At this time last year, a sizable portion of Pensacola’s homeless population was sleeping underneath an Interstate 110 overpass.
Now, many of those people will be sleeping under the roof of a brand new 40-plus bed homeless shelter — hopefully as a temporary stop on the way to having homes of their own.
A group of local officials and advocates for the homeless gathered Wednesday to cut the ribbon on the Max-Well Respite Center at 2200 N. Palafox St.
“Today, we are celebrating the grand opening of this 17,000-square-foot facility,” Re-Entry Alliance of Pensacola Executive Director Vince Whibbs announced to the gathered crowd. “I want to tell you this: This fits perfectly with the overall plan we have to assist the people that are unhoused and the homeless in the Pensacola area.”
The new homeless shelter is broken up into three parts: a veterans section, family section and a singles section, along with a common area and private, locked showers.
Laura Kennedy, a member of the nonprofit organization Fearless Community Inc., said the Max-Well Respite Center acts as a low-barrier shelter, with only a few essential rules the clients must follow.
“To get in this building, it is not as hard as it looks,” Kennedy said. “They have to be over the age of 21. … They need to be a U.S. citizen or at least be here legally and they need to be willing to put down addictions.”
Ultimately, the goal of the facility is to provide skills and resources for people to permanently have their own housing, bypassing what Kennedy said is the “revolving door syndrome.”
Kennedy said the facility will be used to teach life skills such as how to cook, clean, budget and pay bills.
“We press life skills because we put a nice 74-year-old man in his own apartment and he was absolutely thrilled,” Kennedy said. “His wife died the year before, and his wife did all the cooking, all the paying the bills and made all the coffee.”
Many people have struggled to find shelter and resources in recent years, particularly during the height of the pandemic when many local shelters were forced to close their doors. An encampment formed at Hollice T. Williams Park underneath the I-110 underpass downtown that at times drew more than 100 people.
In December, the city of Pensacola allocated about $1.5 million in federal relief funding to combatting homelessness, including $400,000 for the Max-Well Respite Center.
After the city closed the I-110 encampment in January, REAP and Fearless Community Inc. helped provide temporary shelter to some of the camp’s former residents until the Max-Well center was finished.
“I do not believe in my heart that homeless should always have to struggle,” Melissa Johnson, CEO of Fearless Community Inc., said. “Especially in the moments when they’re really ready to get to the root of the root. We can’t always rely on the government, guys.”
Johnson specified that the opening could not have happened without the community’s support.
“I hope (people) walk in here and their mouths drop and they feel the love that we’re all here for,” Johnson said. “Like I said, what you guys see here, 90% if not more is donated by you guys in this community.”
Benjamin Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8578