by T. Cummings
The Pensacola City Council hosted a talk on homelessness on March 12 led by homelessness expert and former White House Fellow Dr. Robert Marbut.
The event, held in the City Council chamber, was attended by about 100 people, including the Mayor and several City Council members. Marbut explained his approach to homelessness and then answered questions from the community.
“Homelessness is complex,” Marbut said. “But it is not complicated.”
The complexities of homelessness are something that Marbut has been involved with for over three decades. In 2007, Marbut conducted a nationwide survey of homeless services, visiting over 200 facilities in 12 states and the District of Columbia. He developed an approach to homeless services based on the best practices he observed. Since then, he has helped develop programs to reduce homelessness in dozens of communities across the country.
Marbut criticized what he sees as equally flawed extremes in homeless services, advocating that communities adopt a balanced, holistic approach instead.
“Criminalization,” which Marbut calls the right-wing approach, “absolutely does not work,” he said. But neither does a “valet-service” mentality that tries to treat homelessness through public feedings and other strategies which Marbut characterized as “enabling.”
Marbut suggested organizing the city’s many homeless services into a single system. This would ideally involve a centrally located campus where these services would be able to work with one another to provide housing, food and other services to homeless individuals while involving them in a comprehensive program designed to get them off the streets for good.
These suggestions come in the wake of a public controversy surrounding a series of ordinances passed last year, which effectively criminalized homelessness by banning things like panhandling, camping on public property and grooming and sleeping in public restrooms. The most controversial ordinance, which made it a crime to sleep with a blanket on city property, was recently reversed following a broad public outcry.
While Marbut supports ordinances that encourage the homeless population to participate in well-designed programs, he believes that criminalization is not the answer.
“The only people in the homeless world that should go to jail are violent people,” he said. “And that’s just such a small percent, like 1-2 percent.”
Marbut also stressed that ordinances are actually harmful if the city doesn’t simultaneously develop a strong support system for the homeless.
“If you’re not going to fix the capacity, you might as well throw the ordinance out,” he said, sparking applause from some of the attendees.
But having met with the mayor and several members of the City Council, Marbut underlined the importance of working together. He said that regardless of past mistakes, “we’ve got to come as we all are now. If you blame it on other people, you’re just deciding not to deal with it.”
City Council President Jewel Cannada-Wynn, speaking after the event, agreed with this advice.
“There are solutions, but we have to do it as a community. We must look past our individual perspectives,” she said.
Cannada-Wynn said that the city is currently awaiting a report from a newly-initiated task force that will investigate the specific needs and obstacles that the Pensacola homeless community faces and give suggestions on how the city should respond.
“I encourage everyone to be open to offering their services and their money,” she said. “This must be a community effort.”