Lack of shelters for homeless in Panama City as temperatures drop

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB)–As we head into winter, shelters are a huge issue for the local homeless population. Currently, they have nowhere to go. Panama City Rescue Mission officials closed the Men’s Shelter on W. 6th Street last month after it caught fire. Now, the shelter is vacant and covered in signs warning against trespassers and telling people they’re closed.

The closure is also impacting local non-profits that are used to being able to refer individuals to the Rescue Mission. Now they have nowhere to send them.

“This community, the Rescue Mission has been a very large part of it and it leaves a big hole but it makes our work extremely difficult,” said Susan Bravo, the Executive Director of the Family Service Agency.

The shelter caught fire in the early hours of November 6th.

“Ultimately, the fire got put out quickly but there’s a lot of damage from them putting out the fire where they sprayed down everything,” said Stephen Fett, the Panama City Rescue Mission’s CEO.

Panama City Police have since ruled that fire as arson and it remains under investigation.

“We had to put the residents out into different locations, Rescue Missions in the panhandle and as far down as Orlando,” said Fett.

Fett says luckily no one was injured. But as temperatures drop, Panama City is beginning to feel the impacts of losing it’s only homeless shelter.

“If you are homeless, it’s helpless here,” said Kelli Steenport, a homeless woman living in Panama City.

It’s not just the cold weather. Non-profits are also dealing with COVID-19, and say they’re seeing more families than ever before.

“It is an uptick of probably 20-25% and that’s just in the last 60 days,” said Bravo.

Like many others who rely on the Rescue Mission, Bravo is hoping for a solution soon. But Fett says the future of the shelter remains unclear.

“There was a time when it was operated as a thrift store, we’re still considering different ideas about how to utilize that building,” said Fett.

Before the fire, Fett says they were remodeling the building next to the shelter on Allen Avenue.

“Instead of remodeling one now we have the opportunity to simultaneously remodel two,” said Fett.

That fire also destroyed their kitchen, preventing the Rescue Mission from cooking meals.

“It severely impacted our ability to help the folks we historically help every winter,” said Fett.

As the Rescue Mission looks to the future, Fett says they’re actively looking for new buildings to house those in need. They invite anyone with space to contact them. He says they will staff whatever space is available.

While a central homeless shelter remains a top priority for these non-profits, the Family Service Agency says they also need things like winter coats, gloves, sneakers, and cash donations.

At the rate it’s going, they only expect to see even more new faces in the coming months.

To help the Family Service Agency, you can visit familyserviceagencypc.org/page.php?20

If you’d like to learn more about what resources the Panama City Rescue Mission is still able to offer despite the fire, you can visit their website.

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