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NW Florida Homeless Agency Requests State Funding

Construction on Pinehurst Garden apartments began about a year ago and was still underway on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, nearly two years after Hurricane Michael.
Valerie Crowder - WFSU News
Construction on Pinehurst Garden apartments, an affordable housing complex with about a hundred units, in Lynn Haven, FL remains under construction more than two years after Hurricane Michael.

Organizations working to end homelessness in several counties recovering from Hurricane Michael are counting on continued state funding to meet the heightened need for housing assistance during the pandemic.

“If our doors are closed and we don’t get our funding, we can’t help process rent payments and keep people from being homeless or house the people that are homeless,” said Yvonne Petrasovits, executive director of Doorways of Northwest Florida, a Continuum of Care lead agency that connects homeless residents in six counties to services. “This is not the time to have a huge homeless problem.”

The agency places clients in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs, while helping them find and secure a permanent place to spend the night. It also manages the Bay County Community Recovery Center, located at 703 W. 15th St. in Panama City, where representatives from several non-profits help people with rent payments, home repair expenses and legal services.

About 2,100 people in Bay, Gulf, Calhoun, Holmes Jackson and Washington Counties are receiving some kind of services through the agency’s partner providers. Petrasovits says this number of comes from names entered into its Homeless Management Information (HMI) system. “We do think that’s a little low because we have some providers that don’t put data into the HMI system.” Petrasovits says she estimates closer to 3,000 residents who need housing are getting some kind of assistance.

Most of those clients - 95% - reside in Bay County, where most of the community service providers are also located, she said.

Petrasovits says affordable housing was needed before the hurricane. More than two years after the storm, many residents who were displaced are still living with friends or relatives, staying at hotels or sleeping in their cars. And the pandemic has only worsened the problem, with more people struggling to pay their bills.

Since the Community Recovery Center opened almost two years ago, more than 4,800 people have walked through its doors, seeking services, Petrasovits said. And the demand for assistance hasn’t slowed amid the pandemic. In a single day last week, “we had seventeen homeless families come into our location, seeking assistance, needing housing,” Petrasovits said. “That’s not unusual.”

The agency recently partnered with United Way, one of its community providers, to process applications for rent assistance using federal CARES Act relief dollars. “In seven weeks, we processed 400 applications for rental assistance and utility assistance,” Petrasovits said. “There’s a huge need.”

The state’s 27 Continuum of Care lead agencies, which distribute funds to local service providers working to end homelessness, are asking that lawmakers continue funding two grant programs: the $3.1 million Challenge Grant and the $3 million Staffing Grant. Those dollars help homeless agencies pay their staff, but most of the funding directly covers housing assistance programs, Petrasovits said.

State lawmakers are facing an estimated $2.7 billion shortfallin next year's budget. And that's concerning for organizations that rely on state funds to reduce homelessness, Petrasovits said. "We’re petitioning to ask that even though we know cuts need to be made, please don’t cut this area because this is going to directly impact the citizens," Petrasovits said. "We will not be able to assist them."

The agency has also requested guarantees that all the funding allocated to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund will support housing programs exclusively.

“If we use it specifically for affordable housing, we have job creation and a huge revenue source for our state,” Petrasovits said. “It also protects the scarce amount of affordable housing that we actually have.”

Gov. DeSantis’s proposed $96.6 billion budget would spend $423.3 million on affordable housing programs through the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

Lawmakers will consider next year’s state budget in the during the upcoming legislative session, which begins on March 2.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated DeSantis's budget proposal contained $126.7 million for affordable housing programs. It's actually $423.3 million.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.