Several local organizations have teamed up to address homelessness in Okaloosa and Walton counties. Their immediate goal is to end 'veteran' homelessness by the end of this year.
“And, it’s going to take our whole community and all of our community partners to unite and provide a crisis response system to help veteran homelessness.”
That’s Sarah Yelverton, Executive Director of the Okaloosa Walton Homeless Continuum of Care. The organization has formed a homeless task force called the “Initiative for Veterans of Okaloosa and Walton” or IVOW.
One of the strategies of IVOW is to get local officials involved. And, Yelverton says they are now stepping up their efforts through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, or HUD’s, National Mayor's Challenge, “There are over 600 mayors, governors and county officials that have already joined the National Mayor’s Challenge and cities like New Orleans have already met their goal of ending homelessness, veteran homelessness.”
Recently, Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Nathan Boyles and a coalition of local mayors from the area symbolically signed on to show their commitment to the endeavor.
So far, the cities of Mary Esther, Cinco Bayou, Destin and FWB are participating. Mike Anderson is Mayor of Fort Walton, “It’s a very aggressive goal, because we just did our Point in Time survey, in Okaloosa and Walton Counties, because our Continuum of Care did the count and they cover both counties. There are 117 homeless veterans.”
Mayor Anderson is retired from the Air Force and says he’s sensitive to the problems and issues that veterans face. He's pledging to do whatever he can to help alleviate homelessness among veterans.
That includes working with another nonprofit organization called Community Solutions, whose plan is to end all homelessness in the area.
As of this January’s Point in Time count, there were 683 homeless people in the two county area, about 17% of which are veterans. Beyond that, the Okaloosa County School District alone estimates over 600 school aged children that are homeless. Mitch Mongell is CEO of FWB Medical Center and serves as the Chairman of Community Solutions, “Many of them are not looking at choosing to be homeless. There will be a group that choose homelessness, the chronic homeless. Those are ones that will be a difficult challenge for all of us. But, the children, families that are sleeping in cars, the veterans that we have, it is a need that we have to embark on.”
Community Solutions, an initiative of The Greater Ft. Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, is currently making great progress by creating a safe haven called One Hopeful Place due to open in the fall, “So, with One Hopeful Place, with the wonderful group that has been volunteering their time. I’m really proud to be with this group. One Hopeful Place is under construction now; we have the architects which are looking to expand the overhead which is part of the old sewer plant. It’s a site that I’m very happy with county and Ft. Walton and how they came together. It’s an area that we’re able to afford to put it together.”
As noted by Mongell, the new facility is located at the city’s old wastewater treatment plant off of North Beal Extension, the site offers about eight acres that will be used to house and feed the homeless, act as a resource center, and a cold-night weather shelter for the county.
Applications are already being received and the first occupant will be a homeless veteran.
Again, Sarah Yelverton, Director of the Okaloosa Walton Homeless Continuum of Care, “I believe a community without homelessness is something we should all strive for. Homelessness is here and it’s not just going away, we have to come together and address the issue in a way that is impactful and sustainable for our area.”
Organizations Involved Include: