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$3 million available to tackle homelessness in Pensacola

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Dave Dunwoody WUWF Public Media
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Homelessness — and what to do about it — were the focus of Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson’s weekly news conference on Monday.

“Show me another entity within a 150-mile radius [of Pensacola] that’s trying to do something; I don’t know anywhere else in this area of Northwest Florida that’s trying and putting forth the effort that we’re putting forward,” said Robinson.

A report from the Homeless Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida suggests how to spend $3 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.

If the task force gets its way, most of the money would go to existing service groups along with new projects, such as so-called pallet shelters, tiny homes that provide temporary residences for the unhoused.

“The task force — it’s their recommendation — the city has tried not to say what’s going to be there; the only thing I think I’ve ever asked for, from the city’s standpoint, was the Lotus Project, said Robinson. “They’ll be in town this week, and I will be meeting with them to discuss some things that they’re looking at.”

Based in Charlotte, N.C., the Lotus Campaign works with landlords, nonprofits and individuals to provide roofs over the heads of those who don’t have one. The bottom line, says Robinson, is what comes back from those already involved in dealing with homelessness.

“They seem like the subject matter experts, and really should be leading us as far as what we do, and communicate what needs to be done,” he said. “In much of the way, this is private sector coming together, making recommendations.”

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One of the challenges, according to Robinson, is the diversity seen in both the city of Pensacola and in Escambia County.

“The county is very diverse, and the five districts represent them very well; certainly the city of Pensacola has that,” he said. “All seven districts that we have are slightly different, but I don’t think you see nearly the width of diversity at the city in those seven districts, as you do [countywide]. You go from the beach all the way up to farms.”

Many of the city’s homeless live underneath Interstate-110 downtown. Plans are to begin construction in January on a skate park there. Robinson said they’ll work to see what can be done in relocating the people to whatever’s available. He’s asking private entities to step up.

“That’s why we have zoning, and if these are private concerns that have the ability to do this, then hopefully, they’ll get started and they’ll see what they can do,” the mayor said. “Waterfront Mission has a mission; they have stuff there; it didn’t have to get done from the city or the county. They went to an area that was zoned for that and were able to be there. These are the challenges that will come down that the [City] Council will have to make decisions on.”

Another challenge is an ongoing one: Homeless people from outside of Pensacola making their way here in hopes of bettering their lives. The city, says the mayor, cannot afford to be a “one-stop shop” for the homeless. He says a spike in COVID-19 cases a year ago was a game-changer.

“We’re having significant conflicts with downtown businesses and other places; we actually saw fewer with some of those people — I got fewer and fewer emails, said Robinson. “We actually also placed well over 50 people out of the [homeless] camp into home conditions.”

But he added that with those 50 relocated, 100 more came in and took their places. That moves to the issue of outside homeless versus those from here. The latter, say some experts, should get priority.

“They typically have family here; they’re connected here; and with their family connections, they will actually be more likely to recover,” said the mayor. “If you have no family support, the best thing you can do for a community is work with them to buy a bus ticket and get them back to the place where they’re from. Because they're not going to have that support system [in Pensacola].”

And Mayor Grover Robinson had a message for the homeless who think coming to Pensacola is the cure-all:

“Your challenge of homelessness isn’t going to get cured here; you really need family support; you need another type of support system: People around you that can do it,” said Robinson. “And the city of Pensacola cannot lift everybody’s homelessness.

“We can’t.”

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.