Homeless people camp out in tents on Bay Street in Crestview

CRESTVIEW — Encyclopedias overflow a cardboard box, a suit and other clothes hang from a chain-link fence, empty food cans rust in a tub, and a tent and a collection of tarps represent two desperate shelters at 757 Bay St.

A brick foundation is all that remains of the 1,175-square-foot, uninhabited house that once stood on the 0.37-acre lot. The structure was destroyed by arson in February 2019.

RELATED: Crestview home total loss after arson

The tent and the tarps apparently have provided some individuals with some semblance of roofs and walls for several months. The trash-strewn lot stands southeast of School Avenue and across Bay Street from the Carver Manor public housing development.

While no one who sleeps at the lot was around Tuesday morning, the sound of nails being hammered carried over from a parcel immediately to the northeast, where a Habitat for Humanity house is being built on Cross Drive.

Although the Bay Street lot is one of the more obvious places in Crestview where homeless people hunker down, people living in tents set up in patches of woods “are all over this town,” said Ann Sprague, president of the nonprofit Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless (CASH). “They’re behind Lowe’s, the chamber (of commerce), the library.”

City officials are well aware of people staying on the Bay Street lot unlawfully and are working on an ordinance that would prevent anyone from camping on vacant lots.

The homeless shelter is on Duggan Avenue and stands a half-mile southwest of 757 Bay St. Sprague said she believes at least three men have been staying on the Bay Street lot.

One of the men recently came to the 25-bed shelter seeking a place to stay.

“We don’t have any beds for him,” Sprague said. “We’re full.”

She recently gave a different man a tent to stay in.

“I asked, ‘Where have you been sleeping?’” Sprague said.

She imitated the man’s motions, as if digging with her hands.

“He said, ‘I dig a hole and then I sleep,’” Sprague said. “He said at least part of his body will stay warm. A tent to him is like a castle. I dropped him and the tent off close to (the Bay Street lot) a week ago.”

She said that man likes to volunteer at the shelter, such as by handing out clothing and hygiene items to other people who receive help from the facility.

According to Maj. Andrew Schneider, spokesman for the Crestview Police Department, the city has received several complaints about the messy condition at 757 Bay St.

“It’s not a police matter,” he said. “That’s handled by code enforcement. It’s a property issue.”

City Compliance Administrator Senida Oglesby indicated that staff is working on clearing up issues with the property’s ownership in order for the property to come into compliance with city codes.

City police “have been working that neighborhood for drugs for some time,” noted City Manager Tim Bolduc, who was not familiar with the Bay St. property.

While there are a lot of drug dealers in the area, police “are regularly going around and telling (homeless people) that they have to move,” Sprague said. “I ask the police to give them 24 hours.”

Bolduc said city officials are in the process of developing a camping ordinance that will prohibit homeless people from camping on vacant properties such as the Bay Street lot.

“We have the opportunity for homeless people to find housing through CASH and other outlets,” he said. “We want to help them. We just can’t have them camping there. It’s not sanitary.

“The solution to homelessness in the city of Crestview is not random camping spots. We have to come up with a better plan.”

RELATED: Crestview home total loss after arson

“Where have you been staying?”
“I dig a hole and then I sleep.”
“He said at least part of his body will stay warm. A tent to him is like a castle.”#Crestview #OkaloosaCounty #Florida #USA pic.twitter.com/kHS0jufz7S

— Tony Judnich (@Tonyjnwfdn) March 10, 2020