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I-110 homeless campers on fast track to meet relocation deadline

The clock is ticking on the City of Pensacola's Monday, 5 p.m. deadline for homeless individuals camping under I-110 in Pensacola to collect their belongings and vacate the property.

To meet the target time, relocation efforts have kicked into high gear.

The camp at Hollice T. Williams Park under the interstate took hold about a year ago. At its height, there were an estimated 200 homeless campers there.

Many have come and gone during the past year. But, with the city’s latest moratorium on evictions expiring last month (Dec. 23), there’s a final push to find other accommodations.

“It’s down to the final bit and I really feel confident that we have the proper things we need to have to get that solution,” declared Melissa Johnson with ReEntry Alliance Pensacola (REAP) and she’s CEO of the non-profit organization Fearless Community, Inc.

She says she’s had boots on the ground daily for the past 11 months, including last week, preparing for the final big move.

Melissa Johnson.jpg
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Melissa Johnson, CEO of Fearless Community, Inc., has been helping to provide services and find new living accommodations for the individuals camping beneath Pensacola's I-110.

“Every single day we’re out here. I actually went through and found many different locations all around Florida and Alabama, by us,” she said of their daily calls to shelter centers to find availability and match them with suitable clients.

Johnson says her team has also encouraged other non-profits that have availability to come to the camp site, “So, like today, we had Bright Bridge out here vetting. We had Waterfront Mission, Lakeview and 90Works was out here. So, everyday we’re just trying to find that solution.”

The immediate plan for many helped by Fearless Community is to temporarily move to another safe camp or be given motel vouchers, while new indoor shelter space comes on line.

Thanks to the City of Pensacola, and its homeless task force, more than $2 million in American Rescue Plan funding is being spent to create new places for the homeless to stay.

One such site that Johnson is counting on is the Maxwell Respite Center, at 2200 N. Palafox Street, which is slated to open in March.

“You’re getting about 40 to 50 of them that are going to go to the Maxwell,” she said. “Then, between that and Bright Bridges, because of their construction, we’re holding their clients just as well. It may look like a lot (of tents) right now out here, but it’s because I wanted to wait until the end, so I didn’t encourage more people coming here.”

“I’m tearing down my camp now and we should be moving within the next two to three days,” said Kevin Wilson on Wednesday afternoon, as he moved around a few things outside the tent he shares with his wife Amanda.

He says they’ve been camping beneath the interstate since last spring.

Kevin and Amanda Wilson.jpg
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Kevin and Amanda Wilson are preparing to leave the I-110 campsite, where they've been living for most of the past year.

“We crashed our car on Cervantes Street, Cervantes and E Street, this year,” he began to describe their plight.

“We had a job. We were living in our car and working for Door Dash. And, when we got in a car wreck, we lost all three; job, house, and car, all at once.”

Johnson says he and his wife, Amanda, who has a serious heart condition, settled on the I-110 camp because of its convenient location, near necessary amenities.

“This was a mile away from a hospital, mile away from the library, mile away from most resources. So, it was kind of the most sensible place to go. Plus, it was the only place you couldn’t be legally removed at the time.”

Now, as the city moves ahead with plans to construct a skate park at the site, he has to go, and he’s ready. As the wind kicks up, he describes what it’s been like living at the camp. “Oh, it’s just terrible,” he stated.

“I mean it was below 30 degrees two or three nights ago. There was wind chill. You can’t store food because little field mice just come up and get into everything. If you’ve got any kind of warmth in your tent and it’s cold outside, condensation makes everything wet.”

Wilson was thankful to have some cover from the interstate above and grateful to the many community organizations that came to the homeless site on a regular basis helping to feed them and provide clothes.

“I came here, literally, with just a duffel bag, and now I have blankets, shoes that I didn’t have, just a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t be able to have without the community,” he said.

Homeless Camp (5).jpg
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
The many tents beneath and around the interstate over Hollice T. Williams Park are set to be cleared out by the end of the day on Monday, Jan. 31.

As for what’s next for the couple, they decided to go with arrangements made by Fearless Community.

“They’ve got two different camp sites that we’ll be able to move into and there’s a Maxwell Respite Center that’s going to open up in April. And, that’s going to have rooms that we’re actually going to be able to lock our stuff into. We’re going to be able to pay rent and if we can’t pay rent, we’re going to be able to work for it,” he said with a level of excitement. “And, that’s just a blessing.”

The Wilsons hope to finish packing up and moving out of the I-110 campsite by the weekend and be long gone before the deadline to vacate by late Monday afternoon.

However, Fearless Community’s Melissa Johnson, does plan to be there in order to see it through to the end.

“Five p.m., actually, yes. And, so is my other team,” she declared.

“We’re all gonna be here, so we know it’s gonna go quietly. We don’t expect an uproar. Most of them that don’t want the help already have left quietly. “

While there may be a lot of tents remaining at the site through the weekend, Johnson reassures that many of them already are empty and soon all of them will be gone.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.