Pensacola, Florida
Sunday August 18th 2019

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Tackling Homelessness, Again

By Jeremy Morrison

The city of Pensacola and Escambia County are about to begin working together to address the issues of homelessness and the needs of the homeless community in the area. No one’s sure exactly what that’s going to look like yet.

“We don’t have an idea at this particular time,” Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said recently. “I think it’s essential that we begin to discuss before we even get to the point of do we have a concept and what would be the concept and how would it work.”

To that end, the city and county will host a homeless summit Friday, April 5, with relevant community organizations. It’s a chance to workshop possible ways local government could help address homelessness.

“I think we want to find out where is it we’re going,” Robinson noted when announcing the summit.

A collective of community organizations has been invited to the summit, ranging from the scrappy-grassroots variety to more established nonprofits. A couple of days before the summit, some of the organizations are meeting for a pre-summit summit.

“I said, ‘Maybe we need to get together and cuss each other out, so we don’t do it in front of the city and county officials,’” said Michael Kimberl, director of the Alfred Washburn Center. “So at least we get our lines straight.”

Kimberl can’t say that he’s entirely optimistic about the city-county engagement.

“I’m always leery when government gets involved,” he said.

John Johnson, executive director for Opening Doors, is also a bit skeptical, “I don’t think the government should lead this charge. I think they should play a supporting role.”

However, he’s glad local government is initiating a conversation. Johnson said, “For the city and the county to want to do something, we need to jump on this and take advantage of it.”

En Route to the Summit
It’s still early, and Kimberl has been up a while already, directing dump trucks working on the driveway at Sean’s Outpost, an outdoor area for homeless people to pitch camp. Before taking a position with the Alfred Washburn Center, which provides services like food and clothes, Kimberl was a homeless advocate involved in a years-long legal battle with Escambia County over the operation of Sean’s Outpost.

He eventually won that legal fight with the county and currently hosts between 15 and 20 people at the campground.

“It’s been pretty dadgum amazing,” Kimberl reflected. “The pieces are all starting to fall into place.”

Since winning the right to remain on the property, Sean’s Outpost has had a run of good luck, with individuals and organizations offering assistance in its mission. Volunteers from Ascend Performance Materials have helped do work on the property, which needed features like a privacy fence and vegetation screen as part of its legal settlement.

Then, recently, a single individual ponied up for the mandated driveway—“I lost it; it just blew me away”—to the tune of $30,000.

“And he wants to remain anonymous, so I can’t even say who this badass is,” Kimberl laughed. “He was basically like, ‘This is between me and the Lord,’ and I was like, ‘All right, it works for me, but I don’t mind singing your praises from the mountaintop.’”

In addition to his work in service to the area’s homeless community, Kimberl is also a drummer with a new band called Pauper’s Grave. The band name is a wink-and-elbow dig at a downtown restauranteur nicknamed the “Prince of Palafox” who once championed municipal efforts to enact ordinances against panhandling, but the moniker also ironically belies a darker aspect of the advocate’s work—law enforcement sometimes calls upon him to identify bodies and verify that they were indeed homeless.

Kimberl is a frontline, in-the-trenches homeless advocate. He’s in the streets, in the parks, in the woods with sack lunches for everyone. He doesn’t just help people; he knows their names; he becomes their friend.

But in recent years, Kimberl has also earned a place in the virtual Rolodexes of public officials, having become considered somewhat of a subject-matter expert on homelessness. Funny, considering he’s been involved in multiple lawsuits against both the city and county.

As Pensacola and Escambia prepare to engage community organizations serving the homeless community, Mayor Robinson met with Kimberl. The activist told the mayor he wasn’t keen on the concept of a large facility to house homeless people.

“Since that’s still the mantra that’s being chanted, I’m assuming it didn’t carry a lot of weight,” Kimberl said.

While Mayor Robinson has said that the city and county have yet to decide how best to inject themselves into the equation, one of the concepts that has been suggested is a facility to serve as a come-as-you-are shelter, which does not require sobriety, as well as a venue for organizations that provide services to the homeless community.

Kimberl points to dystopian examples of such facilities, like Safe Harbor in Pinellas County where the sheriff’s office runs a homeless shelter. He said, “You basically get a yoga mat on a concrete floor inside a giant facility.”

The one-stop-shop, come-as-you-are facility is a core tenant of consultant Robert Marbut’s one-size-fits-all prescription for homelessness. He’s behind Safe Harbor and has peddled such facilities to communities from Chico, Calif., to San Antonio, Texas, to Daytona Beach, Fla. In 2014, he delivered a $30,000 report for Pensacola which suggested a such a center.

