FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (WKRG) — A recent preliminary study shows 189 people are homeless in Okaloosa County in 2023. There are 259 reported in Okaloosa and Walton Counties combined.

The Homelessness and Housing Alliance said the study was conducted on a cold Winter day and does not accurately describe the growing issue of homelessness or low-income families.

“The numbers right now look like there has been a decrease, but that is really not the case. I’ve spoken with the Destin City Council as well as the Fort Walton Beach Police Department, and everyone is noticing an uptick in the amount of homeless individuals in the area,” said Executive Director Crystal Harrison.

In the 2022 study, the Homelessness and Housing Alliance reported a 14% increase in the homeless population since 2020 for Okaloosa and Walton Counties. The 2022 numbers show 439 people were found homeless in the region.

“The preliminary study shows the number of unsheltered individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness in Okaloosa and Walton counties,” said Harrison. “Only unsheltered so the numbers actually are much greater than that. So what you see is the preliminary results without considering those in the shelters and those that are through the school district or doubling up families.”

Okaloosa County 2023 Preliminary Study:

Walton County 2023 Preliminary Study:

The numbers are broken down into families with or without children. Harrison said children growing up in these conditions makes for a harder transition into adulthood.

“That affects every area and aspect of the child’s life,” said Harrison. “Whenever they’re homeless, experiencing homelessness, they have no stability, they have nowhere to do their homework, they oftentimes suffer from food insecurity and it just affects their mental health as well.”

Harrison said the majority of homeless people are actually coming into the area from other places in hopes of finding programs and getting help.

“A lot of people, when they think of homelessness, they think of people without jobs that are just kind of on the street, you know, asking for a handout or a donation,” said Harrison. “When in fact we actually have a lot of families who are working but still cannot afford housing in the area. A lot of people are coming into the area via the Greyhound bus. They are coming to this area in hopes that they can receive services and most of the time we are able to help. It still puts an enormous strain and there’s only so much funding to go around.”

Harrison made the rounds to each city council or department asking for more awareness and support to tackle the issue of homelessness in the region.

“I just wanted to make people aware of what’s going on in the community and kind of raise awareness about those individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness. I wanted to explain what we do in the area to facilitate services,” said Harrison. “I also wanted to encourage participation in our stakeholder meetings and joining some of our committees so we can actually have real input. I’m hoping that they also are able to advocate for homeless service programs and affordable housing initiatives within the area.”

Many communities such as Fort Walton Beach and Crestview are looking at more affordable to workforce housing opportunities. Harrison said these projects are a good start but the work is just getting started.

“I do see several affordable housing committees, and I do see those affordable housing projects coming about. So I do think the issue is being talked about,” said Harrison. “I still think we have a long way to go, but I do think that we are acknowledging that homelessness is a problem in the area and we are willing to take steps to correct that or to reduce the amount of homelessness.”

How to Help the Homelessness and Housing Alliance:

Harrison said they are looking for public input and folks to join committees, as well as volunteer for different programs.

“The best way to help us is of course to donate through giving to one of the many programs that we have. We have several programs such as Rapid Rehousing, Street outreach, homeless prevention and emergency shelter,” said Harrison. “We also have a lot of volunteer opportunities with the organizations and agencies that we partner with, so they can help with volunteering our annual point-in-time count. When that comes about we always need volunteers for that. It takes almost 100 volunteers to really cover those areas. We need, of course, hygiene kits. Any type of donations, food, canned goods, all of those would be able to would help.”

Learn more about the HHA online.