Homeless Population on the Rise in Okaloosa-Walton

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An annual point-in-time census survey conducted in the last week of January is used to determine an accurate count of the homeless population in each county across the area.
The U.S. government will grant federal funding based on the calculated data.
Both Okaloosa and Walton counties are seeing more people than ever on the streets.
Opportunity Place in Ft. Walton Beach is a short term housing program to help the homeless get back on their feet.
It relies on government funding, determined by census figures.
Right now 12 families live here, but the numbers from this year's homeless census count are expected to skyrocket.
Ernie Tomilson was once homeless and is now a census survey volunteer.
He says it’s the least he can do to help out people who have hit rock bottom.
And it’s something he remembers all too well.
"There were a lot of people out there. It was very disheartening to see the people that I met and what got them there” Tomilson says.
Executive Director Lenore Wilson of Opportunity Inc. agrees.
"The need has grown faster than we have” Wilson says.
Almost 2,500 people were classified as homeless in 2009.
February’s count is expected to be released at the end of the week.
Experts say the overwhelming factor contributing to the rising homeless population is not mental illness or substance abuse.
It’s the economy and under-employment.
"People are working twenty hours a week when they want to work forty. People who are making minimum wage when they're raising three children” Wilson says.
People like Michille Henry, who has five children.
When Henry lost everything, she turned to Opportunity Place.
She says it has given her the motivation to turn her life around.
"By coming here, I go to work, and all the opportunities they have here. (Opportunity Place is) helping us with money, food. They've been a good support system" Henry says with tears clouding her vision.
Henry’s dorm room connects to the common area she shares with four other families.
But she looks at Opportunity Place as a means to an end.
She says the temporary housing is giving her more time to save up to buy a house.
Seven people in the short term housing program at Opportunity Inc. started new jobs with benefits in the last two weeks.
But there is still a waiting list for families.

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