Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019


Cleaning Out the Campground

Is Pensacola Pushing Out Homeless?
By Jeremy Morrison

The man under the Pensacola Bay Bridge has been there a while. Not the man in the recliner. The other man, the one behind the fake fern, hung for aesthetics in the make-shift abode.

“But they look real, don’t they?” the man said, disappearing behind the ferns and returning with a weathered 2011 letter from the State Attorney.

The letter lists the man’s address as “UNDERNEATH NORTHEND OF 3 MILE BRIDGE.” He lives there, along with other men. And they’re freaking out about a batch of proposed ordinances that look set to sail onto the books.

“We need Monk back,” the man said.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward has handed the Pensacola City Council three ordinances to consider. While critics contend the proposals are “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional”—effectively “criminalizing homelessness”—the city administration argues the laws are necessary to “promote the aesthetics, sanitation, public health and safety of its citizens.”

Such ordinances were originally pitched in 2011, in the midst of Occupy Pensacola’s camp-out on the lawn of Pensacola City Hall. Facing a vocal collection of homeless advocates and religious organizations, the proposals died on city council’s table.

“You always knew in the back of your head, it’s not like they’ve killed it, like it’s gone away,” Father Nathan Monk noted recently. “You always knew it was coming back.”

Late last year, the day after Christmas, City Administrator Bill Reynolds wrote an email to city council members letting them know the administration still considered the “aggressive homeless” an issue that needed tending.

“I have continued to watch the homeless criminal element in the city commit violations,” Reynolds relayed, “and have been personally accosted by an aggressive homeless gentleman coming out of Jackson’s one night.”

Too Heavy for the Boy Scouts

More than a few people have delved into the Bible during city council meetings this month. They’ve read from the book of Isaiah—“doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims”—and recounted the parable of the rich man in hell, looking up to the beggar Lazarus in Heaven.

They’ve urged council members to turn to their religion. It’s gotten awkward.

Council President P.C. Wu tried to set everybody straight. The accusations were stinging. Especially with that troop of Boy Scouts looking on as they observed the 45th annual Boy Scout City Government Day.

“What’s been presented to you, that if you’re a good Christian, you won’t vote for this, and if you’re not a Christian, you’re going to take the other side—that’s not true,” Wu said. “It’s been presented that if you vote for this you’re anti-homeless, anti-poor. And I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, Boy Scouts, that is not true.”

The first proposed ordinance before council prohibits “camping” on public property, which is defined as sleeping outside, or in a temporary shelter—anything ranging from a tent to a blanket of newspapers or cardboard. The second ordinance prohibits various activities in public restrooms, including washing and shaving, laundering any article of clothing or preparing food or drink. The third ordinance targets public urination and defecation. And there is a fourth measure waiting in the wings that focuses on “aggressive solicitation, begging or panhandling.”

“The purpose of this ordinance is clearly to target people who are homeless and I believe that is how it’ll be enforced,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said as the council tackled the camping ordinance. “I think it criminalizes homelessness.”

Thus far, Myers keeps finding herself on the losing side of a reliable 6-3 splits. She’s joined in her opposition to the ordinances by councilmen Gerald Wingate and Charles Bare—everyone’s against relieving oneself in public.

And while the majority of council embraces the ordinances, public sentiment has leaned heavily against the proposals. In the face of this blistering public outcry, the council has muscled the ordinances forward, past the first public reading and toward the second and final reading.

“This is like a bad dream,” said Councilman Charles Bare, as reality sank in half way through the first public reading. “It’s like I ate some really spicy food and had a bad dream about some ordinance we’re trying to put on the books.”

Same Song, Second Verse

When the city administration hustled similar ordinances in 2011, everything fell apart in spectacular fashion. A rowdy contingent of Occupy Pensacola participants were joined by homeless advocates and religious groups in heated opposition—calling the proposals out as “sick” and “bonkers.”

