Opening Doors of Northwest Florida needs reform, federal homelessness official says

Dr. Joe Savage, Jr., a recognized leader in homelessness and social policy, meets with local advocacy groups for people without housing during a homelessness reduction task force meeting on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

If Pensacola wants to align with the new federal strategic plan on homelessness, Opening Doors of Northwest Florida will need to be broken up to split its non-profit service from its role in administering federal money for homelessness.

That was one of the key takeaways from U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless Regional Adviser Joe Savage's talk Wednesday morning to the Northwest Florida Homelessness Reduction Taskforce at the Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Resource Center.

Savage spoke for an hour and a half to a room full of leaders of local nonprofits, government agencies, and the medical community who work every day to help people experiencing homelessness. The talk followed a Tuesday morning discussion during a joint meeting with city and county officials and a CivicCon meeting that evening.

In the final minutes of his talk, Savage said the diversity of providers and services reflected in the room should also be reflected in the governance of the local Continuum of Care (COC) organization.

Opening Doors of Northwest Florida serves as the Continuum of Care organization, which is the main agency the federal government interacts with on homelessness funding. The organization evolved out of the EscaRosa Coalition on Homelessness, which was founded in 1986. The federal government passed legislation in 1994 creating the COC funding model.

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Savage said it's not uncommon to find that existing nonprofits became a community's COC, but that situation can lead to conflicts of interest.

"From the federal perspective, we want to see that coordination, and we also want to see it with the COC," Savage said. "We want to see all of this coordinated together in a fashion that involves the COC. And so typically, the way the community should be structured, there should be a COC governing body that should consist of that representation that comes from you all."

Savage laid out the nuts and bolts of implementing the federal strategic plan to reduce homelessness at the local level and made it clear the more a community aligns with the federal plan, the better it will score in federal rankings unlocking the potential for more federal funding.

Savage said he worked with Orlando to address a similar problem to restructure the governance of its COC.

"The thing about it is when you want to get to the proper structure, you can't be afraid to relinquish power," Savage said. "You can't be afraid to relinquish power. And what I mean by relinquish power, in Orlando, it was very difficult for them to say, 'OK, we need to shift our governing body from here to here.' So that we have a structure that's guided by one plan that's overseen by one governing body that has representation that comes from the community."

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Community Health of Northwest Florida CEO Chandra Smiley said she agreed the COC governance needs to be changed.

"In our community, we have wonderful missions and beautiful spirits that serve those missions," Smiley said. "And clearly collaboration and people coming to the table to get it done is evidenced by what you see here today. I do think in our community, one of the things that we need help with is the COC governance is not a representation of what's in this room."

Smiley said that the COC, Opening Doors, is an agency seeking funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as administering HUD funds for other agencies and the same board oversees both.

"The challenges that we have today, I believe, is (Opening Doors) is not serving this community in the way it should," Smiley said. "And it's no disrespect to those that serve. I just think that we are at a different time and era, and what you (Savage) just said, we have to be willing to relinquish power."

Smiley said the community wants to meet the federal goal to reduce homelessness by 25% by 2025.

"It's not going to happen by doing what we've always done," Smiley said.

Savage said the first step for Pensacola is to reform its governance structure for the COC.

"Get your governance structure strong," Savage said. "Get your governance structure properly aligned."

The next step, Savage said, was to come up with a single plan to address homelessness.

"You need to develop a five-year plan or a 10-year plan for ending homelessness in Pensacola," Savage said.

Pensacola City Councilwoman Allison Patton put the question to the members of Opening Doors who were present at the meeting and asked if there was a commitment to meeting about the governance structure of the COC.

Dr. David Josephs, president of the board of directors of Opening Doors, appeared to agree to the idea during the meeting.

"I'll do like a pastor … and I'll say Amen," Josephs said.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Opening Doors may need to split up, federal homelessness expert says