Pensacola is on the edge of 'crisis' with homelessness, consultant says. What now?

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

Pensacola is on the edge of a homelessness crisis, according to an expert the city hired to evaluate the problem.

Homelessness consultant Robert Marbut made the comments at a briefing on a draft executive summary of his recommendations to address homelessness in Pensacola during a joint meeting of the Pensacola City Council and Escambia County Commission on Monday afternoon.

"You're at the edge of crisis, about ready to go over the hill," Marbut said. "I mean you're at 50 miles an hour aiming for the cliff right now."

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Marbut said the city is experiencing a growth in the homeless population, and if efforts are not made to reduce it, the area will experience larger problems that are typically seen in "big cities."

Marbut said he's collected data that shows there's been an increase in aggressiveness and violence tied to homeless people. He did not provide the data Monday, but said he would send it to city and county officials.

City officials have been working to develop a plan to address homelessness in partnership with a newly formed homelessness task force that seeks to bring all local nonprofits that serve homeless people under a unified approach to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the city has been working for months on a comprehensive plan to address homelessness in the community. As part of that effort, the city hired Marbut, who recently served in the Trump administration as a "homelessness czar" when he was director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Marbut also worked for the city before when he wrote a 2014 report that examined the homelessness in Pensacola. He was hired to update that plan and delivered a draft executive summary of the updated report to the city Friday.

Report calls for creating holistic service center for homeless population

In the summary, he notes several recommendations for the city and county to implement, including having the county and city set aside funding to address homelessness in their budgets each year and upgrade software that nonprofits use from data collection to case management-focused software that will help track how many people the groups help get off the street and into homes.

One of the biggest recommendations calls for opening a holistic service center where all of those groups can come together to help address the needs of the homeless. The service center could also include a central kitchen that coordinates feeding services.

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City officials and Marbut are recommending that a building at 50 Maxwell St. become the holistic service center. The central kitchen could be built on the adjacent county-owned property, which is currently a parking lot for the county Corrections Department   headquarters.   

Marbut also suggested an alternative location at 1750 Palafox St., the former site of a state hospital and health department. The building would require rehabilitation work before it could open.

During Monday's meeting, county commissioners and City Council members asked Marbut questions on the homeless issue. None of the commissioners commented on the building location for a holistic service center, but said they wanted to see where the city goes.

Councilwoman Ann Hill was the only member to address the center, and said she preferred the 1750 Palafox St. location.

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said he believed it was important for the city and county to work together to address homelessness.

"We need to do something and begin to move the ball," Robinson said.

Marbut: Don't give money to panhandlers, donate to nonprofits instead

Marbut's No. 1 recommendation was for the area to focus on a "change of culture" that discourages giving directly to homeless people.

He said there needs to be a push from leaders that people should give money to local organizations that help the homeless, such as the Waterfront Rescue Mission, Salvation Army or Alfred Washburn Center, rather than giving money to panhandlers.

But his comments also demonstrated how quickly this topic can wade into controversial territory.

A homeless camp underneath Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola is pictured Monday.

Marbut said when people give money to individuals on the side of the road, all they're doing is funding bad habits.

"Giving money out the window, you might as well just give crack out the window or a six-pack out the window or pay for a prostitute," Marbut said. "If that's what you think is a worthwhile investment, keep doing that."

City Councilwoman Teniadé Broughton told Marbut she appreciated his recommendations but took issue with his comment.

"The comment about crack out the window was insensitive," Broughton said. "When I give a dollar, and when other people give their dollars, that's not their intention. We don't want to label people who panhandle as crackheads."

Marbut said he was giving a personal example from another Florida city that he witnessed firsthand.

"I've seen it firsthand, but I appreciate the insensitivity that you might think (was there) on that," he  said.

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.