“This council would have arrested Mary and Joseph this time of year,” Monk had said as they headed into the Christmas season. “And then you would have called DCF and had the Christ Child hauled off.”

That episode climaxed with then-President Sam Hall threatening to have Monk forcibly removed from council chambers—leading to some holiday YouTube fame—and two council members walking out in protest.

Monk currently lives in South Carolina, where he is continuing his trek with the Russian Orthodox Church. But he’s still plugged in to Pensacola, and has been keeping a close watch on this season’s quiver of proposals.

“Everyone has to use the restroom, everyone has to sleep, everyone has to eat,” Monk said. “Or they die.”

With Monk gone—coupled with the recent death of homeless advocate Gary Lowry—new voices have taken up the banner. Mike Kimbrel, of Food Not Bombs, and Jason King, who runs the homeless aid group Sean’s Outpost, have been perhaps the most public in their opposition.

“What’s the plan here guys?” King asked council as they began assessing the ordinances. “What are these guys supposed to do?”

Toting sack lunches of salami sandwiches across town a couple of days later, he didn’t seem too surprised that council had flown in the face of public sentiment.

“They had made up their minds before they walked in the door,” King laughed.

Be Like Mickey

The ordinances before council are apparently based on similar measures taken in Orlando. This is pointed out when the possibility of lawsuits is raised.

“I just want to remind everybody,” said City Administrator Bill Reynolds, “this is based on the city of Orlando’s ordinance and it has successfully withstood court challenges.”

A citizen noted that the legal challenges had not been successful because, as the judge had noted in his ruling, the Orlando area had no shortage of available beds open to the homeless community. Councilman Bare would also hit this note. As would attorney Alistair McKenzie.

“Orlando has an enormous amount of beds for a dollar a night,” McKenzie explained. “And they never fill up.”

The Pensacola area, however, does not have such a wealth of accommodations for the homeless.

“It’s dismal,” Monk said. “We do not have enough resources out there to take care of the problem.”

Prior to discussing this year’s proposed ordinances, council enjoyed a presentation from the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless. Reynolds said the presentation was meant “to kind of educate council.”

“I assume to soften us up to accepting this, or making it more palatable,” Councilwoman Myers would later speculate.

But the EscaRosa presentation could be read only as a red flag. An SOS telegraphed into the abyss. Emergency flares lost on a lonely night.

“Again, I want to emphasize that while we are seeing a decline in resources,” said John Johnson, the coalition’s executive director, “we are also seeing an increase in need.”

The numbers were not good. Less Money. More homeless. Sorely lacking resources.

Following the EscaRosa presentation, Reynolds told council that the newly proposed ordinances would be partnered with other efforts—conferring with the city’s federal lobbyist in hopes of finding additional funds to address the homeless issue, as well as an educational effort. He said the city would be making the homeless “fully aware of the services that are available.”

“Put simply,” Public Information Officer Derek Cosson later explained, “if an officer makes contact with someone regarding a potential violation of one of these ordinances, the officer will educate the individual on available help.”

This sentiment has rung hollow among critics of the ordinances. It feels backwards— “why would you pass laws that penalize people for being poor, without trying to help them first”—and borders on a tease.

“The city pretends like there’s all these services for the homeless, and there’s just not,” King said.

The Silent Majority Plus One

McKenzie—who has represented Occupy and two councilwomen in lawsuits against the city—made a firecracker of a charge on the night of the first reading. Vocalization of the murmur among the camp of opposition.

“The people that donate to your campaigns told you that they, and their businesses, don’t want to see homeless people in the city of Pensacola,” McKenzie said. “The last time I checked, the role of government is to provide for the welfare of its people. That doesn’t mean the wealthy people only.”

It had sounded a lot softer when Councilman Larry B. Johnson said as much to the attorney during the COW.

“What happens, as a councilperson, I start getting calls from people that have problems with the homeless affecting their business and their right to earn money, they feel that it hurts that,” Johnson said. “Can you offer us any solutions to help with those types of situations, because I totally understand the rights of the homeless, etc., but what I struggle with is the people that also have businesses and are trying to feed their families, and they tell me that some of their businesses are getting hurt by some of these different things that are going on.”

