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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  1. Clarissa

     /  May 11, 2015

    Listening to the Gulf County upper crust complain about the homeless makes me so glad I don’t live there anymore.

    • If you knew the issues associated with the Rescue Mission of Panama City and their efforts at that time to expand into gulf county, you too would have expressed major concern with an organization that operates in a questionable manner opening a facility to address a problem that does not exist.


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