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I-110 homeless camp to close this month

The homeless camp under the I-110 bridge will close on Jan. 31
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
The homeless camp under the I-110 bridge will close on Jan. 31

The annual "Point In Time" count of the Pensacola area’s homeless population kicked off Monday, as discussions continue on providing shelter for them.

Mayor Grover Robinson spent a chunk of his weekly news conference on Monday, updating the city’s work. The main issue at this point is clearing out a major encampment beneath a stretch of Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola.

“The city continues to work with local organizations to connect homeless individuals with shelter. Obviously, at no time did we see a better time than [frigid weather] this weekend,” the mayor said. “And we’re working on that. We’ve already connected 75 individuals and placed them in shelter.”

One of the milestones that Robinson points to the past year, has been moving people from the encampment to shelters.

“We certainly have our REAP respite shelters are looking at about 40 individuals — they’re expected to be open,” said Robinson. “We continue to work with them and the first of March, we expect we do expect to have 25 units available at Bright Bridges and between five and 20 at Dream House.”

As the relocation work continues, the city begins work with the Florida Department of Transportation to restore the encampment site at Hollis T. Williams Park to its pre-homeless state, and reopen to the public.

“By the guidelines that are going to be a part of what DOT has indicated; so there will be no encampment there,” said the mayor. “But at this time we do think that everybody can transition into one of those other things — hotels, with REAP, being outdoors, or with another shelter that we have.”

The mayor guaranteed that any homeless person wanting a roof over their heads will have one available by Jan. 31.

“It may not be the final position that we have, because we won’t be getting some of the other shelters open until that time; but it will be a temporary place where we can work with them, have them there for up to 30 to 45 days. At this point, everyone’s telling us they think they can be up and running within the next 30 to 45 days.”

As for those who don’t want to leave the I-110 encampment, Robinson says that is not an option.

“Our position is that we will absolutely find places to put people; it’s not going to be there,” he said. “We will be removing that and we have that option. The city has the ability to designate areas as to what they’re doing and it’s not going to be at Hollis T. Williams.”

The City Council voted 5-2 last month not to extend a moratorium to keep the camp open for another 90 days. One question is whether city and state laws are being followed. The mayor said Monday that he wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in court.

“It’s not the city of Pensacola’s responsibility to take on the homeless problem for the state of Florida or for the nation,” said Robinson. “There is no doubt in this process there are a few people who do not understand collaboratively, that want to have everything their way. I fully expect that they will sue; we’re prepared and we are ready to go.”

Warning letters have been sent to the city of Pensacola from groups such as the ACLU of Florida, National Homelessness Law Center, and the Southern Legal Counsel about closing the I-110 encampment without having adequate alternative housing available. There may be a couple of things that could happen, said Robinson, based on legal precedence.

“That asks the court how we can be working, and working with other organizations, to put forward an idea that tries to bring everybody together,” said the mayor. “Not everybody gets their way 100% of what they want, and what does the court want to do?”

Another question to be answered, likely in the courts, deal with the issue of access with some of the precedent going back decades and even centuries.

“Whether it’s the city of Pensacola charter; the 1968 Florida constitution, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, all the way back to the Magna Carta,” said the mayor.” It fairly well establishes that common property is the same, and everybody has the same rights.”

Meantime, the City Council is allocating $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for homelessness, to go toward more shelter space. Another $425,000 of ARPA funds are going to the Lotus Campaign, a North Carolina-based non-profit that’s exploring housing options in the homeless in Pensacola.