It had sounded even smoother in Reynolds’ email.

“As we all strive to make Pensacola a place to ‘live, work and play,’ the reality is that aggressive homeless and oftentimes criminal homeless are a real threat to that goal,” the administrator had written.

With his email, Reynolds had provided a letter from a woman who felt threatened when a man approached her vehicle as she prepared to enter Jeweler’s Trade. He apparently hit her passenger-side window, asked for money and made the woman feel “like I was in New Orleans.”

“I was afraid it was an attempted car jacking,” the woman wrote, “and got out and ran across the street, almost getting hit by a car.”

Proponents of the proposed ordinances have been fairly invisible thus far. Monk refers to this contingent as the “really fascinating silent majority.”

“You hear about it every time before one of these controversial votes,” he said.

The one member of the public that has voiced support in a public forum for the direction council is heading is downtown business owner Susan Campbell. She relayed how an entrance to her business opens to a city right-of-way, and how individuals must sometimes be navigated to get inside.

“I’ve had a number of instances over the last few weeks where my 24-year-old employee—female, young—has to step over a camping individual in a confined area that has all the things that you’ve said—something over them, food, also that defecated on themselves,” Campbell told council. “It has been very challenging to protect my employees.”

While this was the only person publicly supporting the proposals, council members said they’d heard from others. The “silent majority.”

“I remind you folks, this city is comprised of 54,000 people, we’ve heard from 18,” Wu addressed the gallery during the first reading. “I can tell you I’ve heard from a lot more than 18.”

King would later address his comments to the Boy Scouts, who would soon be shuffled out of the chambers.

“Being here and watching your city government is really important,” he told the Scouts. “I know you’re all bored. I know you guys were forced to come here as part of this and most of you are not really interested in being here and that’s cool that you guys are here anyway. But what you’re watching is really important; because what we’re talking about here is we’re talking about the right of human beings. Your fellow citizens here, that we’re discussing here. And the council president just made the comment that this is a democracy, and it is, and 18 people came to speak and 17 of them spoke against this. One person stood for it. That’s not really democracy. Okay? It’s really not. This is how your government works. I want you guys to pay attention to that, because this is actually how your government works.”

Sushi and Polos

The so-called homeless ordinances receive a second reading May 23. If the current divide holds, the proposals will soon be law.

“I wish I could say the words to convince council not to pass this ordinance,” Councilwoman Myers said on the night of the first reading, “but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that.”

Watching from a distance, Monk’s also weary of the odds—“I don’t think there is a lot of hope”—and is already wondering about the next, some-argue inevitable, phase.

“So, now it falls into the realm of ‘Is it legal?’” he said. “The city council can pass anything they want to, the question now is ‘Can it be enforced?’”

Under the bay bridge, a man sitting in a transplanted car seat enjoys and a sack lunch and ponders the possibilities of the ordinances.

“I’m a vet and I didn’t do nothing wrong, I’m trying to live,” he explains. “If they want to feed me and house me, put me in jail. I’ve lost everything now, so it doesn’t matter anymore. House me, feed me. I’m trying to do the best I can do. I’m sorry I can’t do better.”

Overhead is scrawled a message:  “You are a guest here. You sleep very soundly … Live and Let Live.”

Due to property-line specifics, the men under the bridge will not be subject to the city’s proposed ordinances. As Reynolds has pointed out to council, that property belongs to the Florida Department of Transportation not the city.

King thinks the city proposals are primarily aimed at homeless individuals such as the collection that lounges about Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza on Palafox.

“They’re like the most-wanted, the ones the city wants gone the most,” the advocate said. “They’re not clean-cut guys in polos eating sushi, so they don’t fit in downtown.”

WHAT: The final reading of ordinances prohibiting, among other things, “camping.”
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 23
WHERE: Pensacola City Hall, 222 W. Main St.