Port St Joe: Hope Center link with Rescue Mission brings concern

To a group of citizens in Port St. Joe the Gulf Coast Hope Center offers concerns not so much of the present, but of the future and its links to the Panama City Rescue Mission.

The links are unmistakable, a group of concerned citizens contend.

The Rescue Mission is technically the holder of the business license that allows what Hope Center officials say is a referral office at 5 Star Collision in Port St. Joe.

The Rev. Joe Atkinson, one of the chief lieutenants for Panama City Rescue Mission CEO Rev. Billy Fox, holds office hours at the Hope Center several times a week.

That link, several residents said, brings baggage, undeniable evidence of problems, as evidenced just two weeks ago when a nationally-recognized expert on the homeless led town-hall style meetings in Panama City during which he called law enforcement activity near the Rescue Mission “off the charts” and compared Panama City’s homeless problem to that of a city of 1.15 million in population.

And Bay County is more than 10 times the size of Gulf County, let alone Port St. Joe, critics of the Hope Center say.

“How does this fit into Port St. Joe’s portfolio?” said Christine McElroy, somewhat of the de-facto speaker for a group of concerned citizens who have made themselves heard since last summer at Port St. Joe City Commission meetings. “This has continued to go forward (in Port St. Joe) for six months even as (Fox) said ‘If you don’t need up we won’t come.’

“We’ve got zero homeless in Gulf County (according to an annual report from the Florida Department of Children and Families). We have to create the expectations if they are going to come here. The city and the county should create those expectations.”

That, she said, is missing in Panama City, as Dr. Robert Marbut, an expert brought in two weeks ago to talk to Panama City and Bay County officials as well as the public concerning the homeless, made clear.

The statistics from media reports provide concern, Marbut said and McElroy concurred.

According to Panama City Police Chief John Van Etten some 14 percent of all calls for service – more than 7,500 – during a one-year span came from the Rescue Mission and surrounding area.

The number of suspects listing the Rescue Mission as their address and which are profiled on a web site devoted to mug shots of those arrested in Panama City and Bay County runs page after page.

The Bay County Sheriff’s Office reported 250 people were arrested in 2010 giving the Rescue Mission as their home address.

Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki made finding another location for outreach to the homeless a focus of his campaign and election last year.

The town hall meetings Marbut spoke to grew out of an effort to find a more suitable place for the Rescue Mission as Panama City hopes to revitalize downtown.

McElroy also noted discrepancies by Fox regarding how many people are served at the Rescue Mission.

While the Mission’s web site lists 28 male beds and 14 female beds at the shelter – with capacity to sleep another 40 men in hallways, the chapel and dining room – Fox told a local television station last summer that the Mission dished out 700 meals and slept 150 people each day.

“They would have to sleep in shifts,” McElroy said.

Fox has been quoted saying the Rescue Mission serves six Florida counties as well as southern Alabama and Georgia. In a television report, Fox said the homeless were “recruited” to the Mission and its facilities.

“I have an issue with recruiting people in and then dash their hopes by not providing the type of services they need,” McElroy said. “We see that as part of Billy Fox’s program, to import the homeless to Port St. Joe.”

That, she said, costs the community. Beyond impacts to property values, there is the cost of law enforcement and the medical care many of those at the Rescue Mission are in need of. In Bay County, that means a trip to Bay Medical Center at taxpayer dime.

“Even if we do not want to donate to his (Fox’s) cause, we are forced to through taxes,” McElroy said. “If he is going to come here, he has to pay his bills.”

For six McElroy and others have urged Port St. Joe commissioners to be more aggressive with the Gulf Coast Hope Center, at the minimum implementing ordinances to protect citizens against the vagrancy, loitering and general mischief that has become part of the mix of homeless in Panama City.

The group strongly opposed the Rescue Mission leasing an office on Reid Avenue, in the heart of the business district. Commissioners quickly requested the office be closed and more suitable location found.

But while entertaining the general concept of “proactive” ordinances, and three commissioners publicly stating they would entertain any reasonable ordinance, the city has yet to adopt what McElroy and others say are simple steps to address potential problems.

“We are just concerned citizens,” said Debbie Rowell.

