By Emma Kennedy | Pensacola News Journal
A group of homeless advocates has narrowed down proposals for a $3 million federal funding allocation to reduce homelessness, but residents and some shelter leaders have concerns about how the plan likely will be rolled out.
Among the top concerns are the potential to enable homelessness through ventures like regular food distribution; the safety of neighborhoods surrounding three projected new campsites; what will happen to those who refuse help and assistance; and if the group organizing the funding distribution has become too political.
In a public meeting Friday, the Homelessness Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida met to hear from agencies vying for a portion of the $3 million American Rescue Plan Act funding.
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Though the city is the steward of the money, city officials have tasked the group with prioritizing projects that would move the needle on homelessness.
The projects proposed Friday differed from what was drafted last month after city staff vetted them on criteria that made some projects ineligible for federal funding, said city financial officer Amy Lovoy.
The single most costly proposal, coming in at about $1.7 million, was a multi-faceted approach from Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola to continue operating the 52-bed women and children’s shelter at the REAP Lodges, and to launch three regulated campsites that would house the majority of the population currently under Interstate 110.
The three new locations would be at 2200 N. Palafox St., an empty 5-acre lot on Houston Street and utilizing the rear of the REAP Lodges as a campground for women and children. In total, REAP Executive Director Vinnie Whibbs said the three sites likely could accommodate more than 200 people at one time.
The funding comes at a critical time when an encampment under I-110 has grown out of control, leading to both advocates and nearby residents calling for it to be shut down. The campsite doesn’t have any regulation — though homeless service providers are often on site during the day — and it is expected to be shut down by Thanksgiving if these new endeavors and campsites can be operational by then.
The I-110 campsite was a particular pain point for many of the residents speaking at the meeting, and many of them who live nearby worried about the same problems shifting to the other campsites, in particular the 2200 N. Palafox site just north of the North Hill neighborhood.
Residents near the I-110 campsite spoke of homeless people accosting them in their driveways demanding money, in one case littering an elderly blind man’s yard with trash and drug paraphernalia, and urinating or defecating on stoops that require daily cleaning and maintenance.
“We don’t lack empathy for those who try, but the people who are not trying need to suffer the natural consequences of their choices,” North Hill resident Lisa Gibson said.
Another North Hill resident, Jo MacDonald, said she did an informal neighborhood survey about the potential 2200 N. Palafox St. location and said there were concerns about residents going outside at night, and about the safety of kids walking home from nearby Pensacola High School.
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Task force leader and Pathways for Change CEO Connie Bookman tried to allay some of those concerns, saying all the new campsites would operate much more strictly than I-110 has been with fenced-in areas, around-the-clock security and a population of people who are wanting to be connected to resources. For the rest, she said, outreach teams would try to make contact and if they’re not from Pensacola, help purchase bus tickets to get them back to their hometown or state.
Variety of proposals discussed
The Pensacola Dream Center proposed creating a three-year program that includes program management, a mentoring program and launching the Canopy of Hope shelter.
Dream Center Executive Director Terri Merrick said the organization often works with clients who don’t understand all the steps necessary to get back into housing, work and contributing to society, so their program would walk hand-in-hand with them.
“You can put anybody into a home, but if they don’t have someone helping them navigate life in a new way and become part of a thriving community, then it’s just not going to last,” Merrick said Thursday.
Bright Bridge Ministries wants to create a 30-bed emergency shelter program aimed at men, but needs funding to renovate their space and for case workers and night staffing for its first few years.
Lakeview wants to expand its mobile response capabilities by employing case managers, a counselor, nurse, peer specialist and medical psychiatric provider who would work specifically with the homeless who are struggling with mental illness.
EComfort wants to create a mobile ID bus staffed with a case worker to travel to encampments or shelters and help homeless people get state identification, something that is often a barrier for people obtaining additional services.
AMR tiny home villages wants to build nine tiny homes in its first year and roll in administrative costs; the Children’s Home Society wants to fund 70% of the clinical director’s salary for two years; and $425,000 of the funding could go to replicating The Lotus Campaign in the area.
Projects absent from Friday’s list that were included in the September preliminary plan shown to the council are a pallet shelter village and a recovery center at Waterfront Rescue Mission.
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Caleb Houston, the founder of There is Hope homeless shelter — which is not yet operational but has been serving food and services from its North Davis Highway site for months now — said in a public comment portion of the meeting that he had submitted a proposal that wasn’t considered.
He said it seems like the task force has become political and lost its mission of working for the community, specifically referencing the pallet shelter proposal that would have seen an out-of-state company providing the shelters when his company creates a similar model locally for much less cost.
“These people need help, they’re dying and they’re overdosing on drugs, they’re being raped, they’re fighting, and violence is happening every day, I’m seeing this,” he said. “I’m here to speak the truth today. This has really become a power and position thing. I see through the dark glass and I’m going to stand for what’s right.”
Pensacola woman Amy Burgess, who volunteers with There is Hope and also spent years living homeless with her children as they escaped a domestic violence situation, suggested the task force use consultants who were formerly homeless to help them determine resources that would be the most impactful.
“Homelessness was a choice (for me) and I needed the hand up not the handout, not a corner of the world to stay in,” she said. “What I needed was someone to show me the way who has been there, who says ‘I know what you’re going through.’”
In total, there are 11 proposals totaling $5.2 million that the task force members will now rank and send to the city next week. The city will consider that proposal at a workshop on Nov. 10 and Bookman encouraged anyone from homeless organizations or the public to join the 200-member task force as it continues working to secure funding and projects beyond the $3 million ARPA allocation.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-480-6979.
This article is also published on Pensacola News Journal.