Growing Pensacola homeless camp is a 'powder keg.' Can we unite on solution before it blows?

Neighbors and business owners who live and work near the hundreds of homeless camping on county and privately owned land off North Palafox Street in Brent have long been raising concerns about it, complaining of trash, fires, crime, people behaving erratically, as well as trespassing and sometimes theft.

Government leaders and homeless outreach agencies know the growing encampments near the Escambia Wood Treating Company superfund site need to be addressed, but what to do about them is a challenge.

“I think it’s a powder keg waiting to happen,” said John Johnson, executive director for Opening Doors, Northwest Florida’s lead agency on homelessness. “Aside from that area being toxic grounds, it is a place where there is a lot of drug activity and prostitution that’s happening and then the other thing, there also is a high number of transient homeless.”

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One of several sites at the Murphy Lane homeless camp in Pensacola on Wednesday, April 26, 2023.
One of several sites at the Murphy Lane homeless camp in Pensacola on Wednesday, April 26, 2023.

An estimated 200 to 300 people are now living on the vacant property, which is located near homeless outreach centers where they can receive services like food, showers and medical treatment.

Some of the campers are working minimum wage jobs or are on government disability and simply don’t make enough money to afford a place of their own. Others suffer from mental illness and/or have substance abuse issues and they’re not ready to sign up for programs that could help.

The result is a diverse group of people with a variety of challenges and the same problem — no permanent, affordable housing.

In case you missed it: Escambia Wood led to third largest Superfund relocation in U.S. history. Final cleanup begins soon.

“It’s a politically sensitive area, homelessness and what to do with homeless people,” said Dr. David Josephs, board chair for Opening Doors. “We’ve got to move the needle on this. It’s not about Open Doors, it’s about community coordination.”

What does community coordination look like?

According to Joe Savage, a senior regional advisor for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, that means all the community stake holders have to be on the same page with the same plan. Savage helps communities understand and implement federal policies on addressing homelessness and he was in Pensacola in May sharing his insights.

“It’s going to be that plan that the community has to develop that gets everyone on the same page,” Savage explained. “It’s going to be that plan that helps the community analyze their resources and see where they need more capacity. It’s going to be that plan that helps the community know, ‘OK, we need more providers here. We need more providers there,’ so getting that community plan is really important.”

Savage said it takes a strong plan and Continuum of Care program to help people out of homelessness, especially when working with large campsites like the ones in Brent.

Opening Doors is the Continuum of Care (CoC) in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and right now experts say the organization doesn’t have the resources or service providers to effectively case manage all the people who need help.

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“You have to make access to treatment, access to services as low barrier as possible,” said Savage. “You’re talking about 200 to 300 people, so there has to be a sufficient amount of outreach so it’s an engagement that is ongoing. It’s an engagement that is every day. Doing sporadic, let’s say, we get to engage them every Thursday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., something like that isn’t enough.

"If the community doesn’t have enough outreach workers to really ramp up its capacity to do ongoing, everyday outreach, then it’s going to be a difficult problem to solve because it’s going to be that outreach that has to include service providers. The outreach teams have to have sufficient capacity, and within that capacity it has to include the actual service providers and making real time offers on the spot.”

It takes money, time and a cohesive plan to make a real difference, Savage said, resources the federal government can help provide when CoC providers are adhering to federal guidelines.

“If the community had a plan that outlined the necessary steps, you would then take that plan and look at your capacity and say, ‘OK, if in our plan we’re saying we’re going to address this issue of unsheltered homelessness this way,” Savage explained. “You would have that plan that would outline what the community needs to do and the steps they’re going to take and then look at, ‘Where is our capacity to actually implement this plan and then start working to improve the capacity.’”

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Providing more services and resources to help with temporary and permanent solutions is “doable” Savage said, but it’s going to take having some hard conversations to get the community on the same page and plan to do it.

“I know there are conversations about the COC’s capacity,” said Savage. “There are conversations about being more inclusive of other providers. Those are all difficult conversations. My recommendation would be something like that, bring in a third party that is neutral, that facilitates that conversation, but it has to happen because if you’re tiptoeing around the issue you’re never going to get to where you need to be in terms of coming together as a community and developing a cohesive plan.”

