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Homeless Summit Planned for Pensacola

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Community leaders and local non-profits are scheduled to gather on April 5 for a summit on the homeless and how to enforce laws governing panhandling.

The summit is the brainchild of Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson and Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May. At his weekly news conference Monday, Robinson said such an event hinges on the organizations who serve the homeless.

“I think we want to find out where is it we’re going and we’re kind of starting this idea and we get enough not-for-profits and they’re agreeable to it,” said Robinson [then] it makes it a whole lot better because they’re going to have participants in it. If they don’t then we’ll look to tweak and we’ll do what we can.”

One issue that’s expected to come up is that of opening a “come as you are” shelter, which would allow anybody, rather than the current practice of just admitting those who are sober or are willing to pay. The question, says the Mayor, is where to put it.

“I tend to think it’s going to be somewhere where we have other governmental services,” the Mayor said. “It will fit – you see a lot of those shelters either around the Town and Country area – kind of extends down Pace [Boulevard] into Brownsville. That area has already a lot of things transportation-wise; health care is nearby.”

“The Mayor and I have been talking about several issues that don’t have city-county boundaries – homelessness, panhandling – those things don’t stop at a city or county line,” says Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May.

Credit Escambia County
Lumon May, Escambia County Commission Chairman.

He’s excited about the April meeting, and the opportunity to discuss government’s role as a facilitator for groups who provide services for the homeless. What’s not needed, May says, is another costly study.

“I’d rather take those dollars and provide shelter or provide first-time home buying; provide resources whether it’s drug rehabilitation,” said May. “There are many different reasons why people find themselves homeless, so I don’t think there’s going to be only one solution. I think there’s going to be valuable information coming out of this meeting.”

It will take the effort of the entire community, May says, to unravel homelessness. He adds that the solution – or solutions – coming out of the summit should be thought of as an economic development opportunity.

“It really is about economics, because poor people make poor decisions; they have poor habits and find themselves in poor situation,” said May. “We have to be conscious enough and we have to be bold enough to step out of the box to say that we’re not going to fix this problem unless we are willing to have some skin in the game.”

Another issue is panhandling. Escambia County passed an ordinance in 2011 that bans standing in a median to solicit, which also covers motorists’ donations from inside their vehicles on public roads.

“It is illegal for the driver to give money in the road; that’s state law,” said Robinson. “The question is enforcement – we haven’t been enforcing it.”

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

That must be addressed, says the Mayor, because it’s a matter of public safety. He adds that there are legal ways to solicit and give.

“If you want to pull into a parking lot and go give somebody money, absolutely; one hundred percent,” Robinson said. “The challenge of fining the panhandler doesn’t really change anything. Do we look at fining the giver? Those are all potentials; things we would look at.”

An ordinance passed by the City Council in 2017 calls for a civil fine for anyone soliciting downtown south of Wright Street between Tarragona and Spring Streets, out to Palafox Pier and Plaza de Luna.

“We are not helping those individuals by giving money to them; generally, all you’re doing is perpetuating the addiction that keeps them homeless,” said the Mayor. “The solution to help you get out of your condition is as varied as the individual. I like the fact of partnering with these other agencies that have different solutions.”

For Escambia County Commission Chair Lumon May, there’s a line at street level between homelessness and panhandling.

“Looking at a homeless child is different than looking at someone who’s panhandling for money to buy a beer,” May said. “It’s going to be tough to look at it from a 30-foot view without first getting to the root, and listening to the stakeholders who are out there.”

The summit, May believes, can provide a chance to set community goals and make them measurable – then applying that yardstick.

“As we allocate resources we’ve got to say ‘this was the community goal on how we address homelessness,’” said May. “This is how we’re going to measure it, and this is what we’ve done. Let’s give ourselves a report card. And there is nothing wrong if you don’t reach the goals that we set out for. But we’ve got to be able to measure them and make sure that we’re holding everyone accountable.”

Once again, the Homeless Summit is set for Friday, April 5, from 11 a.m.-2p.m. on the 4th floor of the Escambia County Building in downtown Pensacola.