Escambia homeless camp quandary: neighbors want them gone, leaders have nowhere to move them

In Escambia County, one longtime homeless camp has been cleared, another has at least a two-month reprieve, and an abandoned house full of squatters has been demolished.

Crews tore down the house on the 1100 block of “V” Street in Brownsville, Tuesday morning. Neighbors say it has long sat empty and over the past five years different groups of people have lived there.

Complaints about the property ranged from dilapidated conditions and stray animals to loud music and drug activity.

Just last week a fire on the property got out of control and the blaze spread to a next-door neighbor’s fence.

After the demo, crews cleaned up a huge pile of debris including an upside-down car in the backyard. A lien will now be placed on the property for the cost of the clean-up.

Escambia County Code Enforcement has been working the case for about year. It took longer than usual because the owner, an out-of-town corporation that bought the property through a tax deed sale, did not respond to multiple efforts to address the situation.

After the house sat empty for so long squatters moved in permanently, a problem code enforcement is seeing across the county with similar properties.

One homeless camp cleared, another can stay temporarily

In Brent, Escambia County Code Enforcement issued an affidavit of compliance to Collier Merrill, the owner of about 60 acres of wooded property where people who are homeless have been camping for years.

A county magistrate ordered Merrill to clean-up nuisance conditions on the property including tents and lean-to’s, trash and debris in March. After multiple clean-up efforts, including hiring armed security to move people off the private property, code enforcement determined “all corrective actions required by the Special Magistrate’s” were met. A lien of $6,250 has been placed on the property for court costs and $30 a day fines that have accumulated since April.

Workers remove debris after demolishing the abandoned house at 1104 North V Street in Pensacola on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. Homeless squatters have been living in the dilapidated house and causing problems for neighbors.
Workers remove debris after demolishing the abandoned house at 1104 North V Street in Pensacola on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. Homeless squatters have been living in the dilapidated house and causing problems for neighbors.

According to the original order, Merrill must “maintain clean conditions to avoid a repeat violation” at 62 Marshall Lane.

Earlier this year, there were as many 70 campsites on the Merrill property and at least that many people.

Hundreds more also camp on vacant, county-owned land on nearby Beggs Lane.

Neighbors and business owners in the area say while they sympathize with the campers, they are also forced to deal with numerous problems as a result including repeat problems with trespassing, stray animals, trash, crime and unsanitary conditions from human waste.

Their complaints are like those who spoke to the Area Housing Commission on Tuesday about campers on property the commission owns in Warrington.

An estimated 35 to 40 people are camping on property owned by the Area Housing Commission that borders Jones Swamp Wetland Preserve & Nature Trail, near the intersection of North Navy Boulevard and U.S. Highway 98.

The commission’s board discussed what to do about the campers during their meeting at Pensacola City Hall. People who live and work nearby, as well as advocates for the homeless, attended the meeting to weigh in on the matter.

“I believe this is an issue that is fraught with sensitivity and compassion, but also we need to be realistic about this,” said Dr. Mary Colvin, who lives in the Bayou Chico area. “It's compassionate to think that we could allow them to camp, but I think it's irresponsible as a community to allow them to do so. We need to have people assume responsibility for the facilities where they live. People are failing in their lives and that's why they end up in these positions. There are also issues with mental illness. We have no facilities, since we closed them decades ago, for states to have safe places for people to live with mental illness, so they self-medicate with drugs, alcohol and other behaviors and I think that this goes far beyond Jones Swamp.”

Related: Escambia County homeless problem worsens as squatter population grows

Several other neighbors shared similar concerns about the safety of the community as well as the campers if they’re allowed to stay permanently.

“These are people living on public lands and if they're living anywhere else, they will be asked to vacate, move, end of story,” Warrington resident Charles Swenson told the Area Housing Commission board. “There's crime. I live right across the street, down the road from there, and it is nothing but people migrating in and out of there. That area needs to be cleaned up and it is no longer safe for people to walk on that walkway that goes through that area.”

Others, like former Pensacola City Council member Sherri Myers, who advocates for those who are homeless, urged the commission to assist those who want to move find housing and work toward permanent solutions to help people living on the street.

”It is unbelievable in the United States of America, that we have people living like people are living on Beggs Lane and Jones Swamp, and the government has a role in this,” Myers said. “The government has a responsibility. It’s getting worse. I see it all over my district, more and more homeless people.”

Ultimately, the board agreed the campers should not be allowed to stay permanently, but they aren’t going to evict them from the housing commission’s property until they have a transition plan in place. That plan will be presented and considered at the commission’s next board meeting in January.

Until then, the campers will be allowed stay while homeless outreach agencies work with them on finding permanent housing. Authorities may provide some stop-gap measures in the meantime, like dumpsters and portable toilets.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Escambia County addresses homeless population at Brent, Jones Swamp