By: Emma Kennedy | Pensacola News Journal
After a five-hour meeting detailing proposals to mitigate homelessness in the city, council members ultimately decided to postpone an almost $3 million federal funding allocation to further investigate concerns with the projects.
Of the most concern to residents during Wednesday night’s meeting were two proposed campsites near neighborhoods — one at the intersection of North Palafox and Maxwell Street near Pensacola High School and the other in the county on Houston Street.
Some of the nonprofit leaders who were questioned about their proposals weren’t clear on the stage they were at with preparations such as not having a site location secured or not having been approved for zoning issues, and others didn’t have answers on how they would sustain their projects long-term once the one-time federal funding allocation ran out.
All those issues led the council to vote 5-2 Wednesday night to postpone allocating the $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The projects proposed were whittled down by a group of homeless advocates called the Homelessness Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida, a group tasked with recommending how to best spend the money to reduce homelessness and disband a growing and unregulated homeless encampment at Hollice T. Williams Park under the Interstate 110 bridge.
The most costly of the projects is a proposal by ReEntry Alliance of Pensacola to extend operations at the REAP Lodges women and children’s shelter for an additional year, to launch a 17,000-square-foot holistic resource center at 2200 N. Palafox, and to open three campsites across the area to help relocate the encampments.
REAP Executive Director Vinnie Whibbs’ proposal caused the most pushback as it contained the two neighborhood-adjacent campsites where residents worried about students coming to and leaving school, property values, and safety of residents.
The largest of the sites, a 5-acre property on Houston Street in the county, could accommodate at least 150 people, according to Whibbs, which would be a comparable size to the current I-110 encampment.
He reassured people there would be security on site, a vetting process, and rules such as curfews to follow once on site.
The groups in total are requesting more funding than the city has available, so the council will need to decide which projects to fund or potentially only partially fund some of the concepts. Whibbs said if his proposal was only partially funded, he would prefer the REAP Lodge and holistic center be a higher priority than the campsites.
“I’m going to suggest to you this is a place where we could start … it’s time to find a location, it’s time to say let’s get started and let’s move forward,” Whibbs said.
Caleb Houston, who has founded There is Hope and Huts 4 Our Friends in the past year, was a ring-in proposal. He said miscommunication about the proposal process led him to send a proposal directly to the council and not the task force and he missed out on officially being considered, but the council allowed him to speak along with the other nonprofits. In their final motion of the night to postpone the funding, they also voted to include Houston’s proposal in further discussion.
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Houston’s proposal wasn’t as fleshed out as the others as he had initially submitted a tiny hut village concept, but he pivoted to focus on the There Is Hope building instead as council members anecdotally gave support to that concept as an immediate way to fill the need under the overpass.
The There is Hope building on North Davis Highway is close to the current encampment and is a shelter facility that could house up to 200 people, according to Houston. It’s waiting on a fire suppression system and some minor upgrades such as shower replacements and an alarm system, but with its projected capacity could house the entire I-110 population immediately.
It wasn’t clear Wednesday how much money Houston is seeking and for what, as it will likely need to be tweaked based on federal funding guidelines. For example, city Finance Director Amy Lovoy said funding elements like operations and salaries is an easier approval process than infrastructure or renovations, as that requires applicants use the city’s procurement process and means the city would need to hold the title to any improvement on the land.
Still, many on the council supported the idea.
Council members Casey Jones and Jennifer Brahier, who both were initially hesitant to support Houston’s plan because it wasn’t proposed through official channels, eventually said they supported bringing people inside as the main priority.
“I think that we can take our time with some of this,” Jones said. “I also don’t think I’m ready to support campgrounds at this time, additional campgrounds, and I think if we have the option to move people inside then that would be best.”
Other proposals include replicating the North Carolina-based Lotus Campaign in Pensacola, which would work with landlords and real estate leaders to create affordable housing programs for those experiencing homelessness; a tiny house village; multiple social worker campaigns to complete street outreach; funding shelters; and a program to provide the homeless with state-issued identification to reduce that barrier in housing and employment.
The city council did not decide on a future date to discuss the ARPA funding, but is facing a tight timeline if it wants to house the I-110 encampment population before a moratorium on eviction in the area sunsets in January.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-480-6979.
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