The approach, McElroy said, echoing in part Dr. Marbut, should be a holistic approach. A campus-style setting away from business areas, where property values could not be impacted and the criminal element better weeded from those genuinely seeking a hand up.

“Fox is not creating that safe campus environment,” McElroy said. “The holistic approach is missing.”

That approach, Marbut said in Panama City, worked in San Antonio, in Pinellas County, FL, in other spots across the country with populations far less than Bay County and with homeless issues far under the radar compared to Panama City.

Raised in Panama City, McElroy said she has seen how the Rescue Mission has slowly strangled the life out of that portion downtown, how tent encampments have popped up in the woods, seen the number of men and women aimlessly walking the streets or slouching in doorways multiply.

“They (Bay County) have all the resources, a big county hospital, public transportation, private donors,” McElroy said. “How are we going to manage (a Rescue Mission-like facility) when we can’t manage with what we do have?

“You have to engage, not enable. You are not showing them how not to be homeless. You are feeding the problem. It is not about the homeless. It is about if this is the lifestyle you want to have, I have a problem paying for it because we will all pay for it.”

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letter to the editor…….

I would like to address a hot topic people in Bay County. I haven’t written the 44-cent Forum in some time. My reasoning was that everybody has opinions about homeless people. In offering this letter, I am presenting fact, not opinion.
In 1998 I had a lot of different projects that required manual labor. I decided to go to the Rescue Mission and hire some workers from among the needy. As a result, I casually interviewed several men in and around the Mission. Finally settling on two, I put them to work on a priority project. I picked them up daily in front of the Mission and returned them at the end of the day.
A week or so into the project, I learned that these two men had used up their allowed time at the Mission and were sleeping in woods across the street. They were good workers at that time. My wife and I thought perhaps we could help to get them back on their feet. My wife purchased new work clothes and I made arrangements for a room in a low-end motel on the beach, where I picked them up and returned them daily.
This project continued for close to three months. They were paid $8 per hour for 40 hours per week. Soon, on Monday mornings I would push beer cans away from the door and wake them up to go to work. I also bought their lunch every day. After about six weeks one of the well-traveled men quit when I went to pick them up. He had told me that previously he had been in Montana picking up and selling elk and deer antlers in Yellowstone Park (which is illegal). He said he thought he might go back because he could earn as much as I was paying him in a couple of days.
The remaining man “worked” for another few weeks. They were kicked out of the motel and I had to rent the man still working another place. In spite of everything I could do, mostly when I wasn’t around, he drove my tractor constantly, accomplishing nothing. One Monday morning I went to pick him up and he was still drunk and crying that is mother in Waycross, Ga., was deathly ill and was about to die. He had to get home right away. I immediately took him to the bus station, bought him a ticket and gave him $150.
I thought this was the end of that, until a couple of days later I saw him walking down the street in Panama City.
There are many more exasperating occurrences with these two men during the course of their employment too numerous to mention.
Some would say I can’t blame all homeless people for the actions of these two. To that I would say, if there is a huge number of deserving people who are homeless, how in the world could I have randomly I picked these two, who were by choice homeless? I really believe these two are the norm rather than an exception. My wife and I still try to help anyone, although in a much-reduced effort.
Panama City Beach

Read more: http://www.newsherald.com/articles/don-99972-topic-haven.html#ixzz1kn8rd13a

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Catholic Charities launches great new program.

PANAMA CITY — Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida has launched a new program to assist struggling veterans with a grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.

The program, called VA Support Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), is a partnership between the VA, Families Count of Pensacola and Catholic Charities serving veterans in Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson,  Okaloosa, Walton and Washington counties.

The goal of the program is to improve housing stability, to prevent at-risk families from becoming homeless and to provide supportive services to very low-income veterans and their families residing in or transitioning to permanent housing.

Through community outreach and intensive case management, Catholic Charities will educate and assist participants to obtain military and civilian benefits such as housing counseling, health care services, daily living services, transportation services, personal financial planning services and child care services, to name a few.

“This really is for ‘at-risk’ veterans,” said Catholic Charities regional director Diane Williams in Panama City.

Catholic Charities is the social ministry of the Catholic church in the 18-county region of Northwest Florida, whose mission is to serve vulnerable families.

