ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — Escambia County commissioners are still trying to figure out a way to help homelessness in the county with $4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

At the Committee of the Whole meeting last week, commissioners were introduced to a shelter dashboard that interim county administrator Wes Moreno said could be utilized by law enforcement, different agencies and the general public to be able to see how many beds are available in which shelters and total number of beds in each shelter.

“This is a neat tool, and I know the sheriff and state representative Salzman is extremely excited about this,” Moreno said.

Information technology director Bart Siders said the theory of the dashboard is that anyone in the community, or a sheriff’s deputy, from their truck could look on the dashboard and see where there are facilities available.

“It started out as a homeless dashboard, but the more that we have met with people, this could easily become a shelter dashboard that would have all of the shelters that we have available, with filters they can look at,” Siders said. “Bottom line, a sheriff’s deputy could highlight over a site and once we get the data from all of the sites, it could have a caption that would tell them who the shelter accepts or that they have to be alcohol or drug free. We also wanted to get some trends going for future usage, like how many beds are being used each night, how many are not being used.”

Siders said they met with several entities last week and told them he wants them to be involved.

“We know we can get it done, it’s just getting the data from each of the entities,” Siders said. “They will each get an email telling them to log in, put their data in, then it updates every three hours. We know of nine entities that are pretty active, but there are some churches that have some homeless shelters that we can add them to the dashboard. We are asking them to help us build this to what they really need it to be. We don’t know their business, but we are trying to help the sheriff’s deputies have a picture of where to go.”

Commissioner Lumon Mays said he is not interested in the sheriff’s department having the data, because “that is when they arrest people.”

“I like the direction that this is going in, but how are we making sure that we are not duplicating services?” Mays said. “I’ve probably been on this side of the fence my entire life. Isn’t there already a database of working with homelessness? Haven’t been there systems that have already been set up? I know we’ve looked at the counts and looked at the unmet needs. Is this a duplication of services or is this something new?”

Escambia County Emergency Manager Travis Tompkins said this dashboard shows awareness to the types of shelters the county has.

“What this dashboard instrumentally does, is show the beds available that we have in the community, but maybe, to an extent, the lack of beds we have, as well,” Tompkins said.

Mays went on to say that he would not vote to spend another dollar on another study or assessment.

“I know what homelessness is when I walk down Palafox or Brownsville,” Mays said. “So, if we are not expending a lot of resources and we are doing this in house, with no cost, then thumbs up. If we are spending dollars, for me, it’s thumbs down. I mean, we have studied homelessness since I have been on this board. It’s implementation, in my opinion. I don’t want this to be where we are just doing this for the sheriff’s department. Incarceration is not going to solve homelessness. Prevention and programs are going to help with homelessness.”

According to Moreno, ECSO Sheriff Chip Simmons and Rep. Michelle Salzman have been asking for this type of tool for a year and it hasn’t come to fruition.

“I think for Rep. Salzman, she is looking at this for data and information and for agencies that are willing to participate and provide the data and to see who participates in regard to funding,” Moreno said. “When they asked if we could do it, I knew we could. It has not cost us any money, other than staff time.”

Commissioner Doug Underhill said the sheriff’s office is the county’s primary tool for public safety.

“I definitely would not be able to participate in anything about that strange dialogue where the sheriff’s job is just about arresting and all about crime,” Underhill said. “The sheriff’s office is our primary tool for public safety. In the discussion that we had, I like the idea that it gives the sheriff’s deputies opportunities for de-escalation when the homeless population and some of their activities have a negative impact on our residents. It’s important that we remember that the reality is, most of the homeless population in Escambia County are not Escambians. They did not grow up here. The homeless populations tend to gravitate to communities that provide a lot of resources with limited expectations from those people for the services they receive.”

Underhill said Escambia County has been on that path for many years.

“You can easily get four to five hot meals a day, here in Escambia County,” Underhill said. “You can even get a free bus ride around to get them. We have been very generous, which is reflective to who we are as a population, but we are now seeing an increasing level of negative impact with the homeless community on the taxpaying citizen. We have to give our deputies tools to be able to defuse those situations. If we do not, then those situations will continue to escalate to the point where they are not reflective of who we are as people. I would hope that as we talk about how we utilize that money, that we talk about utilizing it in a way to decrease the negative impact of homeless conduct on the taxpaying citizen of Escambia County.”

When looking at a shelter dashboard, Mays said that is not where the crime is.

“I’m not interested in speaking with people who want to build a wall around Escambia County,” Mays said. “Those are ludicrous statements, in my opinion. If you follow the crime data, it is not in the shelters, it’s what’s happening in neighborhoods and tents. So, if you are looking at a dashboard, that’s not where the crime is going to be. You can sensationalize it and scare citizens, but that’s not where it is. It’s out on the streets. So, I’m not going to let someone describe a narrative that just doesn’t exist. If we are going to take a wholistic look, then we have to take a wholistic look at homelessness. If it’s about crime, you have to go where the crime is.”

Underhill said the county needs to move the homeless out of the streets and into the shelters, which this dashboard gives the tools to do for the sheriff’s office.

“This dashboard will allow our deputies to move the homeless population out of the streets and into these facilities,” Underhill said. “We absolutely need to move our homeless off of the street and into those environments. Those who choose not to live up to the standards of those environments, there should not be a place for them on the streets of Escambia County.”

Commission chairman Jeff Bergosh said he is getting a lot of calls and complaints about the homelessness issue.

“Citizens know that we have $4 million,” Bergosh said. “The city has moved forward with a lot of initiatives, some of which, I think are very good, some of which I think are not great and would never support. Meanwhile, we have the money, we have citizens and we have complaints. I want to help people that want help, but there’s about 30 percent of the homelessness population that either don’t want help and want to keep living the way they are. I don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on folks who don’t want help.”

With the $4 million that has not been touched yet, Bergosh said he wants to do something that is sustainable.

“We set something up and fund it with the expectation that we hand it off to a community partner so that it is sustainable,” Bergosh said.

Commissioner Robert Bender said there is another facet of homelessness that the board needs to think about, which is prevention.

“We have to think about early interventions,” Bender said. “We have to look at the data and see where we can help people, so they avoid going into that. I think that is just as important as the people that are on the street. If you don’t tackle both then it’s a reoccurring cycle. So, I think the dashboard is good.”

Bergosh said he wants to start distributing the money to different entities instead of waiting on a big purchase.

“I want the staff to bring a form to us on how entities can come to us for funding,” Bergosh said. “It has to be within the legal uses of this money. It’s not unlike what we do with our discretionary money.  It has to be an entity that is vetted, 501c3 licensed and someone that’s actually doing something that is making an impact so I can bring that entity before the board to give them funds from the $4 million. It sounds to me like we may not ever get to the point where we all agree on that one big thing we are going to spend $4 million on.”

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