Northwest Florida’s 2023 Homeless count expands, total expected to rise
Throughout this week, volunteers across Northwest Florida will be visiting camps, shelters and resource centers to assist with the annual count of people in our community who are homeless.
The annual Point-in-Time Count is required each January by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and helps determine federal funding.
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For this year’s count, new survey strategies — combined with the high cost of living — are expected to show more people in the region in need of housing.
“We know that this year’s count is going to be a higher number,” declared John Johnson, executive director of Opening Doors Northwest Florida, which serves Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. He put much of the blame on inflation and ever-increasing housing costs.
“Affordable housing has deteriorated, which has resulted in people not really having a place to go, doubled-up, tripled-up, quadrupled-up.”John Johnson, executive director of Opening Doors of Northwest Florida
Along with the expectation for a higher count, the total for 2023 is expected to be more accurate. That’s due in part to the return of in-person surveys, following the use of less precise visible counts for the past two years due to COVID. Additionally, the continuum of care for the Esca-Rosa area is widening survey activities with new partners.
“We’ve expanded our reach to gain more government support from both the city (Pensacola) and the county (Escambia). They’re helping in a variety of ways; some of the staff are even volunteering,” Johnson said.
Opening Doors is also getting help from the Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies or BRACE, which is sending out their CERT teams to conduct night counts.
Another new strategy is the use of navigators from Community Health Northwest Florida to help gather data at area hospitals.
“These are people that are already working in the hospitals to help coordinate discharge planning for those that are homeless. So, they’re going to help us with the count as well to identify the homeless that come in through the doors of the ER.”
Additionally, Johnson applauded the greater participation of volunteers from the University of West Florida, this year expanding beyond those in the social work program to include sociology and nursing students.
For 2022, the count showed 727 homeless individuals in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, including 367 unsheltered — a number boosted by the large population of homeless campers under Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola.
The effort to relocate those homeless individuals, to make way for a new skate park, resulted in a push to fast-track the establishment of new shelter space.
“This count will include expanded shelters,” said Johnson. “We’ve created two new shelters in our community that targets women in families, both ran by REAP (ReEntry Alliance of Pensacola).”
With a portion of $3 million in federal American Rescue Act Plan funding last year from the City of Pensacola, REAP also opened the new Max-well Respite Center, a 17,000 square foot transitional housing program designed to accommodate up to 120 people.
In the past year, Bright Bridge Ministries opened His Place, a transitional housing facility for men. Also coming on line was the Canopy of Hope, which is a safe temporary shelter for women in crisis, including those who are homeless or have been abused, trafficked, and sexually exploited.
Johnson is encouraged by growth in the number of homeless beds in the greater Pensacola area. However, he’s concerned that sky-rocketing rental costs (up from about $850-$950 a month to about $1,300 monthly) and the lack of affordable housing inventory will result in a shelter bottleneck.
“We know of 300 units in our community that are no longer affordable units, well beyond the fair market rate distributed by HUD every year,” Johnson began. “The thing that gives me pause is that as we invite people to come to the shelters, which it gives them a respite, our ability to quickly move them into more permanent housing is very, very competitive.”
Johnson, who leads the Northwest Florida Homeless Reduction Task Force, says there are plans to build new affordable housing in the area, including development of new units on the old Baptist Hospital campus and through Escambia County’s Infill Housing Program. But, he cautioned, it will take time for them to come on line.
Meantime, Opening Doors continues this year’s PIT Count in Escambia and Santa Rosa, with preliminary data as of early this Wednesday afternoon showing 491 homeless people, including 259 who are chronically homeless and 65 veterans.
In neighboring Okaloosa and Walton counties, the Homelessness and Housing Alliance is holding its PIT Count tomorrow, with plans for volunteers to conduct surveys in Destin, Niceville, Fort Walton Beach, and Crestview, as well as North and South Walton.
Data from 2022 showed 403 homeless people in that two-county area, with 234 unsheltered, 28 families, and 85 chronically homeless.
As the count wraps Thursday in Pensacola, about 40 vendors will be on hand to offer resources and services at the annual U-Count Event, which is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Salvation Army.
New for this year, homeless individuals who have a bracelet to show they’ve completed a survey will be able to get free rides to and from the event via ECAT.