For Bob, homelessness was not a choice. A Vietnam veteran, Bob had his own business, two houses and a brand new Corvette before he had a heart attack and lost it all.
“I came back from the hospital and the bank had taken away everything,” Bob said.
Now 61, Bob has lung cancer and is living in the woods in Pensacola with a black cat named Midnight. He has six more months of chemotherapy at the VA clinic, but he still smokes cigarettes. Bob is originally from Massachusetts, where most of his family lives, including his 28-year-old daughter. Her birthday is coming up. A pink and white birthday card lies on the floor of his tent.
“Grown men do cry,” Bob said as his eyes welled with tears.
Bob’s income is modest to say the least. With no mode of transportation, he has to take whatever he can get.
“I panhandle,” Bob said with his head hung low. “I might make about $10 a week.”
Bob also does odd jobs for businesses downtown. It’s a four-hour walk from his camp.
Steve, another homeless vet, lives in the woods by train tracks. An American flag dances in the wind next to a chain link fence while his dog, Jill, plays in the dirt. Steve was born in Pensacola and even owned a home here about 15 years ago, but once things took a turn for the worst, Steve had lost more than his house.
“I was engaged to be married to a little French girl from Montreal,” Steve said. “It was when I was on a plane to visit her that she had a brain aneurysm and died.”
Two months later, his elderly mother died of natural causes. While Steve was visiting his favorite aunt, she too passed away.
“I lost the three women I love most in this world,” Steve said.
Maybe it’s the strong will he learned from the military, but despite his situation, Steve is still charismatic and optimistic.
“I am what is commonly known as a survivor,” Steve said.
Steve and Bob are only a fraction of the growing homeless population.
“The number of new homeless people is growing exponentially,” said Brunie Emmanuel, executive director of EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless.
About 20 percent of the homeless population are veterans who need more than work, but real help. And sometimes, the help isn’t even enough.
“These are people who have experienced hell,” Emmanuel said. “Human beings aren’t made to kill each other. Some of these vets can’t live with themselves after what they have gone through. It’s hard for them to go through the steps and make appointments. These are very, very disturbed people, not just lazy people. They deserve some help.”
Help is exactly what the Coalition on the Homeless tries to do. The major contribution is through their U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) required surveys. ECOH spends 10 minutes with those willing to fill out the form. Once all of the surveys are manually entered into the database, ECOH can estimate the number of homeless in the area and pinpoint their needs.
“The homeless population has stayed around 800 for a number of years,” said Emmanuel. “But that number no where near reflects people who are in motels, doubled-up or tripled-up in households.”
That number does not reflect those without a home who refused to participate in the survey. For children, ECOH relies on homeless advocates to report when they think a student may be homeless. These advocates could be a bus driver, teacher or cafeteria worker. Right now, the estimated number of homeless children is 2,500 for both Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, which is a 30 to 40 percent rise from last year.
“That’s huge,” Emmanuel said.
Some of the homeless population have just recently lost their homes due to work lay-offs.
“The really hard part is to watch a family who has just lost their home,” Emmanuel said. “They’re free-falling and terrified.”
But helping the homeless isn’t a hopeless situation. While there may not be enough, there are emergency shelters and developmental programs devoted to anyone who seeks help.
Waterfront Rescue Mission provides a free substance abuse program where men and women can kick the habits that put them on the streets as well as free emergency shelters and transitional housing. Loaves and Fishes provides hot meals daily alongside their emergency shelter and a transitional housing program which helps families save money to purchase a house on their own. For those who need extra grocery money, Manna Food Pantry can help those who may be eating less due to cut hours at work or unexpected medical expenses. Whatever the case may be, there is help to rectify any situation.
WATERFRONT RESCUE MISSION
Many men and women are suffering from addictions that debilitate their lives. What they may not know is that there is effective help out there and it’s free. When you buy a lamp from one of the Waterfront Mission Bargain Centers, you’re donating to men’s and women’s shelters, recovery and developmental programs. In 2010, the Waterfront Mission served 225,000 meals, provided over 83,000 with nights of shelter and 9,500 hours of individual counseling.
“Our men’s recovery program had a 65 percent completion rate in 2009,” said Natalie Smith, developmental associate for the Waterfront Mission in an e-mail interview. “We also had over 230 graduates in 2010 from our programs.”
For those seeking help, you must be accepted into a recovery or developmental program.
“As in any recovery program, there are always those who do not complete the program or who are asked to leave,” Smith said. “In order to minimize these occurrences we have what we call intake coordinators. These individuals are trained to interview those who would like to enter our programs and do what they can to make sure the men and women accepted into the program are truly ready and willing to change.”
Change is exactly what James, a graduate of the recovery program, was looking for.
“My life before Waterfront Mission was about feeding my addiction,” James said. “The more dark things that came along the more I drank. Now that I have graduated from the program, it feels so good not to drink my breakfast.”
James was staying with different people every night—people he claimed were far worse than him. He made his decision to change once and for all one night after an argument with a roommate.
“I told him, ‘I’ve had enough of this’ and left,” James said. “I never saw him again, but I could almost thank him for arguing with me. I would never take a chance on going back.”
The recovery program differs from member to member. Each recovery is done case by case. Because there are a higher number of males in the program than females, males have a seven-month program and women have a nine-month program. Sadly, this is because there just isn’t enough room for the males.
After a male is accepted into the recovery program, he is moved to a dormitory set-up where he must attend chapel services, recovery courses and individual and group counsel sessions. Each man is given a job at one of the bargain centers. Although they do not earn a paycheck, they are learning job skills. After three months in the program, they are moved to New Hope Home in Gulf Breeze where they continue the rest of the program. After graduation, they have the opportunity to move on to the Men’s Career Developmental Program or CDP. In this program, they earn job training through the George Stone Technical Center, educational opportunities through Pensacola State College, Christian discipleship training, local church mentoring and job placement.
James is currently in the third phase. He already has an Associate’s Degree in computer technology and is hoping to go back to school and find good employment. The most important change in James’ life is his newfound relationship with God. Much of the counseling is non-denominational, yet still very spiritual.
“I used to spend all of my time doing what was wrong,” James said. “My new job is to serve God. It’s my number one focus.”
An important step to recovery is building strong relationships, which James found through his chaplain and other recovering addicts in the program. James calls them his brothers.
“We all rely on each other,” James said. “That’s what will keep you going.”
Women must also be accepted into the recovery program. Once they commit to the nine-month program, they are provided with addiction recovery, relapse prevention and Biblical discipleship. In the women’s CDP, women learn to create résumés, conduct a successful interview and run Microsoft Office programs. Women are also given the chance to enroll in local vocational schools and colleges. Waterfront Mission also helps men and women finish or start degrees and apply for Pell Grants.
All of the men’s and women’s programs are free to those who are accepted. However, the money needs to come from somewhere, and since the recession, there has been a decrease.
“About half of what the Mission needs to run all of our programs comes from our five bargain centers,” Smith said. “When the community donates items to these thrift stores or shops at these thrift stores, they are helping to support our programs and shelters. The other half of what the Mission needs comes from cash contributions, which the Mission has heavily relied upon since we opened in 1949. The Waterfront Mission has been blessed with loyal supporters over the years and they have continued to be faithful in their giving. However, the average gift has declined the last few years and we believe this is because of the recession.”
To feed 225,000 people, Waterfront Mission relies on cash and food donations. Although there has been a decline in cash, food donations work just as well.
“It costs on average $2.23 for one meal,” Smith said. “We are blessed to receive a large amount of food donations from all over the community. Ever’man Natural Foods, for example, is a huge supporter and donates food on a regular basis.”
If you’re lucky enough to find vacancy, Waterfront Mission does not require much to stay at one of their overnight shelters. All you need is a license and to pass a breathalyzer test to receive a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. On freezing or extreme weather nights, no one is turned away.
Right now, the Pensacola shelter has 65 beds in an 8,500 square foot building in downtown Pensacola, but Waterfront Mission is in the process of constructing a brand new, 32,000 square foot building at 350 W. Herman St, which will house 124 emergency shelter beds. There is already a 7,200 square foot building on the Herman Street property, which will be renovated into a Day Resource Center.
“In working with EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless and other service providers, we will provide a safe place for homeless men, women and children to come during the day for assistance,” Smith said. “Whether it’s finding a job, working on their GED, learning to read, getting medical treatment or receiving food and clothing, it will all be under one roof and managed by Waterfront Mission. No other day shelter like this currently exists in Pensacola.”
Although this new shelter calls for some celebration, it will only meet some of the needs of the area.
