Pensacola could spend $3 million of federal COVID relief money to address homelessness

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson wants to spend $3 million of federal coronavirus relief money to implement recommendations from a national consultant on homelessness.

Robert Marbut delivered his seven recommendations to the City Council during a workshop on homelessness Monday night. His recommendations include opening a holistic service center to help people experiencing homelessness, adding a "central kitchen" to that center to centralize feeding services, developing emergency and affordable housing options and adding homelessness services to city budgets.

Robinson's administration brought Marbut in for $30,000 to develop a report of recommendations for the city to address homelessness. Marbut previously developed a report for the city in 2014. Since then, he has served in the Trump administration as "homelessness czar" when he was director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

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Marbut's recommended policies have been criticized by other homeless advocates, notably his recommendation for cities to not "enable" homelessness through direct giving, such as by giving money to those panhandling or through de-centralized feeding programs.

Marbut unveiled his recommendations last week during a joint city-county meeting, and on Monday, he again echoed his comments from last week that Pensacola was on the edge of a homelessness crisis.

"You're really at a beginner precipice of a crisis here," Marbut said. "You're not there yet, but you're almost there. And so this is your chance, with the $3 million with ARPA, with your ability to work with the (Homelessness Reduction) Task Force ... I think that you can positively impact this."

ARPA refers to the American Rescue Plan Act passed earlier this year that provides local governments with additional federal funding to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The city is set to receive about $19.1 million in federal funds, and Robinson wants $3 million of that to go toward getting homeless services off the ground.

"We need to put a stake in the ground and say, we need to put a fairly sizable amount (of money up) and begin to put our money where our mouth is," Robinson told the City Council on Monday night during a workshop on homelessness.

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City officials are eyeing property at 50 W. Maxwell St. as a temporary location for the service center building where different agencies in the Homeless Reduction Task Force could set up shop and help homeless people with services from mental health to finding work.

Marbut said the long-term plan should be to locate the center at 1750 Palafox St., the former site of a state hospital and health department. He said that would offer a better long-term location for a holistic service center because it also could house a temporary shelter, kitchen facilities and services.

Robinson said the city is open to using $3 million for that building or for something else, but is looking for guidance from the City Council on how the money should be spent.

"Buildings tend to be something we're good at," Robinson said. "That's one of the things that we're good at. We're OK in programming. We can work on some of the programs we don't necessarily have, but I tend to think we're good at buildings. And when I looked at Tallahassee and what they had done with their program, again, shelter and transitional housing, I think are things we can do."

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During the meeting, leaders Connie Bookman of Pathways for Change and John Johnson of Opening Doors Northwest Florida also gave presentations to the council on their efforts to organize the Homelessness Reduction Task Force.

Members of the City Council didn't take any positions during the almost four-hour workshop and mainly stuck to asking questions of Bookman and Johnson.  

Councilwoman Sherri Myers said any programs the city starts with the $3 million should be sustainable once the federal money runs out.

The bulk of the meeting was taken up with members of the public speaking against Marbut's first recommendation to "move from a culture of enablement to a culture of engagement" and to start a public awareness campaign to discourage direct giving to homeless people.

Eddie Myrick, Opening Doors Northwest Florida street outreach case manager, sets up a tent Tuesday at the homeless camp under Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola. Myrick is part of the Community Partner Outreach Team, a coalition of service providers delivering on-site services for those in the camp.

Michael Kimbrel, director of the Alfred Washburn Center and co-founder of Sean's Outpost and Satoshi Forest, said he has a hard time with Marbut calling helping homeless people "enablement."

"I enable people all the time to get themselves out of homelessness," Kimbrel said. "And he may refer to that as engagement, but I don't get people out of homelessness. John Johnson doesn't get people out of homelessness. What we do in this line of work is we remove the barriers that keep people homeless, and they get themselves out of homelessness."

Kimbrel said there aren't enough resources for private organizations to help homeless people who need it, and the city should not be telling people not to help those in need.

He also disputed that the homeless population was increasing.

"In November, it'll be 10 years that I've been providing food in the same park at the same time," he said. "I can also tell you that our numbers have not increased, like we're not attracting homelessness into downtown Pensacola like I've been accused of in the past."

Kimbrell said he agreed with Marbut that more affordable housing is needed but it needs to be affordable for people bringing in $600 a month.

"Developers are not going to build those for us, they want to make a profit," Kimbrel said. "And so in some way, it's got to be subsidized government housing."

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