Pensacola dives Into homeless plan with Marbut

by Jeremy Morrison

City of Pensacola officials crept further this week into what Mayor Grover Robinson has referred to as the “crawling” stage of a long-term plan to address the issue of homelessness in the area. During a Pensacola City Council workshop Monday, a plan was laid out that includes both service and housing elements and a new task force was formally unveiled.

Connie Bookman, who works with the homeless community through Pathways for Charge, is leading the task force effort and said it was nice to see the local governments and the collective of service providers in the area begin to coordinate on solutions.

“It’s just been a patchwork of services for too many years and this model of collective impact shares a common agenda, so it’s bringing everyone together that has the same attitude of — it’s actually servant leadership, of how can we understand who we’re serving,” Bookman said.

A cornerstone component of the plans being presented — put together thus far by Bookman, John Johnson of Opening Doors of Northwest Florida and, primarily, Dr. Robert Marbut, a consultant who’s worked for the city prior and also served as former president Donald Trump’s homeless czar — includes the development of a center in which area service providers can centralize their efforts, as well as a nearby kitchen.

“You want to start to move toward a transformational experience, where you have more providers at the same location and really aggressively working, with the goal of getting out of homelessness, not sort of servicing, not just giving you things, but how do you get out of homelessness and really address that,” Dr. Marbut said.

Also included in the plan outlined in a report Marbut has provided the city, are suggested changes to the database used to provide homeless people with services, as well as directives to both the city and county to secure recurring funding sources in the annual budgets to be used to address homelessness.

In the past, critics of Marbut — and there many — seize upon his past work, in which he has championed punitive ordinances aimed at activities associated with homelessness, such as sleeping in a public park. In the consultant’s current report, the use of such ordinances is actually discouraged due to unsettled litigation on the topic.

One of Marbut’s most vocal local critics — Mike Kimberl, a longtime homeless advocate who now runs the Alfred Washburn Center, which services that community — spoke during Monday’s workshop, meshing a backhanded compliment with a plain ‘ol backhand.

“I’m not 100 percent against the man,” Kimberl said. “I do think he’s a waste of money and y’all blew some of our tax dollars.”

Then, one by one, Kimberl went down Marbut’s list of recommendations outlined in his report, offering his take on each. Usefully, his semantic-philosophical-objection-lite to Marbut’s first recommendation — to move from a culture of enablement to a one of engagement — served to illustrate the advocate’s differing approach to the issue: “We have people on the street begging for help and now we’re going to tell our citizenry not to help them. I have a massive problem with that.”

“When we talk about enablement vs. engagement, I have a hard time with that one, because I enable people all the time to get themselves out of homelessness,” Kimberl said. “We remove the barriers that keep people in homelessness and they get themselves out of homelessness. That is enabling, I’m an enabler. I understand where he’s going with that, but when I talk to people on the street they do not want to be homeless.”

While Kimberl expressed concerns about centralizing services — citing the potential for things like severe weather to knock a centralized facility offline — and said he was excited about the work the new task force — on which he will participate — will be doing, the advocate said the component of Marbut’s plan the city should most focus on is the development of low-cost housing.

“That’s the answer here. Honestly, if government wants to throw money down, throw money down on affordable housing,” Kimberl told city council members, adding that the housing needs to be affordable to individuals subsisting on very little money. “We need housing that a single person can afford to live in on a social security income.”

From here, the new task force — the Homeless Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida — will begin to dive into various aspects of this issue. With subcommittees focusing on topics including housing, healthcare, employment, workforce development and legal issues, the task force will run through the end of June. After that, local elected officials must decide how to fund any efforts on this front going forward.

— For more about how the issue of homelessness is being addressed in the region, check out this week’s Inweekly.