Dr. Robert Marbut, a nationally-known expert on homelessness, spent three days in Bay County gathering information about the specific issues facing our Community and made specific recommendations as to how we can address our homelessness issues.
He visited homeless facilities such as Bethel Village in Springfield, the Panama City Rescue Mission and he met with veterans and attended an outdoor homeless feeding program in Downtown Panama City during his visit In addition he met with the community and leaders to see the issue from their perspective.
In all several hundred people attended the various meetings and town halls conducted during his visit aimed at bringing the community together to seek solutions to our homeless issues.
Marbut was surprised that the number of homeless men and women in Panama City is much greater when compared to other cities of similar size. He believes a program should be created within our community to help break the cycle of homelessness.
He felt encouraged that city leaders and the community are participating in his visit and other forums to move in the right direction to address this serious issue.
Dr. Marbut said,“The good news for people, the mayor is starting to address it, but when you compare it to like size cities, the problem is significantly worse here than other locations I’ve seen. It’s comparable to a city with a million in a half and that’s why I think they are starting to make some changes.”
According to Dr. Robert Marbut, “There’s no 24/7 160 hours a week 365 a year program in this county that services people below the Rescue Mission.” And that’s the problem we have in Panama City and Bay County Florida.
Mayor Greg Brudnicki asked Dr. Marbut why the Rescue Mission cannot be the answer to the entire problem. “People can go there to eat or go there if it’s less than forty degrees, but there’s no forty-hour work week for those people. And that’s who we have to engage.”
Part of the debate centered on a part of the homeless population that, according to Marbut, is not being served. He said that the Rescue Mission is currently serving only a portion of the homeless in Bay County. There is a large population that is currently not being served that is causing problems for the community.
Commissioner Guy Tunnell asked about those who do not want help from programs. “We’re still going to have a community that’s very giving. How do we keep that from continuing to overwhelm our efforts?”
Marbut believes that our Community can be educated about how we can provide for this population in a way that will get people off the streets and into a program and eventually return them to being productive members of our community. “Everybody’s going to give, but if you don’t educate about how to give smartly, you end up giving not so smartly.”
Marbut recommended to the joint session of the Panama City and Bay County Commissions that a facility be created to serve the low tier homeless with all social service agencies and faith based organizations offering service under one roof. He suggested using the models in place for other facilities that have made a difference in communities such as Pensacola and Tampa.
Bay County Commissioner George Gainer stated that he feels that the money just isn’t available for such a facility. “The model we’re talking about here like in San Antonio was a hundred and something million dollar facility and there’s no way Bay County could ever afford anything like that or anything close to it.”
Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki believes this will be the beginning of many discussions between the county and other city governments within the county. “There’s a certain amount of money that is being spent for law enforcement now to treat all those issues and it just needs to be put into another bucket.”
Commissioner Gainer believes something has to be done. “We have to believe that there’s a solution out here because this is such a terrible problem.”
Dr. Marbut stated that Bay County, Panama City and other cities within the county need to do serious thinking about current practices and whether or not they’re enabling an already rampant problem. He suggested that all Cities and the County harmonize their ordinances for dealing with vagrancy to make Bay County a place that is not welcoming to those who choose the vagrant lifestyle. In his experiences with other communities, he has seen significant progress when a comprehensive continuum of care located in a single controlled facility. He related many of his experiences with these issues during his visit to Bay County.
Dr. Robert Marbut is national expert on homeless issues and manages Marbut Consulting. Marbut was the founding President/CEO of Haven for Hope and was a former White House Fellow to President George H.W. Bush. He also served as Mayor-Pro-Tem of San Antonio and was chief of staff to Mayor Henry Cisneros. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas and Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Claremont Graduate School.