The first residents of what is now referred as Fort Walton Beach, FL established their settlement approximately 1100-1550 AD. A Walton Guards Civil War post was established in the early 1860’s—but the population of the area first started getting some traction in the early 1950’s. Many had trained for WWII at the current Eglin Air Force Base and returned to establish the community. (I recommend visiting our Indian Temple Mound Museum in downtown Fort Walton Beach to learn all that happened here from 1100-1953—when the community officially changed their name to Fort Walton Beach). From 1950-1990 the area was known as sleepy little beach resort community—where visitors came during the spring break and summer season and left the rest of the year to the residents to enjoy the wonderfulness of the climate, natural resources and all around great place to live.
When I moved here in 1990, the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area was not even a Top 50 vacation destination in the United States. By 2010, it was a Top 50 vacation destination in THE WORLD! There are several factors for this—the establishment of a Tourist Development Department, tasked with promoting our area, was a big one. After Hurricane Opal, in 1995, which demolished a lot of the old 2-3 story beachside motels, a whole bunch of brand new 7 story condominiums were built in their place. More condos means more rooms to rent, more owners and visitors staying in them, more marketing to attract them, more shopping to entice them, more restaurants to feed them—you get the point.
And then– all of a sudden in the early 2000’s, this small beach resort community was experiencing exponential growth—taxing the one road—Hwy 98—and doubling (sometimes tripling) the population during the key tourist seasons. Our little town began to experience Big City issues—such as traffic—and ultimately an influence of visitors who were not fully prepared to totally envelope themselves into the community, and as such became homeless. Some were/are down on their luck veterans, associated with our area’s huge military presence; some made decisions to move here, more optimistic than realistic of finding a job/home very quickly; and, of course, some moved here to make it a year round “vacation area”—and bask in the assistance of the most giving community on earth.
Thus starting in 2006, the community leadership comprised of Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber Board members, working with area nonprofits, churches, law enforcement, municipal and county governments—and interested residents/volunteers—met to ask the question—what are we going to do to assist those who are down on their luck here in Okaloosa County? New nonprofits were created with their focus of taking care of the men, women, children, and families struggling to make it here. At a 2009 conference, attended by over 150 local leaders, one decision was universal — we must find a shelter where these down on their luck folks are given a hand up, not a handout.
In 2012 a group of interested members of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce created the nonprofit organization Community Solutions of the Emerald Coast, Inc. (“Community Solutions”). Its mission: Dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness through effective communication and collaboration between service entities, resource providers, and our community by bestowing innovative and compassionate direction to men, women and children in Okaloosa County. The main goal—find a place to build this shelter that the community is asking for.
Not only were the community businesses/nonprofits/churches looking and trying to find the best way to establish this shelter, but so were the staff and elected officials from the City of Fort Walton Beach. They too were very aware of the increased need of finding a place for those down on their luck individuals to get back on their feet.
Sometime around 2014, the City leadership began consolidating departments which freed up the public works department, housed at a former waste treatment plant which was previously consolidated with the county about 10 years prior. This 8-acre parcel of land, located in the NW corner of the city limits, became the perfect location for the “shelter” for which the community had wished.
The City and Community Solutions signed a long-term agreement allowing the conversion of the property into a location where folks can turn their lives around. Chamber Board members Stephen Smith and Nick Chubb created the name for the location – “One Hopeful Place.” This term applies to the entire 8 acres—or Village—with separate named areas for each phase of the individual’s progress.
Realizing the importance of this project for Okaloosa County, Senator Don Gaetz and Rep Matt Gaetz each lobbied for State funds to assist in the renovation of the different phases of One Hopeful Place. In the 2015 State budget, $300,000 was allocated toward the renovation of Phase Two. At the same time, the Okaloosa Community Development Corporation located a grant or two enabling the conversion of an old pole barn—where lawn mowers were stored—into the completion of Phase One named The Haven at One Hopeful Place. Groundbreaking for The Haven occurred in April, 2016 and it opened for business in late November, 2016. The Haven presently accommodates 10 men, with an emphasis on veterans.
As of August, 2017, The Haven has assisted over 50 men who simply needed a little help in getting their lives on track. The testimonials of gratitude are very inspiring. With the aforementioned 2015 State allocation, a big cinder block building (Phase Two) was totally retro’d with new roof, walls, and all the other fittings needed to make the building secure. Once an additional $500,000 is raised (to renovate the inside of the building), Phase Two will accommodate 40 men—and up to 100 people when the building serves as the cold night shelter for all of Okaloosa County. This renovation includes the installation of a commercial kitchen (thanks to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center for the donation of the equipment), which will not only be used for the feeding of the residents, but also as a training location for the residents in safe food preparation and handling, assisted by instructors from our local schools. And, that’s just the beginning of what is forecasted at One Hopeful Place!
Community Solutions is the lead group—One Hopeful Place is the Village being creating. We look forward to having you, the reader of this tutorial, join our efforts to make One Hopeful Place the front door into permanent housing, and working with us to end the cycle of homelessness for those experiencing housing loss in Okaloosa County.