Huge homeless camp is building on N. Palafox. Business owners say its not safe for anyone

Some people who live and work next to Escambia County’s largest homeless camp say they are fed up with the daily problems that come with living next door to the campers, and they are looking for relief.

Businesses that border the camps in Brent say they are having issues with trespassing, gas and water theft, people passed out in parking lots, and noxious fires, among other issues.

Peterson Precision Painting has been at 4310 N. Palafox for about six years. Campers live on the other side of their back fence, which borders the county’s property. The News Journal spoke with staff at the business last spring about the campers and for a while they say the situation got better.

Staff say campers had cleared out of the area for many months after a fire and they hoped they were gone for good, but recently people have started camping along their back fence again, as well as in the woods behind another business next door.

Employees say every day there are a variety of problems with homeless campers.

“You don't want to show up and try to get 50 guys moving with burnt plastic smell everywhere or burning our trees down,” said EJ Jarman, project manager for Peterson Precision Painting. “They come on our property, they sleep in our company trucks. They stole our gas and our water. They go to the bathroom in our dumpsters or break into the port-a-john we have on site. It's just an everyday thing.”

One of the worst problems is the daily fires, according to staff. The fires often have a toxic smell, like people are burning plastic or cooking drugs. They say they also regularly see or deal with people who appear to be high or using drugs.

“Right now, from 9 a.m. to probably 2 p.m., there are probably 15 cars back there, drug dealing and doing whatever they do,” said Bobby Holifield with Peterson Precision Painting. “That is not something that your kid needs to see three blocks from an elementary school. They're on drugs, right down the street, on the sidewalks. Escambia County deputies drive right by them.”

Camper quandary continues

Homeless campers have been living on county-owned land off North Palafox Street in Brent for years, but residents and business owners say the population exploded into the hundreds after the city of Pensacola forced people out of a homeless encampment under Interstate 110 in 2022.

It’s known as the “Beggs Lane” camp because that’s the name of one of the main streets that runs through the property and most campers live along or near the old street under tents, tarps and other homemade lean-tos.

The road is a remnant of the neighborhood that used to be there before residents were moved and their homes razed due to pollution concerns from a nearby superfund site.

“Lisa,” 58, camps on Beggs Lane directly behind the painting business. She said she just moved there with her nine pet cats after deputies told them to move from another road nearby.

Previously: Hundreds of homeless people live where others work. It's not safe, sanitary or easily solved

Lisa, who is originally from North Carolina, says she has been living on the street and camping in different places around Pensacola for about three years.

“One of the officers told us they wanted us all on Beggs Lane,” Lisa said about her last move. “I stayed here because I don’t want to go down further on Beggs Lane, it’s not safe.”

Business owners and residents say not all the campers are a problem and they sympathize with their situation, but say they often don’t feel safe either, and calls to law enforcement or county authorities about the problems are ignored.

“They say, ‘There's nothing we can do. The higher-ups will not do anything,’” Jarman said. “We see it every day. We ride back there, and we check it out. Every single day it gets worse and worse.”

Jarman and Holifield walked the part of Beggs Lane that runs behind their businesses and others, pointing out piles of trash, along with dozens of different dwellings including tents, campers and cars. Some sites are clean and maintained, others are not.

Some of those living on Beggs Lane appear to be struggling with mental illness and addiction, while others are just getting by. Jarman and Holifield say some people have threatened them, one carries a machete, and another pulled a gun. They say they’ve also witnessed other concerning behavior like prostitution.

“The only thing we want is the community to know that these businesses on this road have reached out. They've tried to get help. No one cares,” Jarman said.

Escambia County aware of issues with homelessness

Escambia County leaders say they are working to address the rise in homelessness and campsites in the county. Although services and resources like shelters and transitional housing opportunities are limited, outreach agencies say they will work with people who want help.

Part of the problem, authorities say, is dealing with people who want to remain on the street and aren’t looking to change their situation. Either way, county leaders say they know it’s a problem.

“We're working hard to address some of those concerns, and I know realistically it's not enough,” said Escambia County Administrator Wes Moreno. “There's a lot of frustration there along Beggs Lane and the challenges is what it has always been, where do they go? That's strictly up to them, but typically they wind up in another area of woods or behind somebody else's house or business. It is a challenge, one that we probably don't have a good handle on as of yet, and we'll just keep working and see if we can make things a little better for some of the businesses.”

Moreno said the county is not pushing people who are homeless to the Beggs Lane area. He said the county did recently issue trespass warnings to campers who were living on two streets nearby. Some of the campers said they came to Beggs Lane after they were moved.

Moreno said county leaders want to create a better buffer between the homeless campers on county-owned property and the businesses and residences that border them. In the meantime, they are also considering more permanent solutions.

A new Florida law banning people who are homeless from sleeping on public property could have some impact on the county’s plans.

The legislation requires local leaders to instead provide a designated camping area that is safe, sanitary, and drug and alcohol free.

Moreno said county leaders are still assessing their options when it comes to implementing the law.

“It's something we're going to have to get together and review,” Moreno said. “We're going to have to do something. What that something is right now, I'm just not sure.”

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Escambia County homeless camp brent lane Pensacola worries businesses