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Expert: Homelessness in Pensacola Reaching 'Crisis' Level


With the help of an expert on the subject, the city of Pensacola and Escambia County are resurrecting their focus on tackling homelessness — three years after a summit produced virtually nothing.

“I’ve been working on homeless for about 35 years, working for three different presidential administrations," said Robert Marbut, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "I’ve been to about 1,200 locations in all 50 states, parts of Mexico, and a little bit of work in Canada."

He told the joint city council-county commission meeting that while there’s a tendency to talk about what’s going bad, he would share what’s going good in dealing with the homeless including a newly-formed local work group.

“To harness everybody together; when we were here in 2014, the number-one problem was that everybody was going in different directions, it was very unorganized,” Marbut said. “You’re much more cohesive than you were in 2014; so that’s a real big one. What you’re facing is really dramatic, and I’ve even noticed it in the last 90 days here.”

But with the molasses, Marbut also provided some sulfur, in the form of a warning.

“The other day somebody asked, ‘How would you define where you’re at?’ I said, ‘You’re at the edge of a crisis, about ready to go over the hill,’” said Marbut. “You’re doing 50 mph, aiming for the cliff right now.”

One example is the homeless encampments along the railroad track. Marbut says in 2014 to 2015, the track had relatively few people living along it. Now, he says the encampments go about two miles along the track and are increasing. When they hit a certain level of saturation, he says that will start to bleed into the community. Marbut looks for three indicators to gauge violence levels in homeless camps. One is the ratio of women to men.

“The more women you have in an encampment, the safer the encampment is,” Marbut said. “Just in the last 90 days, we’ve seen a shift, so that’s a leading indicator. It’s not because the women are keeping the violence down, or the men are causing it. The women leave the encampments when the encampments get too violent.”

The other indicators deal with dogs in the camps. Smaller dogs serve as an alarm system of sorts, but when larger dogs move in – such as pit bulls – violence usually follows.

Marbut is due out in the next few weeks with his full report. It’s expected to contain the suggestion that local residents who are homeless get precedent over those who come in from elsewhere.

Concurring is Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

“[Marbut] told me specifically, ‘The best way for you to get ahold of the homeless issue, we need to be in a place where you have family connections,” Robinson said. “If you have no family connections or anything, coming to Pensacola is not going to solve your homelessness. We've actually sent a lot of people back; we’ve found ways to get them back to the communities that they’re from.”

During his weekly news conference, the mayor said work is already underway in areas such as transitional housing, and they’re linking up with the Homeless Management Information System [HMIS] -- which is run by the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless.

“We do believe that if we have a plan and move together we can make that happen,” said Robinson. “And then transform the HMIS from a scorekeeper model to a positive case management tool. And we’re really beginning to figure out how [we can be] a better proactive management on it. And also begin to look at creating a place in our annual budgets for city and county funding for homelessness services.”

Robinson cautions that those, along with other goals, will not be done overnight. But he adds it does give them a path forward working as a team.

“I think much of it is able to happen; it’s not because of the city or the county – it’s certainly because we have a good group of partners,” said the mayor. “The Coalition for Reducing Homelessness in Northwest Florida, I think, has been essential in getting us here and working to bring everybody together. So that’s what we’re doing, to see how we can do things better.”

Robert Marbut is suggesting – and city and county officials agree – that a holistic service center be built on Maxwell Street, next door to a county-owned parking lot where a central kitchen facility could be started. An alternative location is on Palafox Street, at a site that once housed a state hospital and health department.