Work Continues on Help for Escambia Homeless

Sep 10, 2019

Five months after a multi-faceted, multi-agency summit on homelessness in Pensacola, very little concrete solutions have emerged. But some work is continuing behind the scenes.

According to Waterfront Rescue Mission, roughly 800 people – men, women and children – are homeless in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties at any one time.

“We met with [Escambia] County at the end of August, and we have a fairly good meeting over there,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson. “I think we’re still coming down to the position of what we can do.”

Speaking at his weekly news conference on Monday, the mayor said they spoke with members of the faith-based community, who actively deal with the homeless. He conceded there are aspects of the issue the city of Pensacola and Escambia County will be good at, and others not so much.

“Me, I think that what would be the highest and best use for us to do would be a day center,” Robinson said. “That continues to be the thought, but I need the county to also agree to that because, let’s face it – we’re the ‘junior partner.’ We’re not going to have as much money to bring to the table.”

Funding appears to be one issue that the city will have to take a back seat. Citing Sarasota, Robinson says some cities put a substantial amount of money into local homeless programs, but Pensacola does not look to be one of them. Robinson says there are a lot of things pulling the city in various directions.

“The money that we have would be more Local Option Sales Tax money which would be ordered towards something more like a building and daily operations,” the mayor said. “If we try to compare ourselves to Sarasota right now, we’re far behind them. And to try to become them right off the bat; I think we’ve got to crawl before we walk before we run. Sarasota’s running; we’re not even crawling right now.”

The April summit and what it produced are the sources of Robinson’s optimism in setting up a day space where the homeless can come to get basic services, adding that the building can be managed by the city and county.

“We would have a place where people could go; they can come in [and] interact with all the other partners who are dealing with this,” said Robinson. “As I’ve said before, the reason people get into homelessness, or the way they get out of homelessness is so varied – it’s not ‘one size fits all,’”

Participants in the Homeless Summit, held at the Pensacola Bay Center in April.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

“What we would hope to do is to go around the table, and give you 2-3 minutes to state what your goal, your objectives,” Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May said in April. “What you see wrong, what you see bad, and what can we do, as a municipality, a city, a county to help.”

May, who along with Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson co-chaired the “Homeless Summit” at the Pensacola Bay Center in April.

“Grover and I – we’re never going to be service providers; but we can be resources,” May said. “So we’d like to walk out of here knowing what can the city and county do together to help you. Just two or three goals; we’re not looking for a million, we’re just looking for two or three.”  

Different groups – non-profits, faith-based and governmental – have different rules when it comes to the homeless, says the mayor, which work for different people in different situations.

“I spoke to the churches and said, ‘you know, that’s why we have so many different denominations,” Robinson said. “We’re not ‘one size fits all’ is how we come to whatever religion we come to. We’re all a little bit different; and that’s why we all have something different to get us where we need to go, and same situation here.”

Doubling-down on his call for a one-stop service center, Robinson pointed to some instances within the city limits where people have been trespassed out of places that have air conditioning.

“Perhaps we need to find a place that’s air-conditioned,” Robinson said. “My vision is I would love for it to have some type of kitchen facility, where at least people can come in and eat, so when they’re done we can clean it all up, and [the food it] not just sitting out in the road. It would be better for the community all the way around and be a win-win-win.”

Meanwhile, there’s talk about inmates at the local state prison – Century Correctional Institution – using their carpentry and construction skills to build so-called “tiny homes” – houses generally under 600 sq. ft.

“I do think there is an opportunity for other organizations – partner organizations – to work within that,” said the mayor. “If we were to gather and we had a day center where we could all come together; communicate in the same language and have the same data files, all of that would be very positive. It would be a good start, and at least we’d start crawling.”

While they can be built on foundations – slabs – most tiny homes are built on trailers and are known as a “THOW” – Tiny House on Wheels. Price tag: about $25,000-$30,000.