In the early 2000’s, Ft. Walton Beach experienced 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.
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. Groundbreaking for Phase I occurred in April, 2016 and it opened for business in late November, 2016. Phase I presently accommodates 16 men, with an emphasis on veterans.
As of August, 2017, Phase I 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. This renovation included the installation of a commercial kitchen (thanks to IMPACT 100 and Fort Walton Beach Medical Center) which will not only be used to prepare food for the residents, but also as a training location for the residents in safe food preparation and handling, assisted by instructors from our local schools. Now that the renovation to Phase Two is finished, it will accommodate up to 50 men—as well as continue to serve as a cold night shelter. This means that Phase I will now be Okaloosa County’s first single women shelter. Phase I will accommodate up to 11 homeless, single women. Despite COVID 19, progress has continued at OHP. The Day Program has continued to be operated 3 days per week as well as the Cold Night Program with over 30 nights of shelter services. This is the beginning of what is forecasted at One Hopeful Place!
In October 2020, Community Solutions reached out to Bridgeway Center, Inc. (BCI) to form a partnership for the management and programming at One Hopeful Place (OHP). Since 1966, BCI has been Okaloosa’s Community Behavioral Health Center. BCI already provided primary care, mental health, psychiatric medicine, and substance use services to the residents at OHP. It was a natural progression for BCI to work with Community Solutions to bring OHP to the next level of service with the opening of Phase II.
BCI will implement operations at OHP for the residents’ transition to permanent housing. This will be done with the support of OHP community providers. These auxiliary services will be provided to the residents on site at OHP.
Community Solutions is the lead group—One Hopeful Place is the Village being created. 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.