Pensacola’s Endless Battle with Homelessness

Written By Gina Castro

The country has been in crisis  mode for more than a year.  Although many have lost loved ones  and jobs, others are experiencing a  crisis within a crisis. The homeless  community both nationally and locally was in crisis mode  pre pandemic. The shutdowns,  virus and Gulf Coast hurricanes  only further increased the local  homeless community’s needs.  

Many organizations that benefit the homeless community  are struggling, too—which only makes serving the homeless more challenging. Manna Food Bank, Waterfront  Mission Rescue and Alfred Washburn Center experienced  a shortage in volunteers, increased need and damage from hurricane Sally. These issues directly affected the organizations’ ability to assist the homeless population.  

Manna had to close its food pantries in both Santa Rosa  and Escambia counties and focus its efforts on reinforcing  existing partnerships and programs as well as add a dozen  more community partnerships. Several of the partnerships  directly benefit the homeless population such as Waterfront,  New Hope Church and St. Vincent De Paul.  

The pandemic caused Manna to have an 87 percent decrease in volunteers at a time it needed support the most.  Compared to 2019, Manna had an 81 percent increase in  the number of people they served in 2020. From March to September, Manna served 26,684 people—a 123 percent  increase as compared to that timeframe in 2019.  

Waterfront flooded during hurricane Sally, and it wasn’t able to  shelter overnight guests until it reopened on Nov. 1. The shelter  sustained $700,000 in damages. However, Waterfront Senior Vice  President of Public Relations and Development Angie Ishee stated  Waterfront’s insurance did cover most of the cost. As part of an  effort to reduce the spread of the virus among their guests and  better serve the community, Waterfront decided to stop providing  its day services and focus on its shelter and drug recovery program.  

“As we rebuilt and reopened, we put a focus on those services  that were not offered in the community,” Ishee said. “That is why  we put a focus on overnight shelter and the recovery program  because several others are providing those day services.” 

When COVID hit the area, Waterfront suspended its drug  recovery program to focus on its shelter or rescue program. Starting  April 1, Waterfront will be launching its new and improved  drug recovery program: Life Builder Recovery Program. This  program approaches drug recovery holistically by considering the  mental, physical and spiritual well being of the men. Equipped  with a dedicated staff and space at the Herman Street campus,  the 90 day Life Builder program puts an emphasis on education,  accountability and rebuilding a life. Ishee explained that drug  addiction is a life dominating issue that often leads to homelessness.  For this reason, Ishee said that Life Builder is both a preventive  to homelessness and helps reduce the homeless population. 

“Back in 1949, when Waterfront started on the waterfront in Pensacola, they began serving the fishermen who would come in from a day of fishing. As that journey progressed,  they realized there were underlying issues that had to be addressed,”  Ishee explained. “They began helping them with addiction issues,  drugs, alcohol and other life dominating issues. We realized that  we were just slapping a bandaid on. We weren’t addressing the  true issue. By offering a hand up, we were just giving a handout.  So that became the dual purpose of Waterfront 71 years ago.” 

Since Waterfront and the Washburn Center, a day center, are on  the same floodplains, Washburn Center also flooded due to Sally.  The center spent more than $55,000 on repairs, which are still  being completed. Washburn Center Director Michael Kimberl  explained that the damage to Waterfront as well as the closure  of its day center caused the center’s number of clients to increase  dramatically. The center had almost 300 individuals in need daily.  

It’s difficult to determine if the number of homeless individuals  in Pensacola has increased as a result of COVID-19. DeDe  Flounlacker, Executive Director of Manna Food Bank,  explained that many nonprofits, including Manna, are  so overwhelmed with the need from the community that  the organizations haven’t been able to track demographic  information such as an individual’s housing status. 

Ishee explained that Waterfront has seen a decrease in the nightly  average of homeless guests at the shelter. In 2019, the nightly  average was 66. In 2020, the average declined to 44, and now it’s 46.  

“Many of them [homeless guests] are telling us ‘We know it’s a lot  safer outside.’ So on the last freezing night, we had 69 people in  the building,” Ishee continued. “That number certainly jumps, but  on a regular night, when the weather is tolerable, these guys know  they’re safer from the virus if they’re outside. So they are simply  not coming to stay overnight with us like they did pre pandemic.” 

