ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — Several allegations were made against Maxwell-Respite Center director Melissa Johnson at the Escambia County Board of Commissioners meeting last Thursday, calling for her removal from the position because of misallocation of funds and mistreatment of the homeless.
Volunteer Candy Alcott was the first to speak, saying that it was going to be the most important three minutes of her life. She went on to talk about the conditions of the camp she volunteered at for four months.
“Melissa Marie Johnson misled me, lied to me and is pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes in Pensacola,” Alcott said. “I was in camp, boots on the ground, for four months. 24/7 search of property and seizure of said property by Melissa Johnson. Random drug testing of all campers, including minor children. Parents have to agree to have their minor children tested or they get kicked out. All gates locked at 8 p.m. If you’re on the other side, you don’t come in. If you’re on the inside, you’re stuck in there with no fire estinguisher, no first aid, no security. Laura Kennedy’s wallet is full of other peoples’ EBT cards. She has showed it to me herself, when I cried out about a camper that was put out with no food.”
Alcott alleged that Johnson made it possible for homeless to go out during the day and drink and come back at night.
“We have a serious problem with arguing, fighting, loud music, chaos, traumatized children and adults,” Alcott said. “I’m teaching school in the middle of all of it. There are rats behind the tents, flies covering the food, people sick regularly from unrefrigerated food. The kitchen had a hot plate.
When it comes to misallocation of donations, Alcott alleged that all of the donations are in Laura Kennedy’s house, another person that works with the homeless.
At the Maxwell Respite Center, Alcott said they are gleaning the homeless.
“They are picking up the ones that are easy to pay $300 a month,” Alcott said. “She told me herself that she anticipates a $300,000 profit. How do non-profits make a profit? I was offered a full-time position and then assaulted by Laura Kennedy in the camp. She grabbed me by the arms, squeezing my arms, refusing to let me go. There were children coming up to me.”
According to Alcott, there were 40 campers that were trying to stay at the REAP SOS camp, but they only housed four.
“17 of them were kicked out by Melissa Marie Johnson,” Alcott said. “Eight were left in the camp on 610 when I was told by Mr. Whibbs that I was no longer welcome. Eight housed themselves. The promises were made to two families that they would get their first and last month’s rent then they were told that they were getting nothing. All of these people followed what Melissa Marie Johnson said and got nothing.”
Alcott said at the moment, she has a family in her living room.
“Two kids, 14 and 17 years old, trying to register to Escambia County High School are now going to lose the house that their parents secured because Melissa Marie Johnson lied to them,” Alcott said. “I don’t know what else to say, but you are going to lose all of your volunteers.”
Mark Horn backed up Alcott’s allegations, saying that she has a heart of gold.
“I’ve known Candy probably like three or four years now and has a heart of gold and I just want to say that there are not many people that have a heart of gold like Candy,” Horn said. “Those kinds of people are being abused. They are going to become fewer and fewer, and the problem is going to get larger and larger. The homeless people are getting exploited and exploited and exploited. You can’t squeeze these kinds of people. They need help and they need to be able to trust people. With what’s been going on, it’s going to be very hard for them to trust people.”
Horn said he tried to bring attention to the issue when it was at the city level.
“I got gaslit from Laura Kennedy and Melissa Johnson,” Horn said. “I was on the board of another non-profit when I found out that she was taking money. Laura Kennedy’s house is just full of donations. I want to say they take all of the good stuff and go to Milton to sell it. I don’t know, but that’s what I have heard. Either way, it is a problem. I just hope that these guys don’t get any more money. The money that is to be dispersed needs to go where it needs to go. This isn’t a place where it can be exploited.”
WKRG News 5 spoke with Johnson Tuesday afternoon, and she said that she had been fired from Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola, although she said Vince Whibbs, the executive director, claimed she stepped down from her position.
“He said that I quit,” Johnson said. “I never said that. I told him that I was being pulled three hundred different ways. So, I went into his office on Wednesday, just immensely physically and mentally exhausted. I was crying and I told him I couldn’t do this alone anymore. I’m not even paid for all of this and he gets all of the credit. It’s not fair, is what I told him. My board member was on the phone at the time of the conversation and none of the words, ‘I quit,’ ‘I give up on Maxwell,’ came out of my mouth. The next morning, I get a call to come into his office.”
When it comes to misallocation of funds and selling the items, Johnson said she has no idea where that idea comes from. She said she bought the house with the pool when she moved to Pensacola.
“Our books are very, squeaky clean,” Johnson said. “I can promise you I purchased my home before all of this ever occurred, the year I moved to Pensacola. So, this is not true.”
Johnson said that they do perform random drug tests, but only because some of the homeless population are recovering addicts and want help to stay clean.
“I have had clients come to me and ask for my help and to please randomly test them,” Johnson said. “So, yes, we have had to randomly drug test people. There was a DTF case where there was drug use on the camp, so under certain circumstances they have been given.”
She said at one time she did run a camp where if they were to leave and go drink alcohol, she wouldn’t judge them, but there are no drugs or alcohol on the camp.
“That is a big issue that we really emphasize,” Johnson said.
To the people that made the allegations towards Johnson, she said that they are more than welcome to take a walk with her when she provides care to the homeless.
“We are here for the heart of the people,” Johnson said. “I’m sorry that this town has so much corruption, but I really hope that people actually are looking and paying attention to details.”
With the county having $4.1 million to give to different homeless organizations and REAP being one of the main organizations asking for money, Commission Chairman Jeff Bergosh said they need to get to the bottom of what is going on.
“There are people that are in the center of what’s going on and they are being subjected to some serious mistreatment,” Bergosh said. “I want to make sure that there is no truth to that, or that that activity has curtailed and has been corrected. I mean, there are allegations that the receipt book is missing, and we can’t have that with taxpayer money. We have to know where everything is going.”
Recently, the City of Pensacola awarded $200,000 to REAP to continue operating for the rest of the year, and Whibbs is on the agenda for the BOC’s budget hearing to ask for more money from the county.
WKRG News 5 reached out to REAP for a comment, but they did not respond.