FORT WALTON BEACH — Once the One Hopeful Place shelter’s Phase II building opens, it will have room to house every person who is now living on the streets in the Fort Walton Beach area, says Nathan Monk, the shelter’s executive director.
Monk hopes to complete the expansion project before the end of this year. It will require about $450,000 in donations and grants.
The Phase II building will have room for 75 men. As part of the expansion, the current 20-bed men’s facility will be converted into a shelter for about 30 women, who will be the first female clients of the nonprofit One Hopeful Place.
There currently are about 80 people who live outdoors in the Fort Walton Beach area. The overall south Okaloosa County area has about 168 homeless people on the streets, while the estimated total in all of Walton County is 74.
The quest to end homelessness, local officials say, will require more money and more help from the community, as well as a halt to relying on stereotypes.
“One of the things I always remind people of when they complain, whether it’s seeing someone in a park or at a bus stop or even standing on the side of the road holding a sign is: We are here and we are in the process right now of expanding,” Monk said of One Hopeful Place. “So if you see that the problem still exists, we have the data to back up that we are actively helping people get off the streets.
“So participate with us in achieving our goal of expansion. The only thing holding us back from reaching that goal is community participation. We need volunteers. We need donors.”
Leaders of the nonprofit Homelessness & Housing Alliance, which aims to eliminate homelessness in Okaloosa and Walton counties, echoed those views.
“Volunteer for an organization like One Hopeful Place or Catholic Charities” of Northwest Florida, which runs a food pantry on First Street in Fort Walton Beach, said Sarah Yelverton, the alliance’s executive director.
“If you want to invest, invest in solutions,” alliance Deputy Director Maggie Tomecek added. “Even if it’s two or three bucks, give it to an organization that does the work.”
People who have a roof over their head also are urged to be compassionate and treat every homeless person with dignity and respect.
“Do you think they need your shame?” Tomecek asked. “They don’t. They have enough. They’ve been through so much. And (getting into stable housing) is not as simple as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It never has been. It never will be.”
Besides being the compassionate thing to do, helping homeless people find permanent housing saves the community a huge sum of money, Monk said.
“Our clients stay with us an average of three to six months,” he said. “It costs us an average of about $1,500 per client to transition them off of the street and into permanent housing.”
That amount covers items such as food, shelter and case management services.
“For somebody living on the street, the cost is anywhere from $25,000-$30,000 a year” for items such as medical care, food programs and law enforcement expenses, Monk said.
“If you want to lower the tax rate, invest in One Hopeful Place, because we are reducing unnecessary spending, unnecessary police involvement and unnecessary use of ambulances, because people have a stable place to be,” he said.
Monk, who is 34 and was homeless himself for most of his teenage years in Nashville, Tennessee, began serving as executive director of One Hopeful Place in May 2017. He took over about six months after the shelter opened at Fort Walton Beach’s old, 8-acre wastewater treatment plant at 1564 Percy L. Coleman Road.
The shelter doesn’t have any length-of-stay requirements for its clients, he said. The staff is more concerned that each client creates a sustainability plan for themselves, with strategies to obtain permanent housing and assistance such as veterans’ benefits and supplemental security income.
Monk said 53 of the 81 men who were helped by One Hopeful Place last year are no longer on the streets.
Most of them moved into permanent housing, such as getting back together with a formerly estranged spouse, he said. The shelter also provided bus tickets for a few clients who might have moved to this area for a job that didn’t work out.
The Homelessness and Housing Alliance, Yelverton said, has helped hundreds of people move into permanent housing since it began operating in 2005.
“The funding for our housing programs used to be just for Fort Walton Beach, but now it’s spent throughout Okaloosa and Walton counties,” she said.
Currently, the alliance has about 50 clients in its “permanent supportive” housing program and about 40 clients in its “rapid re-housing” program.
Permanent supportive housing is for chronically homeless people who have a disability that impedes them from being self-sufficient. This program has no time limit.
It costs about $10,000 per year to provide someone with permanent supportive housing, Yelverton said.
In comparison, clients in the rapid re-housing program are much less vulnerable and are expected to eventually provide for their own permanent housing. The cost to provide that program to each client is less than $5,000 per year.
“We have permanent supportive housing clients whose case manager visits their home every single day to check on them,” Yelverton said. “The old way of thinking — that people have to be in a shelter to be receiving services — is just not the way our community does it.”
Besides housing assistance, the alliance helps its clients, including those who live in the woods, obtain a photo I.D., a phone and phone minutes, and get prescriptions filled.
The alliance’s many partners include the nonprofit Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless, which opened in 2008 and has operated at its current McLaughlin Street location for three years.
Along with about 10 churches, the facility serves as a soup kitchen and cold night shelter. Recent data shows more than 60 people live on the streets in the county seat.
Job assistance, transportation to doctor appointments and prescription help are some of the high-demand services the shelter helps provide.
“We’ve been spending about $900 a month on medicine for about the last five or six months,” shelter President Ann Sprague said.
During the latter half of 2018, the shelter helped more than 300 people. On certain days, it’s a place where homeless people can receive food, clothing and hygiene items, take a shower and wash their clothes.
Overall, “Homelessness is a community problem, not just a one-church problem or a one-agency problem,” Sprague said.
