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Homelessness in the Greater Pensacola Area appears to be trending up

Volunteers and staff help conduct annual PIT count last week.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Volunteers and staff help conduct annual PIT count last week.

The annual Point In Time count of homeless people in Northwest Florida is winding down, with some preliminary data showing likely increases across many sub-populations in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

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Opening Doors Northwest Florida, which serves the two-county area, chose to commence their count on the night of Monday, Jan. 22.

A few days in, volunteers were conducting surveys at the Alfred-Washburn Center for the homeless in Pensacola.

At the center on Wednesday morning, it was cloudy with a misting rain. But, like any other day here, there’s still a long line of unsheltered people waiting to get in for breakfast.

On the menu today, it’s pancakes and Sheppard’s Pie.

“This right here will be gone in a few minutes,” remarked one man as he poured syrup.

Meantime, a team of volunteers, mostly students from the University of West Florida, were given towels to help provide a dry place for individuals to eat their meals, then stood by and waited for the opportunity to get to work.

With the Hyperion PIT Count App, which Opening Doors started using in 2020, the survey can be conducted in just a few minutes on their cell phones.

RELATED: Volunteers needed For homeless count; new app to speed survey

“This how you’ll introduce yourself. Hi, this is Letitia,” began Opening Doors staff member Letitia Bright, using her phone to demonstrate how the app works.

She pointed out that one of the things that is new this year is a script for volunteers to follow, and then she starts to read the script.

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

“I’m doing a short survey about the people of our community experiencing homelessness,” said Bright, going on to point out that volunteers are instructed to tell participants the purpose of the survey, which includes finding out what kinds of problems they face and what services are needed.

The script notes that participation is voluntary and all responses are confidential.

If it’s determined that the person has already completed a survey, the app will declare the interaction complete.

“If you say no, it’s going to go on to the next one (question), ‘Where did you stay Monday night, Jan. 22?’"

Then she pointed to a long list of options, which include street or sidewalk, vehicle, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, under bridge or overpass, woods or outdoor encampment, emergency or cold night shelter, transitional housing, and hotel/motel.

Nearby, a volunteer is beginning the survey, asking a man where he slept on the night of the 22nd.

“Probably right here,” was the response, in reference to the Alfred-Washburn Center.

In another interview, a woman simply answers the question by saying she slept “outside.”

RELATED:Pensacola, Escambia leaders urged to work together for federal funding to end homelessness

Volunteers and staff conduct the voluntary PIT count last week.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Volunteers and staff conduct the voluntary PIT count last week.

Other questions try to get to the root of why individuals are without shelter.

Center director Mike Kimberl, who was once homeless himself, says medical emergency and medical debt, loss of job, and strained family relationships are fairly common contributors, but has found that there’s no single answer.

“But every time I think I’ve heard it all, someone sits across from me and tells me a story and I’m like, ‘I’ve never heard that before,’” said Kimberl. “So it truly is a hodgepodge of reasonings [sic] that lead people into homelessness.”

With the daily opportunity for meals, showers and other services, Kimberl acknowledged that the center is a great place to conduct the count. And while the facility is privately funded and doesn’t directly receive money as a result of the PIT count, he says their clients do benefit.

“So, we work as a point of entry and we align people with agencies that do receive funding based off the PIT count and they help get those clients to further themselves up off the streets,” he said.

Overseeing the PIT Count at Alfred-Washburn and all other locations is Martika Baker, HMIS director for Opening Doors. HMIS stands for Homeless Management Information System.

“We are seeing an increase in homelessness in specific sub-populations,” said Baker on Friday morning, with a couple days to go. “When it comes to the unsheltered, we are super close to what we ended with last year.”

The 2023 count showed 742 unsheltered homeless. As of Friday morning, they had collected 706 surveys.

“Based on today’s data, we still have a large male presence, so there are a lot of homeless males in our community,” Baker stated, adding that many were living in places not meant for human habitation.

The preliminary data also showed about 10% of the people screened were veterans and 130 people said they were experiencing some type of chronic homelessness.

Baker explains what that means.

“They’ve been homeless for a full year, without going into housing, or in a three year period, they’ve been unhoused for at least four times during that three-year period totaling up to 12 months.”

Coinciding with the PIT Count is the Housing Inventory County (HIC) of available beds and units for the homeless.

But, the number of homeless individuals in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties — who slept in those shelter beds the night of Jan. 22 — may not be finalized until the reporting deadline of Feb. 1.

The Okaloosa-Walton PIT Count was conducted by the Homelessness and Housing Alliance on the night of Jan. 26.

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.