CRESTVIEW — As winter settles over North Okaloosa County, the Crestview area’s cold weather shelters are preparing for a new season.
The shelters have already assisted homeless people three nights this year when nighttime temperatures were forecast to dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, coordinator Anne Sprague said.
So far, attendance is down, she said.
“We’re seeing fewer than usual, but it hasn’t been that cold yet,” Sprague said. “When it gets down to 25 or below, we start seeing more. They are out there.”
This year, the coalition of area churches that assists the homeless has a new resource. Helping Hands, located behind First United Methodist Church of Crestview, provides a more permanent facility where volunteers can meet with homeless people, assess their medical needs, and provide them with laundry and shower facilities.
“It’s keeping them healthier,” Sprague said. “They’re there with us more and we can get to talking with them. Like if someone needs to see the dentist, we can help arrange an appointment."
Preventive care is crucial, particularly since a 2013 National Institute of Health study states the average ER visit costs $1,233 without insurance. Other studies show the cost could be $3,000 or more.
“We’re getting more of them in to take care of their health needs," Sprague said. "I like to keep them out of the emergency room as much as possible because that’s big bucks when they go there.”
Helping Hands is a start, but it’s not the permanent shelter organizers have sought for several years, volunteer Joe Barley said.
The Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, has identified a location closer to the center of town after Crestview City Council members resisted the group’s first choice. That plot, across the street from the Okaloosa Health Department, raised city leaders' concerns about its proximity to Twin Hill Park children’s recreational facilities.
While the new, commercially zoned site on U.S. Highway 90 West negates that concern, hoped-for funding from a group of more than 40 anonymous investors has yet to materialize after almost a year of waiting, Barley and Sprague said.
“We’re optimistic,” Barley said. “This stuff has to go through the federal government, and when it goes through any government, it can be a pain.
"We’re hoping for good things for the new year.”
While the group of investors has indicated it might give more than $500,000 toward a permanent homeless shelter, Sprague said CASH will start seeking funding closer to home.
“We’ve been told we’re going to receive these funds, but they won’t tell us when,” Sprague said. “Come January, we’re going to start doing some fundraising ourselves.”
There is some urgency, and not just because the local homeless population rises as it gets cold up north.
“We have found a location but our hold on the land ends Dec. 31,” Sprague said. “We may or may not be able to get that property.
“I’m trying to hold on to faith that they’re going to do what they (the investors) said they’re going to do. In the meantime, we’re going to turn to businesses and churches so we can purchase that land.”
Then, if the investors still haven’t come through, the next step will be raising money to build the shelter, she said.