Read more: http://www.newsherald.com/articles/homelessness-99988-panama-prevent.html#ixzz1kln679Qb

This is a great program created by an organization that knows how to help those truly in need. Read the details of the goals of this program as outlined in this article. Do you notice the resounding theme? This organization has it right. They help those truly in need by helping them make the few adjustments needed for people to get back on track instead of creating a feeding farm for vagrants, transients, panhandlers and bums such as what the rescue mission has created. This is the difference between a responsible organization that our community should support (Catholic charities) and an organization that is a scam and really should be shut down (Rescue mission of Panama City). Contact the fine folks at Catholic Charities at http://www.catholiccharitiesnwfl.org/


We have been very fortunate to have had some almost incredible response from our blog. What started as just a simple blog to outline some of the issues of the rescue mission has grown into a valuable resource for many to better understand the true affects of the rescue mission facility on our downtown area. Please take a moment to add your name to our online petition giving our efforts further voice to share with our local government

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Billy Fox always proclaims they use “no taxpayer dollars”…hmmm really?

Panama City, Fla. –

In Panama City– volunteers are collecting information from the homeless population. Its part of an annual survey conducted for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

It’s necessary because HUD provides funding to non-profits like the Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army and with these numbers; they determine how much should be distributed to each organization.

Around the same time each year, volunteers target places where the homeless gather to ask them questions. Laurie Combs with the Homeless and Hunger Coalition says with more accurate information, HUD can better serve the community.

“We’re trying to figure out, what has contributed to their current situation. We try to look at the whole person and see what’s happening in their background that may have put them in a precarious situation.”

Volunteers will be out at the Rescue Mission on Friday because of the inclement weather. They’ll be there from 7 AM to 3 PM.


source: http://www.wmbb.com/story/16613004/homeless-population-counted

Hey what is wrong with this story? Billy Fox, director of the rescue mission has continued to claim that the rescue mission operates with “no taxpayer funds” but here in this notice for volunteers it is point blank stated that funds are provided by HUD. Which is it Mr. Fox?  Are you going to continue with the charade of claiming to have no financial support from tax payer money or are you going to finally fess up to the fact that a portion of your budget is provided both directly and indirectly from government entities (read that as TAX PAYERS). 

Panama City Commissioners lay out proposal to end vagrancy in downtown…


Start your viewing at 2:01:04 for discussion on vagrancy ordinance .

Expert: Homelessness in PC ‘off the charts’


PANAMA CITY — The number of homeless people in downtown Panama City is overwhelming city services, an expert on homelessness said Thursday.

During a town hall meeting at First Baptist Church in Panama City regarding the homeless, Robert G. Marbut, an expert in homelessness and developer of the “Haven of Hope” campus in San Antonio, said police activity regarding the homeless on the streets of Panama City is “off the charts.”

A second community meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday in the Bay County Commission chambers.

Marbut said he read two reports, one from the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and the other from the Panama City Police Department, that indicated an exceedingly high amount of arrests and police activity around the Panama City Mission area.

Marbut said the numbers are six or seven times higher than San Antonio or St. Petersburg.

“These numbers are huge,” Marbut said. “It’s the police activity and the amount of engagements there and then 25 percent of those are leading to arrests. These numbers are outrageous. The number of encampments you have…I have never seen that many anywhere in the country and I am working in Arkansas where encampments are a known thing.”

Marbut said the police activity in the area surrounding the Panama City Rescue Mission and stores like the Grocery Outlet on Sixth Street is equal to a city of 1.5 million people.

“I am working in Fort Smith, Ark., which is three times larger than you, even if you are doing county or regional areas and they have four encampments. I have heard of about a hundred here. I saw a dozen last night,” Marbut said.

State Attorney Glenn Hess, who was at the meeting, told The News Herald that when he was a judge his approach was to sort the homeless according to the risk they posed.

“As a judge my philosophy has always been to figure out which ones are dumb and which ones were dangerous,” Hess said. “We put the dangerous ones away. We tried to help the dumb ones.”

Whether it’s encampments or police engagements and total arrests, Panama City’s numbers are larger than any place he has ever seen, Marbut said.

