CRESTVIEW — An impassioned sermon at a local church may have sparked a fruitless police search for an alleged large group of homeless children living in the woods around Crestview.
Crestview Police Department sent out a media release March 22 denying rumors that there was a “colony of five dozen homeless teens living in the woods somewhere in the city.”
Brian Hughes, public information officer for CPD, said the department had received numerous calls regarding the rumors, prompting an investigation.
“We started getting phone calls about it,” Hughes said. “Our investigators, actually some people contacted them personally, so it kind of became clear that we had to do something about it.”
Rumors of homeless people living in the woods around Crestview are not a new phenomenon, and they’re not always baseless. Hughes, who once worked as a reporter for the News Bulletin, recounted a story he wrote in 2015 about a small homeless encampment near Ridge Crest Estates. But talk of a large group of homeless teens living in one area is entirely different, and it caused alarm among some residents.
The rumor may have its roots in a sermon given recently at a local church. Pastor Jason Townsend of The Summit church, in an emotional speech during a late February service, talked about the homeless problem that he had recently learned about.
Townsend had been told by other pastors at the church that 8 to 12 homeless kids were sleeping in the woods near Twin Hills Park. When he found out, he spoke with his staff about trying to locate the homeless children.
“So we got out there and started searching and looking, and we were wrong,” Townsend said in the sermon. “It is not 8 to 12 kids that are living in the woods; those are their ages. There are 60 kids that live and sleep in tents in your community.”
It was Townsend’s first sermon at The Summit’s main campus in Crestview. He and his wife, Misty, previously served at the Destin campus and now minister at both locations. Townsend urged the congregation to take action to help house and feed the homeless teens.
The media release from CPD mentioned a Facebook post written by a member of the congregation. It read, in part, “When you find out that there are over 60 homeless teens living in woods in Crestview what will your response be? What if that was your teen or your niece or nephew?”
While neither the sermon nor the Facebook post specifically stated that all 60 teens were living in one wooded area, the idea prompted calls to city police.
“Word just went out like wildfire that there was this group of teens living in the woods,” Hughes said. “There were slight variations of (the story). The number changed. Sometimes it was slightly fewer, and the colony just kept growing.”
The phone calls led police to investigate the wooded areas around Twin Hills Park, but they did not find evidence of an encampment in the area. Investigators also searched two other areas in the city that were rumored to be possible locations, but no homeless children were found at either location.
Investigator Ralph Garrett, who worked on the case, said he spoke with neighbors and church members, but could find no evidence to substantiate the claims of a large group of homeless teens.
“There isn’t even enough room in those woods for 60 kids,” Garrett said, referring to the wooded area to the east of Twin Hills Park.
If it was Townsend’s sermon that sparked the rumors, he said it was not his intention. Townsend said he had not been to the alleged location and had not personally seen a large group of homeless teenagers.
“There are kids that sleep in the woods,” Townsend said. “Have I gone and looked for them? Nope, I have not. But I’ve heard so many times about that, that there are kids that are in the woods.”
Townsend said he was made aware of the large number of homeless teens in Crestview by Rosa Rivera, who runs a non-profit called the Belief Foundation. The foundation provides mentoring and educational programs for at-risk, school-age children. But Townsend clarified that the homeless teens were not living in one wooded location together.
“My first day as the official lead pastor for the Crestview campus, these children come to be made aware to us,” Townsend said. “The whole kids only in the woods, I’m not real sure how that got started, with them only in the woods, because certainly they’re not only in the woods.”
One fact that this situation has made clear is that everyone involved, from Crestview Police Department to the churches and non-profits in the area to concerned citizens, all take the issue of homeless teens seriously.
The Summit is working with the Belief Foundation to provide food for the at-risk youths served by the foundation. The church also plans to try to open a group home for homeless children, though they are not actively accepting donations for that cause at this time, according to Townsend.
“If you want to give something at all, you can give financially for us to feed (at-risk kids) at the Belief Foundation Monday through Thursday,” Townsend said.
While no large groups of homeless teens have been discovered in the city, Investigator Garrett urged anyone with concrete information on the location of such a group to come forward.
“If anybody has info about 25-60 kids, contact us immediately,” he said. “We’re ready.”