“I imagine they’ve dusted that puppy off,” Kimberl quipped, explaining that a larger facility could be problematic when dealing with populations of individuals often dealing with substance abuse or mental illness issues … “and then a mother with smaller children walks in?”

Johnson also feels a large facility may not be the best way to go—“No more than 10 units. Ten is as high as I would go.”

“It’s an issue that nationally has not had success,” he said. “When you congregate a large population, you end up inviting and doing more harm than good.”

The Open Doors (formerly EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless) director said he felt individual units of affordable housing stock spread out over the county would be optimal.

“Scattershot housing is and has been a success for the past 20 years,” he said.

Matthew Knee, executive director of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, Inc., expressed a similar sentiment.

“My answer is always affordable housing, workforce housing,” he said. “There’s a large gap between what a family needs and what a family can afford.”

Many of the people Catholic Charities works with, people clinging to the edge, would likely fare better in a non-facility environment.

“They don’t want people to know they’re homeless,” Knee said. “I mean, they’re still going to a job, even though they’re sleeping in the car with their kids. That’s a lot of who we’re helping.”

Also on the summit invite list is Pensacola attorney Jim Reeves, who is a critic of the large facility concept. He told Inweekly, “You’ve got a great amount of liability with that, all sorts of things that could cause all sorts of trouble.”

Reeves has a nonprofit, AMR Pensacola, Inc., that was founded in the early 1990s and owns around 200 units of affordable housing.

“Our whole thing was, if you build a whole bunch of affordable housing all in one place, all you’ve created is a ghetto,” Reeves explained.

The attorney also has some ideas on how local government can best participate in this issue.

“We are spending lots of money in 14 different directions, but there’s no central direction,” Reeves said. “In my mind’s eye, Pensacola needs kind of a homeless czar, if you would, that coordinates all of the services.”

Mayor Robinson has indicated he’s interested in hearing all such input from invested parties at the summit. He’s also expressed concern that there won’t be enough buy-in among the central players.

“If we get there and everyone says, ‘This is a horrible idea. We don’t want to do it. We can’t connect to it,’ then we’ll probably step back,” the mayor said. “But then where does that put us? That puts us right back with nothing.”

What’s Next?
Robinson’s predecessor, Ashton Hayward, made three attempts to eliminate panhandling in downtown Pensacola through ordinances without addressing homelessness. The laws were eventually repealed due to public pressure or First Amendment lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

His infamous “No Blanket” ordinance garnered widespread condemnation after an ice storm in January 2014. The city council deleted the law from the books after the mayor said he prayed on the matter and changed his mind about it.

The ACLU challenged the 2017 attempt to outlaw panhandling by creating a special district in downtown. Mayor Hayward hired the Atlanta-based Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore law firm to represent the city at a rate of $1,740 an hour. The ACLU didn’t back down. A month after passing the ordinance, the city council voted to repeal it.

Mayor Robinson wants to deal with homelessness first but has acknowledged that once the city handles that issue, he would then proceed to address panhandling. It’s hoped that such efforts with dull any legal challenges to panhandling ordinances.

This time, though, Mayor Robinson has floated a new approach.

“The challenge is, fining the panhandler doesn’t really change anything, but, I mean, do we look at fining the giver?” Robinson has said.

The mayor has suggested that perhaps the city treat people giving from the roadway like they are conducting business, which is illegal.

“That is a business,” Robinson explained the rationale. “You are giving somebody something; you’re getting something. They’re basically selling you your guilt, and you’re assuaging your guilt by giving a dollar. One way or the other, you end up giving. How you end up giving, it is still goods and services.”

Benjamin Stevenson, an attorney with the ACLU office, sounded almost intrigued. The strategy was at least more creative than past city efforts, which were textbook duds, legally speaking.

“You know, the city has a new attorney, and I expect Susan Woolf will be a little bit more nimble,” Stevenson said.

While the ACLU attorney said he’s glad to see the city and county addressing homelessness, he isn’t sure how such efforts relate to the issue of panhandling. Stevenson is familiar with the Pottinger Agreement—the decades-old law just repealed in February that kept municipalities from enacting punitive laws against the homeless community for, basically, living outside—but he isn’t quite sure how that concept relates to panhandling, which is a legally-established form of protected speech.

“It’s not abundantly clear how providing services for homeless men and women legally insulate the city from a First Amendment challenge against a panhandling prohibition,” Stevenson said.

But this is a conversation for another day.

“I told you already,” Robinson said during a late-March press conference, “that we’re not going to discuss where we’re going with panhandling until we figure out what we’re going to do about homelessness.”