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Summit Seeks Solutions for Homelessness

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

The first of what’s expected to be a long-term study of homelessness in the Pensacola area kicked off last week, bringing together civic leaders and representatives from local non-profit organizations.

“What we would hope to do is to go around the table and give you two to three minutes to state your goals, your objectives, what do you see wrong, what do you see bad. And what can we do as a municipality, a city, a county to help,” said Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May, who along with Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson convened the “Homeless Summit” at the Pensacola Bay Center.

“Grover and I – I mean we’re never going to be service providers, but we can provide resources,” May said. “So we’d like to walk out of here knowing what can the city and county do together to help you, and to have just two to three goals. We’re not looking for a million; we’re just looking for two to three.”

Built into any study of the homeless is how to get them under a roof. But John Johnson of the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless says a parallel issue is panhandling – and the search for a better way to give.

“Continuing to provide $5 to a person standing on the corner is not the way out of homelessness,” Johnson told the summit. “It is a business enterprise that people who are homeless and those transient – they’ll continue to do. Which is why every time you go to the street corner you see the same person.”

In all, Johnson touched on a half dozen areas, including the elimination of cost components in caring for the homeless – first and foremost at hospital emergency rooms, but also at local jails. 

“On a $5 bond; or less than $100 bond. They’re in jail at the cost of about $70 per day,” said Johnson. “And so a possible solution would be, what is a safe way to discharge those folks into the care of a program that helps with reentry?”

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Audience members at the first Homeless Summit in Pensacola.

“The homeless are a significant piece of the population who just happen to be homeless; they may also happen to have mental illness, or they happen to have addiction,” said Dr. David Josephs, a clinical psychologist at the Lakeview Center in Pensacola.

Addressing the mental health aspect, he says they’re looking for a population strategy for the homeless, such as bringing services to them.

“I think the idea of ‘well, folks need to kind of find religion and come to us; but we need to get to where the need is,” Josephs said. “There are examples of wonderful services; let’s start with some of the stuff that know to be working and some paradigms that seem to be actually making a difference.”

Speaking at his weekly news conference, Mayor Grover Robinson said a major challenge is setting the priority list for homeless issues to tackle, and coordinating the various players. But first up would be the housing issue – and its inherent obstacles.

“Sort of the realistic part of which I agree with Commissioner [Lumon} May is creating a large-scale thing that we put a bunch of people into, and you just bring poverty into a concentrated area,” said Robinson. “It doesn’t do as much to help you figure out how you solve some of these things. Trying to deal with size and number, if we try to figure out what we’re going to do. I think that’s still out there.”

And there appears to be a willingness to look into a host of alternatives to provide some type of shelter.

“Could we do some kind of working with a day center? Do we do some type of shelter, either transitional or long-term?” said Robinson. “There are some things I think we probably be better partners with, or could we deal with something in the terms of the data collection side?”

Among those participating in the homeless summit is the Haas Business Center, whose recommendations include identifying a common mission; a homeless needs and resources assessment in Santa Rosa County, and evaluating and refining processes on a regular basis.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.