Even though Waterfront is practicing social distancing at  its shelter, Ishee stated that individuals in the homeless  community have told Waterfront that they are choosing  to stay outdoors to avoid catching the virus. 

Mayor Grover Robinson explained that he wasn’t sure if  the number of homeless people increased in the city, but  he believed that there has been an increase in visibility.  

“I don’t know if we’ve seen a census increase [of homeless  people], but we’ve seen an increase of people out and about  more,” the mayor explained. “That’s one thing for sure.  Part of that is because many places either quit conducting  services or at least significantly curtailed them.” 

The Downtown Improvement Board (DIB) made an attempt  to reduce the number of homeless people and panhandlers  downtown. Although addressing the homeless population  downtown isn’t directly stated in DIB’s mission statement, DIB  Executive Director Walker Wilson explained that the DIB was  established to enhance the district’s quality of life and economic  success. Since the homeless community is an issue for downtown  business owners—the DIB wanted to help solve the issue.  

“We get pushback from store owners or property owners  when we have our homeless residents downtown sleeping  in their doorway, or in the unfortunate chance that maybe  they use the restroom in the doorway of their business  or in the back alley of their business,” Wilson said. 

In December, the DIB distributed posters to downtown  businesses that encouraged customers and visitors to donate  to organizations that benefit the homeless community rather  than giving to panhandlers downtown. Business owners were  given the choice to hang the posters on their shop windows.  

Wilson explained that the DIB thought to create these posters after  having a meeting with City staff and about 40 to 50 downtown  business owners on the issue of homelessness downtown.  Meeting attendees shared ideas such as adding public restrooms  and water fountains. The posters were inspired by the previous  fundraising campaign “Better way to give.” The 2012 project  redesigned old parking meters to encourage downtown visitors  to donate change to the meters rather than give to panhandlers. 

“It all stemmed from that meeting that we had with City  staff where we had everybody in the room, and we thought,  ‘Well, here’s some maybe low hanging fruit that the DIB could try and jump on.’ Something that wouldn’t cost us  a ton of money, but we could get the message out.” 

Downtown Improvement Board distributed these posters to downtown businesses, but later removed them due to backlash.

Many residents expressed outrage over the posters on  social media. Kimberl, who expressed his opinions as an  individual and not as a representative of the homeless  organizations he works for, shared photos of the DIB  posters on Facebook, and the post quickly went viral. 

The issues Kimberl had with the posters was that the  information presented on the anti-panhandler posters  were not accurate. The poster stated that a $30 donation  to Manna could provide 18 hot meals to people in need.  However, Flounlacker of Manna confirmed that Manna  has never given hot meals. Manna only gives groceries.  The poster also stated that a $30 donation to Waterfront  could provide a homeless person three nights at the shelter.  However, individuals will be charged $10 a night to stay at  the shelter no matter if people donate to Waterfront or not. 

“We have people on the streets that have immediate needs  that are not being addressed. Why would we give money  to these organizations that are overwhelmed, overworked  and not addressing the immediate needs of the community?  Not that they’re bad organizations,” Kimberl explained.  “It’s just that they’re not addressing those needs. Our  community does not provide the adequate amount of  help, versus the amount of people we are seeing needing  help. If we criminalize or shame people for asking for  help—which is essentially what panhandling is—while we  are not helping them, I think that makes us criminals.” 

Later, Wilson spoke with Kimberl as well as the organizations  featured on the posters and decided to have the posters  removed. The DIB hopes to recreate a different poster  with a similar message sometime in the future. 

“I messed up. I did not give those organizations a final look  at the poster before it was posted. We had told them that we  were creating something, but they did not see the final thing,”  Wilson said. “They were getting calls from some of their donors  and getting pushed back. Once I heard that, I said, ‘I’m going  to take them down. We’re going to regroup, and we’re going  to try and come up with something else that’s a little better.’” 

Owner of downtown business A&J Mugs Dan Lindemann chose to not hang up the DIB posters,  but he said he didn’t find the posters offensive. 

“When I found out that Walker Wilson hadn’t talked to  anybody at all, that they were telling people to contribute  money to these organizations, instead of giving money to  the panhandlers, I thought that was kind of—it blew my  mind,” Lindemann said. “They  don’t coordinate. They don’t talk  to each other, and that was a little  bit disturbing to think that we’d  go to that extent. But I didn’t take  any offense to them at all. I didn’t  think they were bad, but I never  hung them up because I sensed there  would be backlash. I didn’t find  them offensive at all. I thought it was  kind of a nice little eye opener.” 

