By Erika Scannell
As a editor/writer for this great magazine for nearly 15 years, I have never written an article in first person singular or made it personal or about me. I always try to keep my articles subjective and without personal opinion. But this story has touched me so deeply, I have no choice but to write it out and put it into perspective for all to understand. This story has a deeper meaning for me and deserves to be brought to light.
The first alarm bell rang out over the early days of last summer when my husband, our five children and I decided to grab a quick bite to eat after church. Near the curb, sitting in the blazing sun, already sweaty and as red as a ripe strawberry was a beautiful older woman with sun-bleached hair who was obviously living on the streets. I offered her my umbrella to give her shade from the sun and asked if we could buy her breakfast. She graciously accepted both and in return, allowed me to be a witness of kindness and compassion to the five pairs of genetically-linked eyes staring back at me. In my tiny circus, rarely do I have an opportunity to so boldly put my words into action in such a clearly visible way for my children. I was blessed by giving away a small, simple meal and my umbrella… which, by the way, my three-year-old had a very hard time understanding on such a sunny day! (This same three-year-old took every rain-soaked afternoon for months to remind me that I had given away our umbrella on a sunny day and did not have it on a rainy day when it was needed. With grace, we all took turns reminding our precious child once again why it was okay to give it away.)
The second alarm bell rang loud and clear this past January when our area’s first real cold front was moving in and an announcement was made during church asking for volunteers to help in the cold night shelter opening for the area homeless. My husband turned to me after the announcement and whispered, “Remind me to search for my subarctic sleeping bag. I think it’s in the attic. I want to give it to Allen*.” Seeing my shocked and confused face he quickly added, “You know he lives on the streets, right? And he won’t go to a shelter.” No, I didn’t realize that this man who sits a couple rows in front of us each Sunday in church lives on the streets. I ignorantly thought to myself, “We don’t really have any homeless here, in paradise, do we?” I remembered the lady just months before that we briefly greeted, but in my mind, surely that was just a temporary situation or perhaps she was just passing through on her way to family and “no one ever really ‘lives on the streets’, right?” Not here. Not in Destin, undoubtedly? I mean, this is THE Emerald Coast, “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” We have tourists from all over the world visit here; it is inconceivable for us to have a homeless population, correct? I knew Destin doesn’t even have a homeless shelter. Well, in my small little world, I reasoned, “If we don’t have a shelter, we undoubtedly don’t have a need for one. And if we don’t have a need for one, then naturally we don’t have any homeless in the area, right?”
I was wrong – so very wrong.
The third alarm bell rang out very shortly after the second. Just a few days later, our On The Coast publisher called and asked me if I would consider writing an article about our area homeless. Still content in my small little happy brain, I reluctantly told her about the alarm bells that were going off in my head and spirit. And yes, even after all these alarm bells started ringing, I was still hesitant because I knew in researching and writing about this, I would have to face a period of my own childhood that is not colored in rainbows, heart-shaped balloons and endless supplies of ice cream and lollipops. For a brief period growing up, my family was without a home and without a place to go.
Just before I turned fifteen years old, my family was getting ready to move from New Jersey to West Virginia. The trucks were packed, the current house was emptied out and my father had just left to turn in the keys and take one final load of surplus to storage, to be retrieved at a later date. I was lying on the floor in my parents’ room making carpet angels in the rug and looking out the glass doors at the pool thinking about how much I was going to miss the “Garden State” and wondering what “West ‘By God’ Virginia” was going to be like. The only thing still in the empty house was an old rotary phone plugged into the wall jack. (Parents, you may have to explain this one to the younger generation reading this!) The phone rang and I answered it, thinking it was my dad telling us he was on his way back. Instead it was a woman asking for either my mom or my dad. I retrieved my mom from another room and watched as she sank to the floor in utter disbelief at what she had just heard from the other end of the line.
The woman on the phone was a realtor from WV my parents had been working with in securing our new house. Turns out, the owners of the house my parents had agreed to rent from had changed their minds. They were not going to rent the house for a few more months and were giving it to family members to use for the summer. In one instant my family of nine - my parents and us seven children - were completely homeless.
We remained that way, living out of a storage unit for months, waiting to find another place to rent in West Virginia. The memories of this event and time frame had been so far repressed that it wasn’t until talking about the area homeless that my brain allowed it to invade “my happy place.” My perspective was awakened and I emphatically agreed to embrace this story, even to the point of spending the day out in the community, meeting some of our area homeless and the faithful servants who help them! The following are the things I discovered while embracing our community members without a home, but full of hope.