Savage suggested Opening Doors take advantage of HUD’s offer to provide free technical assistance to help structure CoC governance, a recommendation Johnson said he’s following. Savage also recommended that Opening Doors create a separate entity to govern the CoC instead of relying on the nonprofit agency’s board to do it because that could create a conflict of interest. That, however, is something both Johnson and Josephs have pushed back against.

He said the CoC’s governing entity needs to include representatives from community stakeholders who have an interest in addressing homelessness. That will also help put funding the CoC and local governments receive to the best and most effective use.

“The CoC governing board — and that’s the board that oversees the work of the entire CoC community — if the CoC had a plan the governing board would be making sure the goals and objectives are being achieved," Savage said. "The governing board should consist of folks from the local health care system, the school district, the nonprofit community, etc. Now in terms of managing the actual dollars, it’s OK that CoC lead agency is also an agency that is getting CoC funding, as long as in their review process they are determining who gets funding and they’re analyzing performance. None of their people are looking at their own projects.”

Johnson said the agency is working with HUD and its board on next steps and determining what, if any, changes will be made in how the CoC’s board runs Opening Doors. He said communicating with HUD on funding can be a challenge, and they also invite service providers to grant workshops to help them apply for additional money, but it's a competitive process.

Deciding on how best to spend the limited funds they do have is another issue he thinks the community needs to consider, especially in light of the large number of transient homeless who are among the campers in Brent.

"When we look at homelessness in our community there’s about a 30 to 35% transient population and what I mean by that is sometimes they’re just coming through and sometimes they come through and they stay," said Johnson. "When we think about prioritizing homelessness, what do we think about someone who is homeless who has been here 15 minutes, versus somebody who has been here homeless for 10 years, when we have reduced resources? I’m not saying don’t serve, I’m saying if all we have is a choice then how do we choose as a community."

Savage said a unified plan would provide a roadmap as to how to allocate funding earmarked for homelessness and the closer the CoC is aligned with federal strategies on homelessness, the more opportunities there will be for money and resources to improve outcomes.

"Let’s say the plan said, ‘You know what, we want to build tiny homes,’ or ‘We want to convert a hotel or motel into emergency shelter or even permanent housing for people who are living unsheltered," said Savage. "It would be that plan that would determine how those resources are being allocated."

“It’s doable. It’s solve-able,” he continued. “Other communities in Florida have done it. What I don’t want to see happen with Pensacola is what I see happening with other communities where you have basically these two sides, and each side is putting a lot of energy into proving that its viewpoint is the correct way to move forward, but they never come together to have a discussion about coming together to move forward. What I see happening is someone on the city council or the mayor finally says, ‘You know what, enough is enough, you all need to come together.’"

City council member Allison Patton is working with city and county leaders to address homelessness. She served as co-chair of the Legal Services/Criminal Justice subcommittee of the Homeless Reduction Task Force and when she ran for office said it was one of the top issues of concern among voters. Patton says she is committed to providing more affordable housing options and believes a strong CoC is part of the solution.

"It is time that we bring best practices to our community. Ensuring that we have the right CoC governance structure, an effective system of care, committed government and community partners, and the necessary funding to carry out the mission," said Patton. "The mayor brought a national expert on homelessness to Pensacola. Dr. Savage told us what needs to be done. He told us how we can get the funding we need. Now it is up to us to do it. And I, for one, won't quit until we are doing the best that we can for the homeless and for our community."

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What communities don’t want, Savage said, is to wait until something tragic happens to motivate leaders to finally make a change in the way they’ve been handling homelessness. Business owners and residents who live near the Brent homeless camps worry they’re close to that tipping point.

As an example, a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by a person at the Brent encampment after the teen and another boy went to the camp to by meth on May 26. When they were told no one had any to sell, a fight ensued, gunfire was exchanged and one of the boys was killed. The Escambia County Sheriff's Office determined the shooting was a Stand Your Ground case and no charges were filed.

“I talk about this a lot and it’s unfortunate, but the tipping point happens when something tragic occurs,” said Savage. “If it is an encampment, something in that encampment happens and typically, it’s sad to say it, it’s not when something happens between the people in the encampment, it’s when something happens to a non-homeless citizen by someone in the encampment. That’s when tends to bring on the tipping point and that’s when people care and that’s unfortunate.”

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola homeless camp near Palafox opportunity for community plan