“It’s a great addition, really robust,” Emmanuel said. “But it’s not going to meet all of the needs.”
“The large increase in beds will help enable us to allocate beds for a variety of needs in our community including: respite beds, beds for veterans who are awaiting placement by the VA, beds for men in the first phase of our recovery program and homeless guests needing extended care,” Smith said.
LOAVES AND FISHES
Thomas Webber is a single father who had nowhere else to go when he went to Loaves and Fishes for help.
“It was either sleeping in my truck or in the shelter,” Webber said. “When you’re a father, you learn to swallow your pride real quick-like.”
Before Loaves and Fishes, Webber was living with the mother of his son while trying to work it out for the sake of his child, but she left the two of them. Webber claimed full custody of his son and moved in with a friend, which turned out to be an even more unstable environment.
“He was an alcoholic—always drinking and cussing,” Webber said. “One night he kicked us out, and that’s when I turned to Loaves and Fishes.”
Webber and his son lived in the shelter for a month before joining the Transitional Housing Program. Since then, Webber found a job at Goodwill and has provided a safe home for his son.
To meet the requirements of the program, Webber must attend classes on various life skills such as parenting and budgeting.
“I knew a lot of the material already, but every little bit helps,” Webber said.
Soon, Webber and his son will be moving into their very own house through the Habitat for Humanity program. After 200 hours of labor and volunteering, Webber can own a home for his son. The monthly payments will only be $450 a month.
“Loaves and Fishes was a blessing,” Webber said. “Everyone I met in the program has been awesome.”
The Transitional Housing Program (THP) provides homeless families a furnished home and supportive services for a period of up to two years. Those wishing to join the THP must be a legally married man or woman or a single parent, custodial parent of a minor child, pregnant female or homeless under the HUD standards. In the program, families are given intensive social work including goal and financial planning, employment skills, educational opportunities and counseling. The families are also given help with medical care, transportation and clothing vouchers. A representative chosen by the church visits and ministers the family.
“As the family transitions through the THP, they are given criteria, including a two-year contract that spells out certain requirements such as participation in a client’s savings plan, employment or educational requirements and involvement in parenting and life skills,” said Kelli Thomas, who works with Loaves and Fishes, in an e-mail interview. “The families set goals and have individual client service plans that are set up at the initial assessment. During the 24-month period, a three-month evaluation is done to see if the family is making progress. If the family decides that the program is not a good fit for them, or if they do not want to fulfill the program’s design, they are allowed to exit the program.”
Churches contribute $150-$200 a month to help pay for expenses such as food, utilities, staff, maintenance, office expenses, taxes and insurance. HUD also provides grants to Loaves and Fishes such as the HUD Supportive Housing Grant. Each dollar must be matched by a percentage of cash from the ministry. Donations are essential in meeting this quota.
The THP has had a tremendous success rate.
“Since 2006, approximately 92 percent of all families exiting the program have moved into permanent housing,” Thomas said. “We have seen families transition from homelessness to home ownership. We have had many households that were able to complete educational programs and improve their employability skills and income. In addition, many people have been able to eradicate debt and improve credit scores that have made it near impossible to attain housing and transportation.”
Loaves and Fishes also serves hot meals daily. The soup kitchen gives out approximately 4,600 meals a month. Anyone in need is welcome to receive a meal. Breakfast is served at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, lunch is served Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and dinner is served at 5 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. This doesn’t include the lunch and dinner that is served in the emergency shelter seven days a week.
The community plays a big part in feeding those in need. Local businesses and individuals donate food, while Loaves and Fishes volunteers pick up donations and help prepare and serve meals.
“Loaves and Fishes spends approximately $2,000 per month in food costs,” Thomas said. “These funds purchase food that is used in conjunction with food donations made by local restaurants, churches, individuals and organizations in the community. Fortunately, we have not experienced a time when there were not enough donations.”
The emergency family shelter offers much more than a bed. Ten families can stay in the shelter for up to three weeks. During that time, parenting classes, life skills classes, counseling, clothing vouchers, haircuts, diapers, personal hygiene items, transportation for house-hunting, and referrals for supporting agencies including the THP are offered. A full-time case worker is on hand to help families get the support or encouragement they need.
MANNA FOOD PANTRY
For those who have a house and job, but may be running low on funds due to unexpected medical bills or job lay-offs, you can turn to Manna Food Pantry to help fill your fridge. Manna serves more than 30,000 people in Northwest Florida through its eight distribution sites in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties. Last year, Manna distributed 700,000 pounds of food; 95 percent of that distribution was donated from the community.
