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New Max-Well Respite Center to provide more than shelter to Pensacola’s homeless

Wesley and Haley Johnson found themselves homeless after recently moving to Pensacola from Louisiana. Along with their 10-year-old son, they are among the first residents of the new Max-Well Respite Center.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Wesley and Haley Johnson found themselves homeless after recently moving to Pensacola from Louisiana. Along with their 10-year-old son, they are among the first residents of the new Max-Well Respite Center.

Pensacola’s newest homeless shelter is now open.

The Max-Well Respite Center is a 17,000-square-foot facility located at 2200 N. Palafox St. at the corner of Maxwell, thus the name.

The City of Pensacola, with support from its homeless task force, used federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to establish the shelter, which has nearly 50 beds and can accommodate up to 120 people.

The project was put on a fast-track when homeless people who had been camping at Hollice T. Park under Interstate-110were given a Jan. 31 deadline to vacate the property to make way for construction of a skate park.

Now seven months later, following last month’s ribbon cutting and some final preparations, the new shelter is welcoming its first residents.

“Safe and sound, no worries,” declared Tennessee native Amanda Scott, as she was beginning the process of moving off the streets and into her new, temporary home.

In addition to recently installed security cameras, the front doors are locked and a security guard is on duty, so it’s safe for her and her belongings.

“I know that I don’t have to rush back or miss a day of work for trying to keep my stuff in a room somewhere or worry about somebody taking it, which is another big thing.”

With stable housing lined up, life skills training and other resources being made available, Scott sees her residency at the Max-Well as an opportunity to evaluate her personal situation and make the changes needed to eventually have a place of her own.

The first step to residency is navigating the intake process, which takes place in the lobby. To get through it, all belongings that she’s brought to the site have to be inspected and vetted by security to determine what items can be brought into the shelter.

“Because I did just come off the streets, this is a lot to be overwhelmed with at the front door,” Scott admitted. “But, anything that comes through the facility has to be searched. So, if I want to keep it, then I have to let them go through it to be stored. If I do not, then it can go back out that door, to keep them from having to go through everything.”

Max-Well residents are allowed to keep up to eight outfits, two pair of shoes, and some flip flops for the shower. And, Scott discovered that everything that comes through the doors has to be laundered.

“I’m sure it’s probably been a good while since they’ve gotten a good wash anyway. But, I want to eliminate anything potentially from coming in, like bugs or anything like that,” said Melissa Jonson, CEO of Fearless Community, Inc. and program director of the Max-Well Respite Center, which is being operated Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola (REAP). “I mean, donations, everything is washed, everything.”

The shelter includes a meditation room, on-site clothing store and a large space for classes and dining. It’s open to anyone 21 and older, a US citizen or legally residing in the country, and willing to leave addictions behind.

At this point, all rooms designated for veterans, families and singles, have been spoken for, while move-ins continue.

“They were all given a packet, a ‘get to know’ packet,” Johnson said of the first step for residents after move-in. “In there was 13 different assessments where we get to know them and their needs, their struggles, and their triggers, you know.”

After responses are reviewed, each person or family will meet one-on-one with Johnson to come up with an individually tailored plan of action, to include which life-skills courses they should take and which resources they need.

To help residents cycle out of homelessness, rent for a single person is an affordable $350 a month. While most individuals have jobs or some of income, Johnson says one of the biggest issues for many is their inability to manage their finances and the stress that occurs when problems happen.

As a result, there will be a big focus on teaching residents how to budget, with instruction in the classroom and on a popup basis.

“I will slip a message underneath their doors and it will say ‘Your car, just now, got a flat tire. Your battery is dead. You need $300,’” said Johnson, laying out just one scenario. Then she poses the big question, “What do you do?”

“We weren’t that prepared before, so now we know to go into a situation we need to have a little more of a safety net,” said Wesley Johnson, who recently moved into the Max-Well Respite Center with his wife Haley and their 10-year-old son.

The Johnsons, no relation to Melissa Johnson, relocated to Pensacola from Louisiana about a month ago after she got a job here. But, unable to find affordable housing, they checked into a local motel.

“We paid $870 when we got here for two weeks” said Haley Johnson. After that was gone, I didn’t have anything. So, that left us in the car and knowing we didn’t know anybody and it was a really scary experience.”

Fortunately, they only had to spend three days in their car, before connecting with Fearless Community and the shelter director on Facebook. That helped them secure a room at the Max-Well, which they described as “cozy and nice,” much better than their car.

“This is a couch and it also makes out into a bed and this is where we sleep. He (son) sleeps on a cot right beside us,” said Wesley Johnson, describing their room, which also has a sink.

During their stay, the Johnsons say they’re “100% invested in the process” and looking forward to mapping out a plan to help them get their lives and finances in order.

Kirk Bush is one of the first residents of the Max-Well Respite Center, Pensacola's new, full-service homeless shelter.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Kirk Bush is one of the first residents of the Max-Well Respite Center, Pensacola's new, full-service homeless shelter.

Resident Kirk Bush is also trying to get back his life back on track, after losing just about everything following the death of his spouse about six months ago.

“I really didn’t realize that I was going through some compounded loss, a loss of the job I do and where I live, not to mention the personal loss,” said Bush. “All of those compounded made it a desperate situation.”

Bush has spent much of his career working in the food and beverage industry on cruise ships and country clubs. Now, he’s serving in that role at the Max-Well.

“The symbol here is a tree and its roots and I’m back home. That’s how I treat it — it’s home,” he said. “So, here I am and I'm doing the job and we’re all of a mindset of gratefulness.”

For now Bush is using what he’s learned about loss to help other residents, while pursuing his dream is to go back to Hawaii, where he experienced happier times. He’s confident that with his own efforts and a big boost from the Max-Well Respite Center, he’s going to get there.

“It’s gonna happen,” he declared. “In the meantime, I’m home and I’m working and I’m feeling worthy. My identity is coming back to me and I feel young again.”

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.