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Fort Walton Beach Partnership Tackles Homelessness

jeff_gabbert.jpg
City of Fort Walton Beach
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A partnership between the city of Fort Walton Beach Police Department and the Homelessness and Housing Alliance (HHA) provides a new layer to community policing with the city’s first stability specialist who will work alongside police to address the needs of people who are unsheltered. 

Sgt. Dustin Rosenburg has been working in the community policing unit for years. He says the department often gets called to respond to issues around the area’s homeless population. But without many resources, officers are left with few options. 

Rosenburg knows first-hand there’s no quick fix to solving homelessness. He recalls an instance when he provided one woman with assistance and got into a local shelter by “cutting through some red tape.” But when she was kicked out after someone touched her belongings, she was back to square one. And so was Rosenburg. 

“I quickly found it’s a full-time job to follow-up and try and connect people with resources,” he said. “I’m not a social worker. I don’t have that patience. And I’m already being pulled seven different ways.” 

The Fort Walton Beach area has few places for homeless individuals. One Hopeful Place is only open to men until it’s women and children shelter opens. There’s also Opportunity Place, which is open to women with children or families. Both facilities stay full. 

If an officer responds to a call of a homeless person sleeping outside a business or in a park, there’s little they can do outside of arresting the person for trespassing. 

But Rosenburg knows that’s just a “vicious cycle” that doesn’t solve the community problem. 

In a report from The Howard Center 71-year-old Kenneth Shultz, of Fort Walton Beach, said he’s been charged for trespassing 96 times in the nine years he’s been homeless. His court costs and fines have accumulated to over $41,000. 

That’s where the stability specialist comes in: to find temporary and permanent solutions for unsheltered people that don’t include jail. 

With the help of a $22,000 block grant from the city, HHA was able to help fund a new position who would work closely with the police department. Last month, they hired Jeff Gabbert and for the past few weeks, he’s been getting to know the community and some of the chronically homeless individuals who live there. 

Sarah Yelverton, executive director of HHA, said the partnership comes from the city police wanting to be a part of the solution instead of the problem. 

“They do really want to help,” she said.  “They came to us and said ‘We want to be able to offer services, facilitate as many services.’ They don’t have access to funds, and they’re also not trained in social work. The goal for everybody is stable housing and we’re trying to see what we can do together.”

The position is a first for Fort Walton Beach, but this kind of program is becoming a trend across the country, especially in bigger cities like Houston and San Diego. The partnership of civilian social workers and law enforcement has also been a talking point after the months of protests following the death of George Floyd. 

While the program is new, Yelverton said it could change several times “to get it right.” She also said finding someone with Gabbert’s background was like “hitting the jackpot.” 

Gabbert is retired military and has been a social worker since 1991. He was most recently working with homeless individuals in Brunswick, Georgia, where he lived before moving to Fort Walton Beach. In his first few days patrolling with the police department, he said he was surprised to see the number of long-term homeless. 

“When I worked the 2 to 10 p.m. shift, it was outrageous,” he said. “They were basically hiding themselves. And the people in the community don’t want to see it.” 

Right now, he’s working on building relationships not just with the people, but the agencies in Northwest Florida. Success for him is getting someone under a roof for the night. Sometimes, it’s all you can do. 

Already, Gabbert has been touched by one “bittersweet” moment on the job. When he came across a homeless man sleeping on a picnic table in a park. 

“When we approached him, we found out he was a decorated vet with end-stage cancer,” Gabbert said. “He was trying to finish chemo while living on the street.”

Gabbert said staff at One Hopeful Place “pushed the limits” to secure a bed for the man. He ended up passing away not too long after, but to Gabbert it was a victory that the man died in a bed and not in a park. 

The job is not easy, he admits. 

“I go to bed at night thinking about the people laying on concrete,” Gabbert said. “I’ve been a social worker since 1991 and it doesn’t get any easier.” 

Just a few weeks in, Rosenburg said he thinks the program is going great. It doesn’t solve every problem, but he sees a difference being made. 

“There were times before when I’d think ‘I wish I had a case manager,’” he said. “We can’t say the police will never have to go to a call … but I already feel like a burden has been lifted.”