Monk agreed. He said after One Hopeful Place opened, it became the designated emergency cold night shelter for the south county area, replacing six area churches that had served as cold night shelters on a rotating basis. But those churches still help homeless people in numerous ways, such as by providing meals and other volunteer-led services, he said.
An average of about 50 homeless people stayed at One Hopeful Place during this past winter’s 21 cold nights when the outside temperature dropped to 40 degrees or lower.
“I believe if we had had the space, the majority of those people would have stayed here,” Monk said. “They did not want to have to leave and go back out on the streets. They want somewhere to be. They want to get their life back on track.”
Mirroring the majority?
While many people believe that most homeless people have some type of substance abuse problem, “I think the majority of all people have some type of substance abuse problem,” Yelverton said.
“I think it makes it easier on us to say they’re a drug addict or a drunk,” she said. “I think it probably assuages some of our guilt about not doing anything about it. The fact of the matter is, is that the population of people experiencing homelessness is going to reflect the population that is housed.”
Monk said he cannot tell another person what to do when he or she sees a homeless person asking for help.
“If someone feels compelled by virtue of their convictions or religious beliefs or whatever to respond to another human being asking for help, then I understand that,” he said. “Though you may provide a temporary relief in that moment, do know that it is temporary. That’s why I encourage people to get plugged in to what we’re doing here, because we’re providing the long-term solution that is getting people off the streets, no longer dependent on begging, no longer dependent on struggling day to day.”
Food should always be given to someone who’s hungry, Yelverton said.
But giving homeless people money “is not really helpful,” she said. “It leads people to think the overall homeless population (consists of) beggars.”
Yelverton said many clients of the Homelessness and Housing Alliance had extremely traumatic pasts, and many do not have any family support or help from a social network.
“If they do, if they say they have a sister who is willing to help, we pick up the phone and call the sister,” she said. “And we’re like, 'Hey, let’s reconnect the two of you,' because that is the best solution."
When somebody is living on the streets, he or she is only worried about survival and answers to questions on where to get a meal, sleep and use the restroom, Monk said.
“When they’re at One Hopeful Place, they don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he said. “All of those anxieties are relieved from them, which now gives them the opportunity to focus on (things like) getting a mental health exam, and they’re coupled with a case management team to make sure that that happens.”
Lots of work ahead
More affordable housing units, homeless shelter space and substance abuse and mental health services are some of the top needs in the pursuit to eliminate homelessness, local officials agreed.
“In this area, a lot of landlords only want to rent to the military," Sprague said. "They know (military members) get a certain amount (from stipends), so they put their price up in the military range.”
She and Yelverton said the region is a low vacancy, high rate rental market.
Every time someone volunteers and/or provides a meal at One Hopeful Place, it frees up more time for shelter staff to focus on clients getting the help they need to get their own place, Monk said.
In Crestview, Sprague and her colleagues are working on opening an overnight shelter. Overall, the county needs more shelters, especially for single women without children, Yelverton said.
“We also need some type of crisis response,” she said. “We’ve had people having breakdowns in our office and in food pantries. We cannot seem to find the attention that they need. Even when they’re housed, we have some clients that won’t leave their apartment and we can’t go in. Housing doesn’t fix physical and mental health issues.”
While One Hopeful Place is 6 miles from downtown Fort Walton Beach, where many homeless people congregate, the shelter’s location is ideal, Monk said.
“Downtown has historically and will probably always be a location dominated by small local businesses, which typically are not the kinds of places that hire our clients,” he said. “Here, we’re near to a number of big box stores like Lowe’s, Walmart and Sam’s Club, and a number of construction businesses in the area that hire our clients. And we’re less than a mile away from two day labor halls as well.”
A bus donated to the shelter by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast is used to bring homeless people to the shelter on cold nights and to take clients to job interviews, Monk said.
“The majority of our clients are employed,” he said.
One One Hopeful Place client, Tim, has been staying at the shelter since last November. The 50-year-old declined to give his last name but shared how he ended up there.
Tim said when he moved from North Carolina to Daytona Beach in 2016, he knew he could survive on that city’s streets because of the services provided to homeless people.
“Daytona, as you know, is a very high transit area, and if you want to be clothed and fed and that’s all that you want out of life, then Daytona’s the place to go,” Tim said.
But that area’s day-labor jobs, which he said were “great for a drug addict” such as himself, eventually dried up. Tim said he later tried to get to Panama City to work in post-Hurricane Michael cleanup efforts but learned that many promised job opportunities were scams.
Instead, he ended up in Fort Walton Beach, a place he had never heard of. After getting off a Greyhound bus, he found out about One Hopeful Place from an Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy.
Tim said the shelter lets him be independent.
“They tell you about resources, but they want you to stand on your own two feet,” he said. “As far as the help I’ve received while being here, you can’t beat a hot meal, a shower and a bed.”
Tim said he has been working for a construction company and has earned enough money to buy a truck. He has gone to some Narcotics Anonymous meetings, has a good rapport with his family now, and is trying to save enough money to rent his own place.
The last time he had his own home was in 2001.
“When Tim and anybody else graduate out of this program, I want them to say not 'Look at what One Hopeful Place did for me,' but 'Look at what I did for myself,'" Monk said. “So if they ever find themselves in a tough spot again, they can look back and go, 'Hey, I know I can overcome this because I’ve already overcome something else.' ”