Florida

The number of homeless people in Northwest Florida in 2023 is increasing, the total is expected to increase

During this week, volunteers will be visiting camps, shelters and resource centers across Northwest Florida to help with our community’s annual homeless census.

The annual point-in-time census is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) each January and helps determine federal funding.

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For this year’s census, new survey strategies – combined with the high cost of living – are expected to show more people in the region needing housing.

“We know this year’s number will be higher,” said John Johnson, executive director of Opening Doors Northwest Florida, which serves Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. He blamed much of the blame on inflation and ever-rising housing costs.

“Affordable housing has deteriorated resulting in people not really having a place to stay, doubled, tripled, quadrupled.”

John Johnson, General Manager of Opening Doors in Northwest Florida

Along with expecting a higher number, the 2023 total is expected to be more accurate. This is partly due to the return of in-person surveys after using less precise visible counts over the past two years due to COVID. In addition, the continuum of supply for the Esca Rosa area is expanding exploration activities with new partners.

“We’ve expanded our reach to include more government support from both the city (Pensacola) and county (Escambia). They help in many ways; Some of the employees even volunteer,” Johnson said.

Opening Doors also receives help from the Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies, or BRACE, which sends their CERT teams to conduct night counts.

Another new strategy is the use of navigators from Community Health Northwest Florida to help collect data at area hospitals.

“These are people who are already working in the hospitals to coordinate discharge planning for the homeless. So they will also help us with the count to identify the homeless people coming through the ER doors.”

In addition, Johnson welcomed the increased involvement of volunteers from the University of West Florida, which this year includes sociology and nursing students in addition to the social work program.

For 2022, the census showed 727 homeless people in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, including 367 homeless — a number boosted by the large number of homeless campers under Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola.

Efforts to relocate these homeless people to make room for a new skate park prompted a push to speed up the establishment of new shelters.

“This count will include expanded emergency shelters,” Johnson said. “We have created two new shelters in our community aimed at women in families, both operated by REAP (ReEntry Alliance of Pensacola).”

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Serene Keiek

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courtesy photo

Volunteers train for the point-in-time survey.

With a $3 million share of federal funding from the City of Pensacola’s American Rescue Act Plan last year, REAP also opened the new Max-well Respite Center, a 17,000-square-foot transitional housing program that can accommodate up to 120 people.

Last year, Bright Bridge Ministries opened His Place, a transitional shelter for men. Also online went Canopy of Hope, a safe shelter for women in crisis, including those who are homeless or have been abused, trafficked and sexually exploited.

TIED TOGETHER: Early unofficial figures show about 400 vulnerable homeless people in Escambia, Santa Rosa

Johnson is encouraged by the growing number of homeless shelters in the Pensacola area. But he’s concerned that skyrocketing rental costs (from about $850-$950 a month to about $1,300 a month) and the lack of affordable housing will create a housing shortage.

“We are aware of 300 units in our community that are no longer affordable and well above the fair market price distributed by HUD each year,” Johnson began. “What stops me is that when we invite people to come to the shelter, which gives them a break, our ability to move them to more permanent housing quickly 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 developing new units on the campus of the old Baptist Hospital and through Escambia County’s Infill Housing Program. But, he warned, it will take time for them to come online.

Meanwhile, Opening Doors continues this year’s PIT count in Escambia and Santa Rosa, with preliminary data early Wednesday afternoon showing 491 homeless, including 259 chronically homeless and 65 veterans.

In neighboring Okaloosa and Walton counties, the Homelessness and Housing Alliance is holding its PIT Count tomorrow/today, with plans for volunteers to conduct surveys in Destin, Niceville, Fort Walton Beach and Crestview, and North and South Walton.

Data from 2022 showed 403 homeless people in this two-county area, including 234 homeless, 28 families, and 85 chronically homeless.

When the count closes tomorrow in Pensacola, about 40 vendors will be on hand to offer resources and services at the annual U-Count event, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Salvation Army.

New this year, homeless people who have a wristband showing they have taken a survey can get free rides to and from the event via ECAT.

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