Now that officials and attorneys have poured countless hours into stabilizing much of the city’s homeless population with established campgrounds, shelters or temporary housing, those getting back on their feet need a friend, according to a local attorney.
Homeless advocate Melissa Johnson is starting a mentor-like program with Fearless Communities Inc. and Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola that matches volunteers with someone who is either living or coming out of homelessness to check on them, drive them to appointments , encourage sobriety or hold it accountable.
“I’m not asking anyone to do anything outside of their studies, some of them just need friends,” Johnson said.
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For example, a 74-year-old man has just been placed in a rented apartment, but he cannot cook and could use someone to teach him or bring him easy-to-manage meals. Another person is due to be placed soon but needs reminders to do things like pay their bills.
“This will help me and my team do what we can for the people on the street,” Johnson said. “If the community would help us, we could do so much more.”
Pensacola’s homelessness problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic as the stock of available housing has dwindled and the average rent has risen to $1,600 a month.
The city spent more than a year finding solutions to the growing homeless camp under the Interstate 110 bridge, until the camp closed in January when crowds there dispersed, were placed in shelters, or headed to alternative campgrounds or shelters.
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Johnson now operates a new camp on West Blount Street in the former Pathways for Change building, where 35 people participate in a program that directs them to housing, care, labor or other resources they need.
Opening Doors of Northwest Florida executive director John Johnson, who also directs the Northwest Florida Homelessness Reduction Task Force, said programs like mentoring that engage the community with homelessness can be of great help to agencies like his.
“Most programs, especially this one at Opening Doors, are crisis management, so we’re like the emergency room, where we assess trauma and apply a band-aid or surgery to bridge an immediate need,” he said. “The good thing about mentorship is that it’s volunteers who go through training and agree to screen the person maybe once or twice a month and often it helps when people have positive support, their positive maintain attitude and keep it stable.”
Terri Merrick of the Pensacola Dream Center has had a similar mentorship program for the Women’s Crisis Center since 2017. They mainly deal with clients who are victims of abuse, victims of human trafficking, single mothers or in unsafe situations. When a client comes to them, they agree to go through a program where they work with a volunteer coach who acts as a mentor.
Merrick said the mentoring relationship has made a huge difference in the outcomes of women who have lived in such a state of trauma for so long that they have no plan for the future.
“If a crisis happens at 9 p.m., who do you call?” asked Merrick rhetorically. “Most people have at least one or two people, but these people don’t have anyone … but once they have this coach, they have a person.”
John Johnson said that although the homelessness problem is less visible now that the I-110 camp has closed, the problem has not gone away. Advocates are still busy finding those living on the streets or in unstable shelters where to go.
“We are still able to house people and while there are still many people who need help, we are making some progress,” he said.
Melissa Johnson said volunteers would need to commit to regular contact for at least a few months, but they can determine what level of interaction they are most comfortable with.
She said she also accepts donations in kind, such as food, bottled water and camping gear for the camp, which can be dropped off locally at 1551 W. Blount St.
Anyone wishing to volunteer can contact Melissa Johnson at 850-341-0730.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-480-6979.