Lindemann has been sharing  his concerns about the homeless  downtown to the City since Ashton  Hayward was mayor. He attended the  DIB’s meeting with business owners  in November. Back in August 2020,  Lindemann expressed his frustration  to Mayor Robinson when the DIB  opened its Puppy Pit Stop downtown.  Lindemann believed public restrooms  were needed more. The DIB spent  $50,000 on the dog park.  

“On that morning, when they  announced the dedication to the  puppy pad, I had someone come  by and relieve themselves on my  front door with me in my building,”  Lindemann said. “I sent a text  immediately to the mayor. I was just  a little bit put out when I saw that the  DIB made this big, huge deal about  making a puppy pee pad as if it would  be such a great asset to downtown.  It just didn’t make any sense. It set  me off. Why would we spend money  on something like that when for  years, the business owners downtown  had been complaining about people  relieving themselves in their doorways  or behind their buildings?” 

Although Wilson didn’t take on his  current role in the DIB until Oct.  1, Wilson explained that the DIB  wants to bring public restrooms downtown. The DIB submitted an application to IMPACT 100 for a  Portland Loo, a self cleaning public restroom, that would have been placed in the location the Puppy Pit Spot currently is. However, that application was  rejected, and the DIB didn’t have enough to fund  the estimated $90,000 for the Portland Loo. Wilson said the DIB needs a partnership with the City and county to bring public restrooms downtown. 

“I get the frustrations of some of the folks that took  concern with that, especially if they were following  the process and thought that there was going to be a  public bathroom put in there. And then maybe they  didn’t get the full story of what they did. We weren’t  successful in getting that grant that we thought  we would get, so that’s why the bathroom went  away then this Puppy Pit Stop went in, “ Wilson  explained. “Again, with a budget that we’ve got,  which is just a little over a million dollars, and you  take out what we pay for the cleaning service every  year, you take out what we pay to fund the police  that we have down here every year, and you start kind  of chipping away at some of the things that we we  do that everyone enjoys—there’s not much left over  for us to provide a public bathroom downtown. So  we would have to find partnership with the city or  county to try and make something like that happen.”

The City has a couple of ideas addressing homelessness  in motion. The city council had a workshop Jan. 13  where the Mayor discussed using $200,000 out of  the City’s remaining $500,000 budget to address homelessness. A decision has yet to be made. At this meeting, the council discussed bringing homeless consultant Dr. Robert Marbut for recommendations. The City paid Marbut $30,000 in 2014 to present a list of recommendations addressing Pensacola’s issues with homelessness. Marbut and the Task Force on Improving Human Services presented recommendations to the city council, after briefing former Mayor Ashton Hayward and his staff.  

The full document can be accessed here

Those recommendations were: 

1. Move from a Culture of Enablement to a Culture of Engagement

2. Transform Home Management Information Service (HMIS) from a “Score Keeper Model” to a “Proactive Case Management Tool”

3. Increase the number of emergency housing units for families-with-children

4. Establish a true 24/7 “Come-as-you-are” service center at Waterfront Rescue Mission

5. Modify Existing Ordinances to be Pottinger compliant. 

6. Repeal Sections 8-1-22, 8-1-23 and 8-1- 24 of the Code of the City of Pensacola

There has been some movement toward completing  the recommendations. The Better Way to Give initiative and the DIB’s December posters made efforts to support the first recommendation.  

Recommendation 4 has yet to make headway. To stay  at Waterfront’s shelter, guests can’t be intoxicated. The  recommendations 5 and 6 are in reference to the City’s ordinances  on homelessness. Marbut stated in the document that the  ordinances were not Pottinger compliant (see Pottinger vs City  of Miami). In 2017, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of  Florida filed a lawsuit against the City of Pensacola shortly after  the City passed an anti-panhandling ordinance. The City repealed  the ordinance and settled to pay the ACLU $10,000 for legal fees.  