According to an article published in the October 22, 2016 Northwest Florida Daily News, as of the beginning of 2016 there are approximately 629 homeless people across Okaloosa and Walton counties. However, the number of beds available to help shelter those 629 or more is only about 130 beds in shelters and transitional homes. In this same article, Homelessness and Housing Alliance (HHA) executive director Sarah Yelverton states, “[This area] has the highest population of chronically homeless in the state per capita.” Chronically homeless means living on the streets long-term. Yelverton goes on to explain, “Fifty percent of our homeless is made up of chronically homeless individuals. Some have been here 5, 10, 15 years.”
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Florida has the nation’s third highest homeless population, surpassed only by New York and California. Also reported is the fastest growing homeless population belongs to families with children. Veterans make up 17% of Florida’s homeless population – the highest in all 50 states.
The rise in housing costs has surpassed income growth. In a University of Florida housing study published in 2013, from 2000 to 2011, the statewide median monthly rent increased from $816 to $950 while the median annual income fell from $34,000 to $30,343. That means over 37% of a person’s income is eaten up by housing, if they are fortunate to find suitable housing for less than $950/month.
Destin has no independent shelter of its own. Walton county has only short-term cold night shelters available when the temperatures drop below 40˚.
Samantha*, a middle-aged woman with gorgeous long hair and weathered skin, became homeless after her husband died. “He took care of everything. Without him I was left with nothing,” she explains. “It’s not always drugs and alcohol that bring people to the streets. Sometimes it’s just life and the loss of a loved one with nowhere to go.”
An experienced carpenter and brick mason by trade, Jeffrey* has a heart condition. He is eligible for medical benefits, but only if he makes less than $1000 per month. “You can’t work to afford a house and more for less than $1000 a month. I would rather have my heart medicine than a roof over my head.” His solution: he works 1-2 days a week or tries to find work from those willing to pay cash so he can keep his heart medicine, which would cost thousands and thousands a month without his benefits.
Matthew*, a handsome older gentleman with a gentle voice and demeanor, says “bad life choices resulting from disasters and loss will lead you to lose everything.” After working for 17 years, his boss died and he found himself out of work. While adjusting to being unemployed and looking for work, his mother passed away, and he chose to ease the pain of his situations with alcohol, causing a domino effect that cost him everything and landed him on the streets. He now spends his days clean, sober and working on bikes in the bike shop of The Blue Door.
Robert* is a wildly funny and spirited middle-aged man who also spends his days volunteering in the bike shop of the Blue Door. He is a self-taught mechanic with the knowledge and know-how to custom fit bikes in every form and fashion. When asked why he volunteers in the bike shop rather than try to find work in one of the area bike stores, he replied, “I enjoy the challenge and fulfillment of providing a greater need rather than supplying a want. Plus, these people are my family.”
He is not the only one to refer to fellow homeless companions as “family.” Philip*, a taller, younger man with a soft kindness about him shares, “We all try to help each other. We are a family. We take care of each other out here. I know at any time if I’m starving and in need, I can go to anyone else’s camp and they will share what little food and resources they have with me. We just do that. We look out for one another.” Philip goes on to say, “I just wish people understood being homeless is NOT our identity; it’s our circumstances. Some of the people living on the streets are educated and have college degrees. Some were once pharmaceutical reps, experienced carpenters, welders, mechanics; one friend was once a case manager in a hospital and could have been a millionaire three times over. The majority of people are only 2-3 paychecks away from being homeless. That’s all it takes these days.”
The dynamic duo of Others Of Destin, Inc. is Laurel Vermillion and Susie Pierce. These two amazing women may be small in stature but they are a mighty force working as a voice for the homeless and underserved in Walton and Okaloosa counties through a variety of services focused towards leading individuals towards self-sufficiency. They meet face-to-face with people on a weekly basis. One exchange between Pierce and one of the homeless went like this: “How’d you sleep?” Pierce asked as she offered up a genuine hug. Our friend’s response: “Cold, but you know…” Pierce replied, “Need more cough drops? I brought some. How’s your throat? Have you seen . . . ?”
This personal, in-depth, face-to-face interaction makes this little pair stand out! Vermillion and Pierce make it a weekly mission to check in with as many people living on the streets as possible. They make it a point to assure the others in this area that their lives matter; their situation matters and they are loved. The personal service and attention these two ladies give includes helping with everything from driving the bus to the cold night shelters to filling out benefit forms and finding special items - even cough drops!
Others Of Destin, Inc. works hand-in-hand with The Church of Destin – a consortium of area churches all working together. One of those churches opens its doors twice a week to offer a hot meal, a clean towel and a shower to area homeless. That door is known as The Blue Door and is located off the fellowship hall of Saint Andrew’s By-The-Sea Episcopal Church in Destin. The team of leaders and volunteers for this little historic church encompasses all. From the “winter visitors” escaping the cold winds and snow of the north who volunteer in the bike shop and kitchen, to the homeless volunteers who enter data and manage the check-in desk, to the church employees and coordinators for the various programs and services, this mighty church offers a twice-a-week food pantry, a clothing bank where each person can exchange dirty clothes for new, occasional free-of-charge bagged lunches, showers and meals as previously mentioned, as well as bikes. Yes, bikes.
