Walton County homeless population: ‘It’s getting worse…’

By Stephen Milligan - the Walton Tribune

FISH currently helps house 21, mostly in local motels

Homeless photo credit: Pexels.com

The problem, according to Cindy Little, executive director of Faith In Serving Humanity, is bigger than Walton County has ever faced before.

“In my 20 years at FISH, I’ve never seen it like this,” Little said, saying even the Great Recession which kicked off in 2008 hadn’t presented a challenge on the scale of this one. “We’re doing everything we can, but it’s getting worse.”

The problem in question is homelessness, which Little said is rising at a level unprecedented in her time with the faith-based charity.

“Normally, on average we have two to three people a month,” Little said on applications for assistance with homelessness. “Right now, we’re getting three to five a day.”

Currently, Little said they’re housing 21 people, mostly in local motels.

“We’re putting them in the motels,” Little said. “Unfortunately, the Salvation Army shelter in Athens closed its doors, which is where we’d been sending people with mental health issues or had gotten out of prison, so we’re sending them to motels, too. There’s just so many.”

Little is working to find other solutions — FISH is bringing back one of the RVs it sent to Kentucky earlier in the year for disaster relief, where the RV will be used to house another family in need of shelter, and the charity is also looking to erect a few apartments for transitional housing. But it’s just a small countermeasure against a growing problem across the area, due in large part to conditions out of the control of desperate families.

“Rent has gotten so high,” Little said, who said the latest round of homeless people are often facing not the usual problems of substance abuse, mental issues or simple joblessness. Often these new families have jobs and were doing everything “right” until their rent rises by several hundred dollars a month, leaving them without recourse on a tight budget.

“And it’s not the only problem. What we’re paying out in utilities assistance has doubled.” Little said the problem is growing while solutions remain limited.

“We cannot do a shelter,” Little said. “We have no mass transit. We don’t have that sort of manpower. People will overwhelm the location and it becomes a flophouse.”

Yet without more housing options, people are doing whatever they can, whether it’s camping out in the woods or sleeping in their cars I’ve got teachers calling me crying because their little ones are sleeping in class because they’re too afraid to fall asleep in a vehicle,” Little said.

And the approaching holidays only compound matters further.

“The amount of food we’re giving away has doubled lately,” Little said. “Christmas applications have doubled, too.”

But Little is determined to do everything she can.

“Our goal is to avoid a tent city,” Little said. “As it gets colder and the motels get full, we’re going to have to have an emergency backup plan. We’ll house people at the FISH offices on cots, if we have to. But I’m not going to let anyone freeze to death, not on my watch.”

Little said she and FISH will do what they can to help but said they’re looking for more volunteers, more donations and more assistance wherever possible as they confront this growing problem. And she urges everyone to keep an eye out of their neighbors and others to lend help when needed.

“We’ve got to look out for each other,” Little said. “We have to look out for friends, our loved ones, the elderly and others, so this problem doesn’t keep getting worse.”

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