeSantis’s worst efforts to stymie it.

    And yet somehow, one of the worst challenges we are going to experience as a result of covid 19 fell on the back burner because of the very problem that is going to exacerbate it. While I sympathize with Mayor Robinson on having more on his plate than any elected official ever bargained for, at the same time that circuitous logic isn’t going to get us all out of the problem. And it is everybody’s problem, whether people are willing to recognize that problem and embrace it, or not.

    When we were watching the news the other night, and there was a violent scene that endangered our police force and surrounding residents, Kevin Wade said something really seering that gets to the heart of the matter: “Just once I’d like to see a headline ‘HOMED PERSON BRANDISHES WEAPON AT POLICE’.”

    As Michael Kimberl underlined, nobody graduates high school with the goal of becoming a drunk bum on the street. Maybe if we started with the lack of empathy and were able to correct it with education on the real causes and parameters, our community could finally start getting somewhere on how to approach this problem, which will only grow in the coming months.

  2. It serves no purpose to blame one administration or another for this problem because it is a national problem with both local and national solutions. Having said that, however, I do not mean we should not judge one approach being better than another. I just mean we must recognize that the problem is larger than one mayor. Maybe we need a local commission comprising local government, NGOs, churches, and academics who have studied what works in other cities, among others.

  3. The term ‘homeless’ is abused in these discussions. The very very large majority of these people have chosen a lifestyle that has led them to begging for money on our street corners and sidewalks. They manipulate the good will of our fellow citizens. They are transients, not unfortunate souls who have found themselves without a roof over their head. Actually, some drive away from their street corners in their own cars and and go home to their house. Also, Pensacola treats their transients well. They get fed daily by citizens, churches and other organizations. They are provuded clothing, bikes and bus passes. Many of the transients sitting on the street corners use the money given to them by well meaning people to buy alcohol and drugs. The city needs to enhance their ordinances to prevent the aggressive transients from overrunning downtown.

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