“San Antonio total street homeless is under 100, Pinellas County street homeless is under 100. The lowest street homeless here is 250. That is the lowest number I saw. That is what I mean when I say your numbers are off the charts.”

Marbut told the group gathered at the church the city needs to bring all the agencies, including law enforcement, together in attempt to help the homeless situation in the city.

That’s an idea Mayor Greg Brudnicki has supported. He would like to use Marbut’s “campus concept” bringing all the agencies that deal with the homeless and the mission into one central location to ease costs and bring better counseling and care to the homeless.

“That is what the task force has been talking about doing in the past few months,” Brudnicki said. “We would like to get all that stuff together.”

Brudnicki said he would have to see if the financials could be worked out to bring all the agencies needed into one central location.


Read more: http://www.newsherald.com/articles/city-99651-expert-homelessness.html#ixzz1kXMwkUy1

Local Reverends Say “We’re Not Enabling Homeless”

Panama City – Looks like the controversy over homeless feeding activities in downtown Panama City could be coming to a showdown.

The issue is heating-up after last week’s visit by a nationally known homelessness consultant. Dr. Robert Marbut says the Tuesday and Thursday night feedings may be contributing to the Panama City’s unusually large homeless population, but the church groups that operate the feedings across from McKenzie Park say they won’t stop.

Click here to find out more!

For the past nine years around eight different church groups have fed the homeless in a parking lot next to attorney Carroll McCauley’s office. Over 100 homeless people show up each night.

“We’re thankful for each and every person that does this to be a willing vessel and to give and care for people that’s in need. Because we never know when we may lose our job or when we may lose our house’s or may lose everything and be out on the street’s,” said rev. Richard Gill.

Dr. Robert Marbut served food at last Thursday night’s feeding, but Marbut told local officials the practice needs to stop, because the churches are enabling the homeless population.

“We’re not enabling, we’re helping them. If we weren’t then what would happen then? They would go out and steal from somebody, take from somebody, or hurt someone . We’re not out to see that happen. What we want to do is make it nice and easy for them,” said rev. Ron Dunnerstag.

Dunnerstag says he and the other churches will continue feeding the homeless, even if Panama City Commissioners pass an ordinance against it.

“We have 271 churches in Bay County and I’ll tell you what their all voters and I guarantee if they read the papers and see they locked us up for feeding then lets see what happens during elections then,” said Dunnerstag.

Although they don’t agree with city officials on the feedings, the churches say they are in-favor of Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki’s proposal to build a multi-purpose resource facility to help the homeless

source: http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/Local_Reverends_Say_Were_Not_Enabling_Homeless_137448553.html


Donations Down for Rescue Mission

Panama City – The Panama City Rescue Mission is struggling with donations. It says it is because of all the negative attention it’s gotten lately.

Reverend Billy Fox says it’s quarter that runs from October to December usually makes up for about 60% of it’s donations, but this year it is down 15% from last year. He says this is the first time donations have dropped and that it has always been stead or a slight improvement.  Fox thinks  are donating less with all the attention of the Panama City’s Homeless Task Force and the Bethel Village Expansion.

“I really do suspect that people are holding back some because they’re not sure what the reality of panama city rescue mission is because there has been a lot of negativity. There has been a lot of challenging the good work we do down here,” Fox said.


source: http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/Donations_Down_for_Rescue_Mission_137926683.html

Rescue Mission Appeals Springfield Decision on Bethel Village Expansion

Panama City – The Panama City Rescue Mission is getting the courts involved in an ongoing dispute with Springfield Commissioners. Springfield City Commissioners voted against the mission’s Bethel Village expansion again. After commissioners voted against granting the mission a development order last spring, a judge ordered that the city reconsider, ruling they had no legal reason to deny it. Despite the judge’s recommendation, the city voted against it a second time. So the mission is appealing again. Springfield’s city attorney says he is not aware of the appeal yet, but when commissioners denied the order, they agreed to hold another hearing on the Bethel Village issue. They have not set a date for that hearing.


source: http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/Panama_City_Rescue_Mission_Appeals_Springfield_Decision_Against_Bethel_Village_Expansion_137926408.html