“We help working class families, sometimes referred to as the working poor,” said Tim Evans, executive director of Manna Food Pantry. “We’ve seen a significant rise since 2008. Some looking for help have jobs that were cut from five days a week to just two. Some have lost their jobs entirely.”
Manna has an Emergency Food Program and a Monthly Service Program. About 75 percent of people who receive help from the Emergency Food Program are referred to Manna while they wait to receive food stamps. Even those who do not receive food stamps may be eligible if they are able to prove they need help, whether it is a notice of termination or decrease in income.
Those who have already used up their food stamps, lost their food stamps, have failed to keep their food stamp appointments, are on sanction for failure to participate in family transitions programs or intentionally provide fraudulent information while trying to seek help are not eligible. Manna will even help those who qualify apply for state help.
Participants in the Monthly Service Program are generally referred by the Council on Aging, a home health agency, or Escambia AIDS Services and Education. Those in the program are reviewed semi-annually by Manna to verify their need.
“General provision is about five to seven days of food for everyone in the family based on the USDA nutritional guidelines,” Evans said. “We could just give Ramen noodles. You wouldn’t be hungry, but it’s not nutritional. We try to supply balanced, healthy meals.”
Instead of heading to your local soup kitchen for a meal, Manna provides groceries to those in need so that you can continue your daily routine and sit down with your family for a well-balanced meal. Luckily, Manna has been able to meet the needs of families even while the demand was rising.
“Everybody needs to eat,” Evans said.
HOW TO HELP
Giving your time and money to charities and organizations devoted to helping the homeless is time and money well spent. Monetary donations are of course in high demand, but whatever is given is greatly appreciated.
“We rely on monetary donations to help us cover the large variety of services we provide,” Smith said of the Waterfront Mission.
“However, gifts-in-kind are always needed. Things like food, clothing and toiletries are items we distribute everyday at all of our locations. Donations of household goods such as furniture, appliances, clothing, books, etc. are items that can be donated to our bargain centers, and this is also a way of helping the Mission pay for out programs.”
“Money is the primary need at this time,” Thomas said of Loaves and Fishes. “We do need products not covered by food stamps such as garbage bags, diapers (sizes 4 and 5) and toiletries. Prayers for our families, staff and mentors for the families are essential.”
Some may want to give money directly to the homeless, but it’s debatable whether or not the money will actually help that person.
“On a personal level, I don’t like panhandling,” Emmanuel said. “I don’t think it does any good for that person. It’s a survival tactic.”
The panhandling ordinance in Escambia County is a sensitive subject for the homeless. The ordinance doesn’t say that panhandling is illegal; instead, it sets restrictions.
Under the ordinance, one cannot panhandle before sunrise or after sunset, at a bus stop or within 20 feet of an ATM or bank entrance. An officer must catch someone receiving money before they are arrested.
“Holding a sign is not illegal,” said Captain Dale Tharp. “The ordinance is for safety issues all around. Sheriffs aren’t trying to focus on a specific group.”
One agreement between those who oppose and support the ordinance is that helping the homeless should be a priority.
“It costs us hundreds of dollars to arrest, feed and house the homeless,” Emmanuel said. “Instead, we should be paying caseworkers to help the homeless. We’d get a much better return on the dollar. I believe David Morgan is doing what he thinks is best, I just don’t think it will work.”
Captain Tharp’s beliefs aren’t far off.
“The money Pensacola is giving to the panhandlers is money they could contribute to a local charity that helps the homeless,” Tharp said. “It would be wonderful if they all had a place to go.”
For those wanting to volunteer time to help the homeless, the Streets and Lanes Ministry can be good start. Every week, Streets and Lanes Ministry visits the homeless in their camps to bring food, blankets, sleeping bags, Bibles and whatever else they might need.
Those who have received help from Streets and Lanes Ministry have been inspired to help their own cause.
Adam, a faithful volunteer, is a prime example. Growing up in foster care, Adam never had much of a home, but he refuses to back down to homelessness. About six years ago, he made contact with his biological mother and has been taking care of her. Even with few resources, Adam wants to give back.
“I’m going to keep trying to get a job and get off these streets,” Adam said. “Everything is in my power.”