Pensacola's top homelessness agency "on the fence" about following federal recommendations

Opening Doors of Northwest Florida, the lead homelessness prevention agency in the Pensacola area, is also the organization that disperses funding to other homelessness service providers. That's a problem that needs to be remedied, according to the federal agency that sets homelessness policy.

An advisor from the federal government's oversight agency on homelessness recommended that Opening Doors split its nonprofit service from its role in administering federal money for homelessness to prevent potential conflicts of interest that could send a red flag to the government and prevent funding opportunities flowing into the community.

However, the head of Opening Doors is "on the fence" about following the recommendation.

“I get the reason that some people who are communicating that that’s how it should be, but I just wonder if the motives for wanting that to happen comes from a proper place,” Opening Doors Executive Director John Johnson said. “I wonder about motives about people, if their motives are pure for the change in our community.”

U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless Regional Advisor Joe Savage recently visited Pensacola and met with the Northwest Florida Homelessness Reduction Taskforce, whose members include leaders of local nonprofits, government agencies and the medical community who work every day to help people experiencing homelessness. The talk followed a joint meeting with city and county officials and a presentation at CivicCon.

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.
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.

Savage's recommendations: Opening Doors of Northwest Florida needs reform, federal homelessness official says

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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. 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 (Continuum of Care lead agency)," Savage told the taskforce May 10. "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."

Johnson said Opening Doors has already been moving away from doing work that can be done by other service providers, like street outreach and some case management. He said there is room for improvement, but he doesn’t think money should be the main motivator for service providers.

“If the motive is to be more efficient and effective with reducing homelessness, then everyone should come to the table with their sleeves rolled up to get their hands dirty, because it cannot be where we come to the table with only getting a reward or money as a motivator,” said Johnson. “It’s about coming to the table regardless of if we will be rewarded monetarily or not. That’s the way in some disciplines within our community have been working siloed. It’s been this attitude of 'What’s in it for me,' rather than 'I’m in, I’m committed, let’s do what it takes.'”

In recent years, Opening Doors service area, which includes Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, has received significantly less federal funding to help alleviate funding compared to their neighbors of similar and smaller size.

According to the 2022 Continuum of Care Competition Homeless Assistance Award Report, Opening Doors received a total of $808,272 from United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to serve a regional population of 523,146 and a homeless population of 727 people. The homeless count is based on the annual Point In Time Count from the same year.

Tallahassee and Leon County, with a population of 297,369 and 621 homeless, received $1.9 million.

The Mobile and Baldwin counties COC, with a population of 657,846 and homeless count of 585 people, received about $4.3 million in HUD funds. That COC includes Baldwin and Mobile counties.

During his visit, 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.

Johnson agreed there are more opportunities to seek additional funding but there are multiple hoops to jump through to meet the criteria for federal funding.

“Just understanding how funding comes, I think has been a challenge, too,” said Johnson. “The way HUD communicates how funding works, it’s based on census, housing that exists, it’s based on many factors that have nothing to do with your homeless count. The motivation has been let’s count as many homeless people as we can so that we can get more funding. I feel indifferent about (the differences in funding) because all of the research that we have done, including getting emails from HUD, that’s not the way Congress had determined communities will be funded.”

Opening Doors Board of Directors president Dr. David Josephs with Lakeview Center, agreed that funding is still a challenge.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is about homelessness counts and funding,” said Josephs. “If we could just count everybody who is homeless, we would get a bunch more money, except how homeless are counted in regard for COC’s is a mandated process. The point-in-time count, that happens once a year, in a designated time frame. It is intended to not be intrusive or invasive. The misconception is that point in time doesn’t count everybody who is homeless in any community. And that is true because there are people in areas who don’t want to be counted. The mechanism to increase monies for communities has that as a factor, the point in time count, but there are other critical factors, including coordination, lead to the amount of funding, matching funds for instance from cities and counties.”

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Savage told local leaders in order to make effective changes to the COC and homeless, "You can't be afraid to relinquish power."

However, Josephs said he thinks Opening Doors can continue to be the COC without splitting its mission, as long as they continue to be aligned with evidence based strategies, as well as with city and county and community partners.

“I think there is a little bit of a misunderstanding about the role of the COC and that’s something the board is actually looking at right now,” explained Josephs. “We’re not looking at splitting as much as how can we make sure most of the resources that have come to Pensacola are directed to direct service providers for the homeless.”

Johnson said it will ultimately be up to the board to decide how it wants to implement Savage’s suggestions. They are moving forward with one of his recommendations to ask for HUD technical assistance support, a free service to help structure COC governance. He said the assistance is free.

"As the lead agency we were already working with HUD on other COC matters," he said.

He said they’re also focusing on meeting the 2025 deadline to reduce homelessness by 25%. He said based on the point-in-time count data, that would mean a reduction of about 300 people. Josephs also said he felt the recent discussions on homelessness can only help.

“I’m actually very, very encouraged that there is so much interest now,” said Josephs. “It’s an all-community opportunity.”

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Opening Doors Pensacola homeless CoC responds to federal advisor