Pensacola investing in 'realistic' solution to people living and dying on the street

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It’s hard to imagine why someone would “choose” to live on the streets.

Knowing that many Pensacola organizations and nonprofits offer shelter, feeding programs, drug and alcohol recovery programs, mental health treatment programs, job placement programs and numerous other resources, it’s easy to look at folks wasting away the day on downtown park benches and think, “I guess these people don’t want help.”

But after working roughly 28 years with people living in homelessness, Jon DeCarmine understands the many barriers that push people away when they do go looking for help.

Imagine going to a homeless shelter and being told you can have a meal and a bed, but you must be housed separately from your spouse. And there is an entry fee to get in. And your dog isn’t allowed. And you must pass a breathalyzer test every time you leave and reenter the building. And you must mop the floor and wash the dishes to earn your meal. And you must show up for worship services. And you must be in bed by 9 p.m. and out of bed by 5 a.m. And you must sleep next to 100 strangers.

And even if you do meet all those criteria, you’ll have a bed for the night but be no closer to a bed of your own.

“There is a very clear relationship between the quality of shelters and unsheltered homelessness,” DeCarmine told a CivicCon crowd at First United Methodist Church on Monday. “When we see unsheltered homelessness, that typically has popped up because one of a handful of things have happened: One, those people have been rejected by the shelter – they have been told they’re not welcome – or they’ve rejected the shelter. They’ve said I don’t feel like I’m treated respectfully there. I don’t feel like I can hold on to my dignity there.”

Homeless resources: Clinic with outreach program and shelter for homeless coming to Pensacola

DeCarmine is the executive director of the Gainesville low-barrier shelter the Grace Marketplace. At a CivicCon event Monday at he spoke about many of the myths surrounding homelessness and why low-barrier shelters are a critical and effective method of helping get people housing.

“Low-barrier services ask that we stop designing programs around how we wish people will behave, and instead we develop practical responses to what’s actually happening and what’s right here in front of us,” DeCarmine said.

He added, “High barrier shelters, those quite simply put up barriers that prevent people from getting the help that they need. When shelters have entry requirements demanding sobriety or income or no mental health problems, they’re effectively telling people that they don’t deserve help until they’ve solved all of their problems on their own.”

Homelessness 101

Annual counts conducted by local service providers have tallied about 1,200 homeless people living in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, about 450 of those living in shelters and transitional housing, and another 750 who are unsheltered. However, over the course of the year, local service providers are serving about 8,000 people.

DeCarmine said the community has less than 500 total shelter beds, meaning demand is far outpacing supply.

He refuted the popular notion that homeless people are drawn to the Florida because of warm weather and welcoming policies, noting, “Very often we find that the vast majority of people in a community lived and worked in that community before becoming homeless.”

DeCarmine said data from thousands of homeless shelters around the country indicate there are three broad groups of people who use shelters. About 80% are “transitionally” homeless, meaning they lost their housing due to a crisis like a lost job, a health emergency or a bad break-up.

Related: CivicCon live: How to get past the myths of homelessness and get to solutions

Those folks come in, use the services, get back on their feet and “we never see them again,” DeCarmine said.

Another 10% experience “episodic” homelessness, meaning they cycle in and out of the streets. The remaining 10% are chronically homeless, meaning they spend long stretches of time − often a year or more − without housing.

“These are the folks who really probably meet your most stereotypical definition of homelessness,” DeCarmine said of the chronically homeless population. “This is the guy who’s out on the street for a long time, most likely with some mental health problems or problems with drugs or alcohol.”

He said in Pensacola about 21-22% of the homeless population falls into the “chronic” category − 234 people in 2023.

“When you consider that these folks are homeless for the entire year when everybody else is moving in and out of homelessness, they make up less than 5% of the total number of people served in any kind of homeless service setting for the year,” DeCarmine said. “But the problem is those 5% of people, that’s 100% of our public perception of homelessness.”

The two paths of homelessness

DeCarmine said most people experiencing homelessness are everyday folks: convenience store clerks and construction workers. He said it’s not drugs or alcohol that causes homelessness − plenty of people who abuse substances have houses − anymore than it is mental health or poverty or any other common scapegoat.

It’s an affordability problem.

“If you’ve got a person working a full-time, minimum-wage job they’re taking home $1,600 a month and your average rent in Pensacola is $1,515 a month, you’re going to see homelessness,” DeCarmine said.

He said it’s often the most vulnerable people who can’t avail themselves of the resources available in the community because they don’t have documents and ID, or they can’t navigate the complex web of social services.

