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Homelessness tops Pensacola mayor's agenda...again

 Encampments under the I-110 bridge.
Opening Doors of Northwest Florida
Encampments under the I-110 bridge.

Pensacola’s homeless population — and what to do about it — was the main topic at Mayor Grover Robinson’s weekly news conference at City Hall.

The issue appears to be taking on a new emphasis, after a weekend traffic accident on I-110 near the homeless camp underneath an overpass downtown. That’s expected to add to the efforts to clear out the camp by the city, and the Florida Department of Transportation.

“This is not really a good place to have people long-term; it’s dangerous, any numbers of things can happen,” said Robinson. “I think we’ve got to be careful with what we’re doing; that’s why DOT doesn’t want anybody there, and I think it’s time to move forward. DOT is ready for us to have people out of there, we’re ready to get forward a plan, and I think that now is the time to do this.”

A proposed homeless shelter on Palafox Street near Pensacola High School is drawing fire from some residents. But Robinson says anything that’s related to the homeless issue will not be detrimental to PHS.

“There is no doubt that whatever happens, it’s going to have to conform with any rules or laws that are associated with being the distance they are to PHS,” said the mayor. “I don’t see that necessarily as being a problem, and I would say that for a long time, that location was a place for indigent health care — so you had people going to that location.”

The city council is projected to be a major player in devising a plan to deal with the homeless issue, along with other entities who are expected to weigh in over the next few weeks.

“Everybody’s welcome to their opinion; we’ll have a discussion that will go down in council chambers, and then make a decision,” the mayor said. “But it’s not going to change what we’re doing and we’re moving forward. I don’t think it’s going to change what DOT is doing, either. I think this weekend [traffic accident] was also a sobering event that has got them to say ‘yes, you need to get everybody out of there.’”

Contrary to what many believe, Robinson says there’s been work going on moving people camped under the interstate. Lawrence Powell, the city’s Neighborhoods Administrator, said they’ve been teaming up with the Northwest Florida Task Force.

“Long story short, part of the transition is being worked by those 501-C(3) entities in partnership with the city,” he said. “So hopefully, as we transition toward an exit of individuals from under the bridge, we’ll be transferring them to safe facilities and coordinated care as well.”

Funding has been approved by the city council to get some facilities opened through REAP (Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola) along with Canopy of Hope and Bright Bridges. That will provide about 40 beds. Work is also underway with the Salvation Army, to provide a safe place for some of those now under the I-110 Bridge.

“We’ve moving people for the past six to eight months. And now that these organizations are receiving some funding to increase their bedding, we see more of those folks coming out of the bridge,” said Lawrence. “It’s an ongoing project and it’s in the vicinity of the Salvation Army, on their ground, and the facility will be managed by REAP.”

REAP is also planning to establish the coordinating care facility on Palafox. A double challenge that has to be solved, says Mayor Grover Robinson, is reducing the number of homeless under the bridge, and keeping others from moving in.

“We can move everybody out real fast; the question is we have people moving back in and I think that’s where we simply say, ‘It’s not the right place,’” said the mayor. “We move people out every day, [but] there are more people that move in, in a different way, and I think what we’re saying at this point is that nobody moves in.”

In reiterating that things are moving forward on homelessness, Robinson said additional details would be announced next month.