The City and county have made efforts to improve housing,  too. In the 2016 to 2017 Escambia County and Pensacola State  Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP), the county utilized  ESG funding to support Loaves and Fishes. The SHIP Local  Housing Assistance Plan outlined ways the county and City  address rapid rehousing and homeless prevention. The City  administers HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH)  vouchers County‐wide to help house homeless veterans. The City is working with AMR at Pensacola, INC., a state-certified  

Community Housing Development Organization, to build  Pensacola’s first tiny home community. The Phoenix Project, which  recently received a $106,000 grant from IMPACT 100, plans to  create 14 tiny home communities consisting of 12 homes each.  The goal is to reduce poverty concentration in neighborhoods  by spreading affordable housing throughout the city. 

In 2019 Marbut was appointed director of the U.S.  Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). Shortly after  there was push back from housing advocates condemning  Marbut’s approaches to homelessness. Diane Yentel, CEO  of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, called  Marbut’s methods “dehumanizing and ineffective.”  

Marbut oversaw the development of the New Orleans  “transformational campus” Haven for Hope, which was  established after Katrina. The facility helps 1,500 people  and has a range of services offered 24 hours a day. An issue  advocates had with this facility was that guests had to sleep  on mats outside in the courtyard if they didn’t follow the  facility’s curfew or participate in job and education training.  

Marbut explained, as he does in the recommendation to the City,  that these methods prevent enabling the homeless population.  The Pensacola City Council has not made an official decision  to work with Marbut on another set of recommendations. 

Some of Pensacola’s issues with addressing homelessness, especially during COVID, can be traced back to the U.S. federal government.  

When Congress drafted the $2 trillion CARES Act back in  March, Congress mandated the United States Department  of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) formula for  calculating homelessness aid be temporarily altered so that it would consider a given area’s actual homeless population. For  years, HUD has been calculating aid for homelessness without  accounting for the number of homeless people in a given area.  This change in HUD’s formula resulted in millions more dollars  being allocated to areas with larger homeless populations.  

The Arizona State University Howard Center for Investigative  Journalism found that if HUD had used this one-time CARES  Act formula since 2011, Escambia County would have received  $313,545 more in homeless assistance grants from 2011 to 2020.  In that time span, HUD awarded Escambia $1,004,954 in direct  Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG). Had HUD considered  Escambia’s homeless population during that time frame, the county  would have received $1,318,499, an increase of 31.20 percent.  Nonetheless, HUD awarded the City of Pensacola the first  allocation of $452,160 from the CARES Act Community  Development Block Grant (CDBG). Mayor Grover Robinson  confirmed the CDBG is the only grant from the CARES Act that will be used toward the Pensacola homeless population  and the programs that support the homeless community.  

The Howard Center also found that more than four months after  Congress passed the CARES Act, HUD had dispersed less than  one-third of the money allocated to homeless specific programs.  HUD has yet to disperse the CDBG to the City of Pensacola.  

Although the City has yet to receive its funding from HUD, the  City of Pensacola will be using the first allocation of $452,160  mostly to benefit homeless prevention methods, which doesn’t  benefit the current homeless population. The City Housing Director Marcie Whitaker explained that the first CDBG check  will go to a contract with Legal Services of North Florida to  assist individuals facing foreclosure or eviction; subsistence  payments to include utility payments, rent payments or mortgage  payments; and senior services, to include the Council on Aging  Meals on Wheels feeding program for the elderly and disabled. 

As for the second allocation of the CDBG, Whitaker said it will be  put toward homelessness or nonprofits who benefit the homeless  community, but she isn’t certain of the specificities yet. “The second  allocation—I really haven’t gotten specific as to what that activity is  going to be for, either a food bank and/ or for a homeless outreach  activity,” Whitaker said. “I just see that those are needs in our  community. So we’re beginning that planning process now, and it’ll  probably be conducted over the next three to six months. Once we  put that plan together, it’s taken to the city council, so the council  approves it, and then it goes on to HUD for their approval.” 

Although there doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet to end  homelessness, there are some things individuals can do to  benefit the organizations that serve the homeless community.  Manna is currently accepting grocery donations once  again. Washburn Center, Waterfront and Manna are in  need of volunteers and monetary donations. If you’re in a  position to give, visit these local nonprofits’ websites. 

One way individuals can directly benefit the homeless  population is by acknowledging them.  

“One of the number one things that we battle here in the  homeless community is apathy. If people are insulting you,  ignoring you, or treating you like you’re a lesser human being, that wears on you,” Kimberl said. “If you gave them pride, they  would have pride. We are the recipients of our own actions.”