PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Many people travel to the Emerald Coast over the winter to enjoy their vacation homes during the mild Florida weather. But Bertha Walton is a different type of visitor.
Catching a ride from Nashville, Ga., Walton, 36, arrived in Panama City last week without a job or a place to live.
“My husband died in 2017,” Walton, 36, said. “I was lost. I’m a widow and I’m an orphan, my parents aren’t here anymore. I’ve been a little lost.”
Walton landed in a bed at the Panama City Rescue Mission where she started a job cleaning in its rehabilitation program.
Officials from the Panama City Rescue Mission said they’ve seen an uptick in calls as well as people in need cycling through the facility over the past year.
“Since COVID, there’s been an uprising in people calling, coming from different states,” said Jacqueline Vanscooter, operations specialist at the Panama City Rescue Mission. “They call and they say they’re going to be homeless when they get here.”
Vanscooter said several factors contribute to homelessness, from the seasonal transients that come to the area for the warm winter weather to evictions from COVID-19. But she said the biggest issue is the increasing lack of affordable housing in the area.
“There is no affordable housing,” Vanscooter said. “The affordable housing that is out there has waiting lists on the upside of two years if they even let you get on the waiting list, and most of those waiting lists are completely closed.”
News 13 previously reported that affordable housing remains an issue more than two years after Hurricane Michael, and many of the income-based apartment complexes in the county have not fully returned.
“We’re probably looking at at least 12 to 24 months before those units are fully constructed and fully occupied,” Michael Johnson, the Panama City Community Development Director, said in November.
Johnson added that in order to afford an average-sized rental unit or mortgage in Panama City, the minimum salary is between $30,000 and $40,000 per year.
The ongoing pandemic has made earning a salary of that magnitude difficult for many.
“A third of all Americans are in a position where they call it being housing insecure,” said Stephen Fett, Panama City Rescue Mission CEO. “They either missed or are going to miss one or more rent or mortgage payments.”
The increase in homelessness is evident with the homeless community made up of tents and tarps that was budding on the side of Highway 98.
This week, local authorities began evicting those who lived there at the new property owner’s request. Now, like potentially many others in Bay County soon, the former occupants will be looking for a place to live.
The COVID-19 eviction moratorium is set to expire on Jan. 31 after several extensions. If the eviction moratorium does not get extended again, Panama City alone is looking at more than 400 eviction cases, according to the Rescue Mission. That could result in thousands of people with no place to live hitting the streets come February.
Shelters like the Rescue Mission are struggling to accommodate the growing number of homeless in the area, which can have long term effects on the community and the economy.
“Well, the effects are real, but they aren’t direct effects that people would think of,” Fett said. “From healthcare and the legal system — the Federal number on that it’s a little bit over $100,000 a year for every person that’s homeless for the taxpayers.”
Walton said she felt fortunate for the Rescue Mission’s help.
“If it wasn’t for the shelter being able to help me get back on my feet I’m not really sure where I’d be right now,” Walton said.