After more than two years of discussion, could the city of Pensacola be ready to put its money where its mouth is in regard to the homeless?
Mayor Grover Robinson is asking the City Council to approve spending $200,00 to pay for "homeless initiatives" such as a day-use center, which is part of a similar initiative by the city of Tallahassee and Leon County.
“I saw the Kearney Center, which is really something that we’ve been sort of advocating for and that day center side,” the mayor said. “I think that could be a possibility. In their phase-2 they have taken several old hotels and turned them into transitional housing.”
Phase three, says the mayor, is “incredibly impressive” for Tallahassee, but not necessarily for Pensacola.
“Phase-3 is in place, what they call ‘The Dwellings’ which is a tiny home village – you’ve probably heard a lot of discussion about that,” Robinson said. “I don’t know if we’re ready for a phase-3 right now. I think there are plenty of private-sector individuals that we would love to continue to work with that maybe providing those solutions.”
Escambia County officials plan to visit The Dwellings later this month, and Robinson is hoping they’re as impressed by it as he was.
“I’m hoping that, when they see that, and they see [Pensacola] is committed to $200,000, that they find a way to participate with us and help resolve some of the issues and for the first time put some initiatives forward that begin to deal with some of our homelessness and give those opportunities there.”
Escambia County officials have given their verbal blessings to the mayor's proposal, but for now, there’s no movement by either body to fund the plan. Meanwhile, the City Council is debating how to spend $506,000 in the budget that was left over from the previous fiscal year.
“I don’t think we should just be willy-nilly throwing money – a little bit of money, by the way – at this problem,” said Councilwoman Sherri Myers. “I think it needs to be strategic.”
It was Myers who uncovered the surplus money, and favors using some of it for construction of a community center at Tippin Park, which is located in a low-income neighborhood.
“There are no services for the homeless in this part of the city; that community center could sub as a resource facility for people who are homeless,” Myers said. “And it’s strategically located to bus stops and other services that people who are homeless to benefit from.”
As Myers touched on earlier, the $200,000 proposed for the homeless falls way short of what’s really needed. She favors dusting off a plan developed in 2014 aimed at providing tangible solutions to the issue, and bringing new council members up to speed on it.
“We need to have a workshop on that plan that may need to be modified,” said Myers. I have worked with the homeless for 40 years, as a legal aid attorney and as a street lawyer. It is my firm belief, the way you address homelessness is through rapid housing and services.”
Part of Mayor Robinson’s proposal stem from a homeless summit held in April, 2019 at the Pensacola Bay Center. John Johnson with the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless said at the time, that parallel issues are panhandling — and the search for a better way to give.
“Continuing to provide $5 to a person standing on the corner is not the way out of homelessness,” Johnson told the summit. “It is a business enterprise that people who are homeless and those transient, they’ll continue to do. Which is why every time you go to the street corner you see the same person.”
In all, Johnson touched on a half dozen areas, including the elimination of cost components in caring for the homeless, at hospital emergency rooms first and foremost, but also at local jails.
“On a $5 bond; or less than $100 bond. They’re in jail at the cost of about $70 per day,” said Johnson. “And so a possible solution would be, what is a safe way to discharge those folks into the care of a program that helps with reentry?”
Other proposals by the mayor for the leftover funds include $50,000 for installation of a restroom at Veterans Memorial Park; and $80,000 for restrooms at Community Maritime Park.