“People without housing are generally on one of two paths. When people first become homeless, they’re on that first path. They’re doing everything they can to get out of homelessness, as quickly as possible. They’re doing everything, talking to every agency, reaching out to every friend, applying for every job.”

Jon DeCarmine, founder of Gainesville’s Grace Marketplace, a low-barrier shelter and one-stop location for services aimed at ending homelessness, shares his thoughts on the topic during a CivicCon event in Pensacola on Monday, May 13, 2024.

He continued, “But after a while, if those services aren’t available or those services aren’t working, or they’re not allowed to access those services, they start to give up. … if all of that has failed. They’re going to try and survive, and they’re going to try to get better at being homeless.”

DeCarmine said when his organization asked people if they wanted to be homeless, 80% said “No” and 20% said “Yes.” When they changed the question to “If housing was available to you that was affordable and met your needs, would you be interested in moving into that house?” 95% of people say yes.

Applying that ratio to Pensacola, DeCarmine said, “So that leaves maybe 60 people in town who would reject housing if it was offered to them and more than 1,000 who would not. I want to make sure that when we’re talking about solving homelessness in the community, we’re not only talking about those 60 people to give us an excuse not to help those thousands of other people.”

The benefits of a low-barrier shelter

Grace Marketplace is a low barrier shelter, and according to DeCarmine its services are available to anyone who is “homeless and breathing,” as long as they can use the bathroom on their own, get around the facility on their own and are willing to work on a housing plan to the best of their ability.

“That doesn’t mean that there are no rules, that anything goes in the shelter. It simply means that we’re making it easy to access,” DeCarmine said.

“Guests” at Grace must respect the rights, peace and property of everybody else. There can be no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, no gambling, no sex, and no alcohol on campus.

However, DeCarmine added, “You can show up with beer on your breath. You can show up intoxicated. Your ability to stay there is dependent on your behavior once you’re there, not your behavior earlier in the day, not your behavior earlier in the year.”

The organization leaves case management and social service to the organizations that are best suited for the work and focuses its efforts on getting people into homes.

“The shelter itself, the focus is on crisis response, on maintaining a safe and welcoming environment, providing basic needs enough to keep people alive while we work to get them back into housing,” DeCarmine said. “For the most part, everything else that we do is done by other providers. Anybody that can do something that we do better than us, we’re going to ask them to come in.”

DeCarmine said for every 100 people placed in housing, 86 of them would still be housed a year later.

There’s a benefit to the individuals and to the public, who unknowingly foots the bill for when homeless people go to jail, go to court and go to the emergency room.

“We’re spending $40,000 a year for folks just to do nothing,” he said. “We can move people into permanent supportive housing for about $25,000 a year per person, saving the community $15,000 a year.”

Right-sizing a solution for Pensacola

Mayor D.C. Reeves has contracted DeCarmine to create a report on what the city of Pensacola could realistically afford and implement as a shelter solution.

Grace Marketplace has a 23-acre campus and an annual budget of about $4.6 million, but it was launched in 2014 with just $380,000.

“There was a small program that got started and then had the opportunity to succeed,” DeCarmine said.

Pensacola has a little over $1.2 million in federal funding to invest in addressing homelessness, and Escambia County has approximately $4 million.

“What I wanted to do is before it was time to meet with the county, whether there is state or federal funding … private, whatever the funding sources may be, I don’t feel like it would be prudent for the city to knock on any doors until we understand what the cost is,” Reeves said during remarks at CivicCon. “So Jon, fortunately, with all his experience not just in Gainesville but around the country working on this, our focus is to understand what size makes sense for us based on our unique characteristics and what we think the cost would be.”

Reeves and Carmine said they expect the turnaround for the report to be quick and the solutions it produces to be realistic and sustainable, if they can find the consensus and the public will to get them done.

“Nobody gets better on the street or in a shelter,” DeCarmine said. “Whether you think of homelessness as a complex social issue driven by rising rents and inequality or you’re just sick and tired of seeing homeless people on the street, we have a shared goal. None of us want to see other human beings living and dying on the streets.”

DeCarmine’s presentation was part of CivicCon, a partnership of the News Journal and the Center for Civic Engagement to help empower citizens to better their communities through smart planning and civic conversation. More information about CivicCon, as well as stories and videos featuring previous speakers, is available at pnj.com/civiccon.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: CivicCon Pensacola homeless solution Jon DeCarmine Grace Marketplace