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Deadline passes for homeless to vacate encampment

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.
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.

Monday was the deadline for those living under a stretch of Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola to clear out, so the city can begin restoring nearby Hollice T. Williams Park.

“The past 72 hours, I would say, we moved probably a total of around 50-plus individuals out of the encampments; some are in a temporary encampment over at Pathway for Change — approximately 17 individuals,” said Lawrence Powell, the city’s Neighborhoods Administrator.

“[We’ve] got individuals in hotel rooms, approximately 15, and then we have those picked up by parents and loved ones from out of town that have relocated,” he said. “And then we had a group that decided they wanted to go to a place of their choice, and not any of the options that we offered.”

As of Monday, about 11 others with mental health issues remain in the encampment, and are working with the Lakeview Center. Another five or so are undecided about where they want to go.

“The city of Pensacola continues to address as we can; that’s about another 30 people to about the 80 people we had already been able to place,” said Mayor Grover Robinson during his weekly news conference. “So now that’s putting us up over 100 that we’re able to start moving into shelters.”

After notices were posted in early January, Code Enforcement officers walked through the encampment and spoke with individuals in the area and inform them of the deadline to leave.

“I know it hasn’t been the part that reached everybody, but I do think it’s the success story of what we’ve been able to do and move people into a place that there weren’t any people in housing,” Robinson said. “And now we’ve got some things moving.”

Through partnerships with nonprofit organizations, the city working toward the smoothest possible transition. At this point the city, said the mayor, is the lone jurisdiction seeking a cure for homelessness; adding that he and the City Council cannot go it alone.

“It also is increasingly tough for other jurisdictions to have the courage to go do this, if all they see is that it’s a constantly negative situation,” he said. “It seems that once we got over the [City Council] vote, we decided to move forward. We’ve had generally good collaboration from a number of the players, to really work together and find solutions.”

But Robinson concedes that the long-term mental health aspect of the homeless issue is above the city’s pay grade.

“This is why we’ve given money to the experts who we see as Lakeview; they certainly have the expertise — we don’t,” said the mayor. “And I really think if we want to make some real long-term solutions, we’ve got to find out a better way to address mental health. And I do appreciate, at least, Lakeview stepping up and helping to find something for those 11 individuals, as Mr. Powell indicated.”

Meantime, the Florida League of Cities meets this weekend in Tallahassee, and Robinson will lead an entourage to meet with local legislative leaders, including state Sen. Doug Broxson (R-Pensacola), who chairs the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee.

“And I think we’ll continue to lean on Doug on those things,” said Robinson. “[In] March of ‘19, we went there and the League of Cities had a big thing on mental health, and we went to essentially the Lakeview for the Tallahassee area. It was amazing to me how many communities said they were having the same problems. It all comes down to more funding that goes into mental health.”

By Tuesday morning, Robinson says, they hope to have the encampment resembling a mini-construction site, as the cleanup begins.

“We’ll need everybody cleared out by that time. If we have individuals at that time we will continue to work with them to find a solution for them,” he said. “That solution may be as creative as what Mr. Powell said — they want to go back to wherever they were. If there’s a place they can go here, we’ll find a way to work to get them there. But they can’t be there.”

The belongings of those being moved from the encampment are being collected by the city, and will be kept in storage until they’re claimed, with a deadline of Wednesday, Mar. 16.