You can buy drugs there, hire a prostitute or even catch the homeless sleeping on the children’s slide in the playground.
These aren’t the streets of New York City. This is Brentwood Park off of North Palafox Street and just south of Brent Lane. It is across the six-lane road from Brentwood Elementary Magnet School of Communication and Technology and next to the Brentwood Assembly of God.
The county park, which takes up nearly an entire block, has plenty of tall trees, basketball courts, walking trails, and relatively new playground equipment. Parents have been reluctant to bring their children to the playground.
Unfortunately, Brentwood Park is also near the exit ramps of Interstate I-110 and several busy intersections where panhandlers beg for loose change on a regular basis. They often wander over to the park to sleep or hang out.
About 60 Brentwood residents and concerned citizens attended the town hall meeting called by District 3 Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May to brainstorm ideas to clean up and take control of their neighborhood park, which has existed for more than six decades. Also in attendance were Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown, Parks and Recreation Director Michael Rhodes, other county staff and Escambia County Chief Deputy Eric Haines.
Over the past year, the county has increased lighting and removed picnic tables and benches to make it a less friendly place to loiter. Law enforcement has also increased its patrols of the area. However, many community members said more attention needs to be given to the park and surrounding streets, which they said fill with discarded trash.
“Safety is of the utmost importance,” said Rhodes, who ensured the county could do more cleanup. “We want residents to be able to take their kids to the park and play in a comfortable setting.”
Residents complained Brentwood Park attracts the homeless because of nearby services offered, such as the St. Vincent de Paul’s Alfred-Washburn Center at 31 Murphy Lane near the Florida Department of Children and Families. The Alfred-Washburn Center serves the homeless and poor free of charge. The non-profit facility provides food, showers, laundry facilities, clothing and identification cards for the homeless.
Other area churches also serve the homeless in the area. Some at the town hall meeting suggested moving the Alfred-Washburn Center where the homeless congregate.
But Ron Johnson, the center’s director, argued that most of the homeless who go to the Alfred-Washburn Center for brown bag lunches don’t head directly to Brentwood Park.
“The majority of homeless are not causing your problem,” said Johnson, who nevertheless promised he would speak to the homeless about the community’s concerns and steer them away from the nearby park, so the swings and slides can be used by children.
Others attending the meeting rushed to defend the homeless population in the area.
Pat Smith said she and her husband were homeless briefly and ended up staying at a Salvation Army shelter. She remembered eating beans out of a can.
“My husband finally got work, and we finally got a house,” she said. “We never had to live like that. It opened my eyes. I hope I can reach my hand out to help someone else.”
Nancy Liccardo, who has lived near Brentwood Park for 40 years, said she has seen homeless people loiter there and urinate in public. It makes the environment “scary,” she said.
“Most choose to live the way they live,” said Liccardo, whose husband, Pat, heads the neighborhood watch group. “We would like to have the park back for our children and the walking path for our elderly. Now you find needles. You find drugs. There’s a fine line between loitering and just enjoying the park.”
The Liccardos recalled seeing Commissioner May being approached to buy drugs when he visited Brentwood Park to survey the issues.
Chief Deputy Haines and May both encouraged people living in the community to police the park. They suggested area residents take photographs or video. May liked the ideas of the county installing cameras in the area to record activity and using volunteer park rangers with the authority to patrol Brentwood Park.
“We have to be creative,” May said.
Haines said the sheriff’s office does receive “anonymous” tips. However, deputies need the name of the caller and more details, such as a description of people breaking the law and what they are doing. Haines said only one arrest has been made at the park this year for lewd and lascivious behavior.
“We can’t move people because they are vagrants, lazy or don’t pay taxes,” Haines said. “As long as they don’t break laws, there is nothing we can do. But if you tell me there are two people selling drugs, I can do something about that.”
Others suggested building one-room houses for the homeless. Reggie White is trying to find county-owned land to build 93-units geared toward those without any place to stay.
“We just need help from the county government to get some red tape out of the way,” White said.
Rev. Larry Forney said his church, Faith International Ministries, has about six acres that could easily be used as a gathering place, instead of the park. He offered counseling services as well.
May said the county would employ many of the ideas to allow the community to enjoy its park once again.
“We know what the neighborhood once was,” May said. “We will go back and formulate what we believe is a plan of attack.”