Rescue mission wanting to expand to another town that neither needs their services nor wants the addition of vagrants…Port St. Joe

PORT ST. JOE — The people of Port St. Joe want to help the helpless, the hungry and the homeless.

But most of them, including several business owners and members of the City Commission sure don’t want to come face to face with any of those folks on the nice, clean, vagrant free streets in downtown.

That was the message delivered repeatedly and forcefully to Rev. Billy Fox, the executive director of the Panama City Rescue Mission, and Rev. Joe Atkinson during a Port St. Joe City Commission workshop Tuesday night. The meeting ended with Fox assuring the crowd that he would find a different location.

“If you build it they will come,” Mayor Mel Magidson said at one point in the meeting.

All this because Fox and Atkinson leased an office on Reid Avenue across the street from “Bo Knows” pest control and near a Radio Shack, The St. Joe Furniture Co., several small restaurants and a large Goodwill store.

Fox told the business leaders and the commission that the office would house one employee who would perform a needs assessment for Gulf, Calhoun and Franklin counties. No one would be fed at the office and no one would sleep there, Atkinson insisted. Rescue Mission employees would talk to people who needed help and then either get them help or send them somewhere else for long term help.

Which is actually what has been happening all along, according to Chief David Barnes of the Port St. Joe Police Department. Barnes told the commission that there was not a homeless problem in Port St. Joe but there was a drug and alcohol problem among local residents. However, when it gets bad those people go to facilities in Panama City, he said.

In an interview with The News Herald, he clarified his position saying that in four years the department had taken four people to the Panama City Rescue Mission and that those people were not from Port. St. Joe. He added that the people of Port St. Joe have always been generous and anyone who needs help gets it.

Also, a long line of local reverends said they mostly see people who are having trouble paying power bills or buying food. None of those people are homeless, they added.

Fox and his associates were grilled by Commissioner Lorinda Gingell, who wanted to know what would happen if the homeless started showing up downtown when Rescue Mission employees weren’t around.

Rescue Mission officials said they were available day and night and that all anyone had to do was call and they would come and handle the situation.

“How are they going to call you?” Gingell asked. “Do they have cell phones?”

Another vocal critic of the plan was Jim Norton, who said he lives in Port St. Joe but works in Panama City. Also, Norton’s wife owns a business in downtown Port St. Joe.

“The Rescue Mission did not do their homework before they came to town,” Norton said in an interview with The News Herald. “We support the work of the mission (but) we certainly can’t afford to put it in the heart of where our business district is.”

During the meeting Norton repeatedly pointed to the vagrants in downtown Panama City as proof that a mission or mission work in Port St. Joe would create the same problem. Opponents also say that Fox and Atkinson keep changing their story about the Port St. Joe office. One minute it’s for fundraising, the next they are doing a needs assessment, opponents said. The opponents also seemed convinced that Fox is being forced out of Panama City and Springfield and is trying to relocate the entire mission to Port St. Joe. They say this even though the office the mission is leasing looks, from the outside at least, like it could barely hold 10 people and even then only if those people slept standing up.

Fox countered that the mission is the solution to the problem, not the cause.

Not every Port St. Joe resident was opposed to the mission.

Matthew Scoggins, the owner of 5 Star Collision, a large, well maintained business near the entrance of the city, said he wants the mission and city leaders to find a compromise. Scoggins is part of the group who wanted to bring in help for the hurting people in Port St. Joe.

He said there is a large drug problem in the city and that children, who show up to school in dirty clothes and get picked on, are the ones who are suffering.

In 1992 Scoggins was a homeless single father but a Rescue Mission in Georgia helped him turn his life around. They also rescued his innocent son, who is about the graduate college, Scoggins said.

If they had known there would be such opposition to leasing an office for charity work in downtown Port St. Joe they would have gone someplace else, he added.

“I have caught a bunch of heat this week,” he said.

Ultimately, Fox promised that if the business leaders and city commissioners who are opposed to the location of the office will help the mission get out of its lease, that they would move. Later, Fox went even further, promising that he would shut the doors and find a new location.


“What we want to do is meet the need,” Fox said.

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