In a virtual meeting on one of the most frigid days in recent history Tuesday, a group of advocates met as a task force and brainstormed the steppingstones to eradicating homelessness in the Panhandle.
The nature of the meeting seemed fitting, as what always has been a critical issue in addressing homelessness and panhandling has only become more dire in the past year, with shelters unable to take on as many guests because of social distancing and this week’s cold weather forcing advocates into working overtime to find blankets and space for those who area homeless.
Connie Bookman, the founder of Pathways for Change and the driving force behind the new homelessness task force, said while there are numerous resources for the homeless population, from housing to shelter to food support, it’s rare for the agencies offering those services to partner on a large and holistic scale.
The new venture, called Homeless Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida, is a community partnership aiming to streamline services across Escambia and Santa Rosa counties by connecting services and more accurately tracking the needs and causes of the area’s homelessness.
Some of the initial goals are to implement an online database containing information on the community’s homeless population and assigning case workers to track metrics and help address the root cause of each person’s homelessness.
“I’ve been an executive director for two decades so I know it’s easy to put your head down toward your mission, march forward and get distracted from the bigger vision of our community,” Bookman said. “But Pathways for Change is in a position in 2021 to bring all parties together, all homeless service providers, to help the community understand what’s offered for homeless individuals.”
John Johnson, executive director of Opening Doors Northwest Florida and the task force’s co-chairman, said in Tuesday’s virtual meeting that previous instances of missed communication, opportunities and grant dollar have come up because many agencies and nonprofits work in silos. Bringing them together will have more impact, he said.
“We’ve had challenges and, at times, even I’ve wanted to walk away, but here we have a really unique opportunity of resources, initiatives and directives coming down from the state that is aligned with the very work we’re doing in the community,” he said. “We can’t do it individually but together united as one front we can. We can strike a heavy blow to poverty.”
The task force will be made up of eight subcommittees with the intent of filling those positions with experts in each field. Some of those include housing, employment, health care, legal services and transportation.
The task force also has ambitious goals, aiming to increase shelter capacity for families and women; funding to homeless services providers; utilization of mental health services; and case management for the newly housed, all by 15% in 2021. There are further goals to reduce emergency room visits by the homeless population, reduce court interaction and increase affordable housing beds this year.
Bookman said that on any given day in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, there are almost 1,500 homeless adults and 4,000 homeless children. That number incorporates those living on the street or in the woods, couch surfing, staying with family and friends or any manner of living without a permanent address of their own.
Johnson said during the Tuesday meeting that once the subcommittees begin meeting, gathering information and reporting back, the task force will develop policies and plans, then identify funding sources and grant opportunities specific to those needs.
Bookman said the pandemic has exacerbated the number of homeless individuals in the area and simultaneously reduced the number of services available for that population.
“The lack of services, for single homeless women, women and children, this is pathetic and we have to do better,” she said. “The beauty of panhandling to me is it brings homelessness into the visual for those of us driving to work in the morning. … So many homeless are out of sight, so I’m grateful because as annoying as it might be to the community or drivers, it’s forcing us to look at the problem.”
Bookman said she’s been meeting with leads in health care and housing to get initial information on what the needs are in those areas, and the task force’s subcommittees should be formed soon.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-480-6979.