The bike shop of Saint Andrews is a small work of art in and of itself! It is run by volunteers and has several community partners that donate used bikes, offers discounted parts and even pick-up and drop-off services. Each bike is tagged with its serial number and the name of the person who received it. All information is saved in a computer file at The Blue Door. The purpose of the bikes, as defined by
long-time returning winter visitor and volunteer mechanic Lynn Middlebrook, is to “Give [those in need] a way to get out and find work and to give those who have work a way to get there.” The bike shop has been in operation for eight years and was the revelation of a handful of faithful church members. Their vision has provided thousands of bikes over the years to area residents, homeless or not. They also provide bikes for the J-1 workers – the seasonal foreign exchange workers.
Another area activist is Ted Corcoran, President/CEO of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. Seeing an influx of area panhandlers about nine years ago, this group made a commitment to learn more about the two-county situation and the homeless. They realized Okaloosa and Walton county had “big city problems in a small town.” Local police records showed the area had between 50-60 visual panhandlers who travel through the area annually. Digging deeper, Corcoran and the Chamber soon learned from a yearly “point-in-time survey” that Okaloosa County, at that time, had nearly 1000 people not living in a home of their own. “These are the unseen homeless, not the ones you see on the street corners,” explains Corcoran. “And sadly, half of them are under the age of 18.”
Those were the statistics nine years ago that lead to the dream for a “One-stop source for area help” and the start of One Hopeful Place. The concept was to create a facility where those
struggling to survive on the streets could receive help finding a job, medical and dental benefits, cold night shelter and even overnight short-term transitional housing for those making a concerted effort to get off the street and working to improve their situation. As Corcoran explains in more detail, “The idea for One Hopeful Place is to give a hand up, not a hand out. People are hesitant to help because the visual panhandlers on the street corners are too often making hundreds of dollars a day as a job and not trying to genuinely improve their life. That’s where this organization can step in and provide services for the roughly 60% of those who want to improve their life.”
To kick start the fundraising for One Hopeful Place, Corcoran and the chamber members organized an overnight “Experience life as a homeless” night in the street event. With the help of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church’s Soup Kitchen in Fort Walton, there was a hot meal and a cold night for all who wanted to join the fight against homeless and receive awareness regarding the reality of sleeping on the ground. Almost a year to the day later, the first phase of One Hopeful Place was able to open its doors with ten beds for overnight or short-term relief. Plans are in place to complete Phase 2, which will double the number of area beds and provide the resource center – the one place for many sources of hope and avenues of help.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The solution to homelessness was never designed to be a governmental one but a community one. With the affluence and opulence of this little piece of paradise, there are plenty of opportunities to pitch in. Tax-deductible contributions are always welcome, from The Blue Door and bike shop to the massive building project of One Hopeful Place and the resources offered by Others of Destin, Inc. Anyone can volunteer to serve a meal. Get trained and volunteer to meet the homeless where they are and find out their needs. Donate your used bikes and clothes to an organization that freely gives them away like Saint Andrew’s By-the-Sea. Gather canned goods and dry goods for the food pantry. Collect toiletry items for the free shower. Living on the street doesn’t mean you are no longer human and desire basic human care, like clean teeth, skin and hair.
If you are an area business owner, reach out to one of the aforementioned organizations and find out how you can help, or contact The Blue Door, Laurel Vermillion or Ted Corcoran and ask to get involved. If you are a member of an area social club or church group, ask how you can
participate in a service event or fundraiser; ask to cover one of the many free weekly meals. If you work for one of the area corporations, make the phone calls and find out how you can help; whether it’s to organize a company fundraiser or ask for products to be donated to The Blue Door, there is something every single one of us can do to get involved.
One small and simple way you can help is by simply saying “thank you” to the area businesses that partner and contribute to the agencies and services listed above. Publix, Winn Dixie, and area restaurants all donate food. Big Daddy’s Bike in Blue Mountain Beach, Rent Gear Here, Yellowfin Bikes and WaterColor Resort all have donated bikes to the bike shop. If you are ever in those businesses, offer them a thank you – it won’t cost you a thing and it will help affirm that their small acts of generosity do make a huge difference in the lives of those with so little.
As pointed out in this journey to understand more about the homeless, “many of us are only 2–3 paychecks away from living in the streets.” Let us not be a community defined by our beautiful beaches alone, but let us be defined by how we care and love on those in the greatest need.
*names have been changed to protect the privacy of our homeless.