Former Fort Walton Beach Mayor Mike Anderson: “It’s something that’s not just a Fort Walton Beach problem. It’s a county-wide issue."

Since 2015, the city of Fort Walton Beach has been working with community partners to turn an old sewer plant into a shelter for the homeless.

This year, the major focus of Community Solutions, the nonprofit group overseeing the completion of the complex known as One Hopeful Place, is on finishing Phase 2, the construction of a building that can sleep up to 42 and work as a cold night shelter.

Ted Corcoran, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and a Community Solutions board member, said plans call for it to be completed by the time cold weather arrives.

With that goal in sight, some homeless advocates, most notably former Fort Walton Beach Mayor Mike Anderson, believe it is time for the Okaloosa County Commission to play a more active role in funding One Hopeful Place's construction.

At a January public hearing, Anderson, who had just made it known he was not seeking another term as mayor, appeared before commissioners and challenged the county to “get this spirit of collaboration and cooperation going” by assisting Fort Walton Beach on the homelessness issue.

“It’s something that’s not just a Fort Walton Beach problem. It’s a county-wide issue,” Anderson said. “I’m not sure what the county is doing. ... We think it’s time maybe the county can help.”

Most on the commission did not respond when Anderson concluded his comments. County Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel would say later that it's not that commissioners lack empathy, it's just that they know they're limited in what they can do.

"We all wish we could do more," she said. "We do help as much as possible."

One sticking point between the county and city mentioned by Fort Walton Beach Manager Michale Beedie involves the city’s effort to convince the county to put a bus stop on the far end of F.I.M. Boulevard near One Hopeful Place. The bus stop would provide much-needed access to the out-of-the-way shelter.

"I don't know what the holdup is," Beedie said.

County Administrator John Hofstad and three county commissioners all confirmed that a bus stop serving One Hopeful Place is a priority. However, the county is working through a number of issues it has with the company contracted to provide public transportation in Okaloosa, and can’t move to add a bus stop until all of those issues have been resolved, he said.

On May 2, the County Commission is supposed to receive a report from Maruti Fleet and Management, which operates Emerald Coast Riders, on how it plans to address concerns — namely numerous late or missed pickups — aired by passengers.

“That should be an easy fix as part of our transit program,” County Commissioner Nathan Boyles said. “Transportation is one area where the county can help address the broader issue of homelessness.”

When Anderson addressed the county on homelessness, Boyles commented, "the county is already well invested in that issue. We run a jail."

Asked about that comment, he said the county cannot, in his opinion, take the same approach to the homelessness issue that municipalities like Fort Walton Beach can. He said the county addresses homelessness by funding things like law enforcement and emergency services, a county jail, a judicial system and transportation.

“I don’t think it’s the county’s job to fix homelessness. I don’t think you can fix homelessness,” Boyles said.

County Commissioner Trey Goodwin said that to his knowledge the county never has taken “a position not to support” the homeless housing effort. Hofstad also noted that county crews have done utility work at One Hopeful Place.

Hofstad said the county also has offered to repair some fencing at One Hopeful Place and plans to provide Fort Walton Beach with a transit bus to taken people to and from the location.

"Where we can we provide in-kind services," he said.

Corcoran said Community Solutions hopes to raise $500,000 before the end of the year so that it can get the Phase 2 facility at One Hopeful Place up and running. He said the non-profit board is confident the money can be raised from individual private donations. The county isn’t likely to provide a financial assist of its own. 

Ketchel said the county has had to take a firm position against allocating money to nonprofits like Community Solutions. The stance is not hard-hearted, she said, but fiscally sound.

“Many nonprofits come to the county for help, and we can’t help them,” Ketchel said. “In order to keep our taxes low, our county has had a policy of not giving money to nonprofits. We don’t see ourselves as a conduit for giving money to nonprofits.”