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Homeless Agency Reintroduced As 'Opening Doors Northwest Florida'

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

The EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless is no more. The agency has gotten a makeover, with a new name and a slightly new mission.

It’s now called Opening Doors Northwest Florida.

“The new name embodies being more open, not only for those that are homeless, making access to our organization more readily accessible,” said John Johnson, executive director. It also represents a focus on doing a better job serving the agency’s entire coverage area in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

“Being more mobile, deploying outreach initiatives, working in partnership with two of our big providers in our community; and I know that one of the challenges people who are living on the streets face is the ability to get to the services they need. So, Opening Doors, really brings services to them.”

The agency’s makeover also includes a new Coordinated Entry System, which is a streamlined intake process designed to quickly assess and then connect people facing a housing crisis with the assistance they need.

“A lot of times the City [Pensacola] will call us and say "hey John, we have this mother and a couple of kids living in their car,' and will say ‘what can we do?’ Well bring them to us,” Johnson said. “Coordinated Entry means that we’re working more coordinated, working more with our partner agencies to make sure we understand what are the availability of resources, do they have any open beds, and so keeping a real time pulse of the availability, so that units and beds are utilized.”

For 30 years, from 1987–2017, the work to combat homelessness locally was done by the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless. But, by last year, efforts to re-brand the agency had begun. In conjunction with public relations agency Ideaworks, they chose Opening Doors Northwest Florida. Johnson says the new name more accurately reflects their work, not just to end homelessness, but also provide a path out.

“I believe the name Opening Doors is going to be with us for a very long time," said Johnson. "Because what people really need is for somebody to open up the door for them, to give them options and opportunities. And, when you see our logo, the logo fits. It’s a key with rays and this key is going into a home, because we want to make sure everyone has a home.”

Another aspect of the name change is communicating their efforts differently with the public, with the goal of shifting attitudes toward homelessness. Johnson says one of the major questions we need to ask ourselves is not if we should help, but how we should help. For example, consider the impact of giving money to panhandlers.

"We know from the sheriff’s office and also from our own studies, that a great majority of those that panhandle will go and they will buy beer. They will buy alcohol. They will buy drugs and we’ve also gotten information that they spend money on prostitution. That’s a hazard to this community, doing that. So, if I knew that I was giving my $5 and that the person was going to buy drugs, I think I’d change my mind about that."

If your $5 contribution is to help a panhandler get food, Johnson says the homeless population and community at large would be better served if the money went to one of the many agencies that provide nutritious meals.

“We want to change how people give,” said Johnson referencing their plans to launch a new campaign called “A Better Way to Gift,” which is the second phase in “A Better Way to Giving” that was launched a couple of years ago with the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. “This “Better Way to Gift” will be where people who want to give money, they’ll purchase one of our Resource Cards. “Give it to the homeless individual, they then bring that redeemable card to our location and we’ll connect them with the resources that they need.”

The annual Point in Time survey, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), shows the prevalence of homelessness and identifies specific needs. The January 2018 PIT count showed 632 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Escambia and Santa Rosa.

“What we found was that our numbers actually declined," said Johnson. "We went down in homelessness. We also went down in homelessness for veterans (103). We went down in homelessness for chronically homeless (78). It was good news. We also had declines in homeless families (44)."

Although the number of unsheltered homeless went up to 145, overall,  progress is being made on the local, state and national levels.

Johnson wants to keep it going.

In addition to the Coordinated Entry system, there’s a new By Name waiting list, which now has some 200 names on it. The grant-funded I-Care initiative, which promotes free, temporary housing, shared housing, and case management to homeless individuals, is continuing.  Opening Doors is also joining the SOAR project to help eligible individuals get Social Security and disability benefits.

More information is available online at https://openingdoorsnwfl.org/.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.