Seeing an unmet need in the area, a small group of South Walton residents set out to open a cold weather shelter to provide a warm place to sleep during the extreme weather known as the polar vortex.
"It all started in reaction to some tragic events in the homeless community," said South Walton resident Tami Reinhart. "A local filmmaker, Tim Carr, did a documentary about the local homeless. Shortly after he finished, the homeless man in the film passed away."
The film was an eye-opener, Reinhart said.
"I had been blissfully unaware," she said. "I didn't realize how bad it was. I'm still learning and my head is spinning from all of the information."
Click here to see the film by Tim Carr
Inspired, Reinhart and Santa Rosa Beach resident Frank Day set out to open a cold weather shelter in South Walton. After a few phone calls, they were able to start inviting people to the Coastal Branch Library/ Community Center earlier this month.
"This has all been a scramble," Reinhart said. "We're still working on an exact temperature in which to open the shelter. We hope to have something permanent in the future."
But the efforts of Reinhart and Day aren't enough. Which is why they created a Facebook page, Vortex of Volunteers, to put the call out to anyone willing to help.
That need is even more dire as forecasts for the Destin and Walton County area called for a low in the mid-20s for late Thursday going into Friday morning. A deeper plunge could take Destin and Santa Rosa Beach into the mid-20s on Tuesday and Wednesday and DeFuniak to a bone-chilling 19 degrees.
When the South Walton shelter is open, it varies in occupancy, averaging about two or three guests, Reinhart said. With no advertising but the Facebook page, it's just a matter of getting the word out.
In North Walton, The Matrix has been operating a cold weather shelter out of the DeFuniak Springs Community Center has been operating as a cold weather shelter since 2005. As volunteers dwindled, so did the guests. In the past, the shelter would serve as many as 40. In the past few months, the average number has been five.
Both the Coastal Branch Library and The Matrix shelters are open to anyone, not just the homeless.
"Anyone who doesn't have sufficient heating is welcome," said Candy Nowlin, executive director of The Matrix. "We've had senior citizens come in who don't have enough money to crank their heat or live in older houses where cold weather can still get through."
Volunteers interested in taking a shift are urged to reach out.
"State laws say we have to have a male present, and we are lacking in male volunteers," Reinhart said.
The only thing required of a volunteer is to be hospitable. At the Coastal Branch Library, the pantry is filled with non-perishable food. Volunteers can also cook, but there's only a pan and a spoon in the kitchen, Reinhart said.
The Matrix regularly has meals donated from local restaurants and keeps snacks handy for any visitors.
"All that we ask if you to sacrifice your own bed for the night to be a hostess for our guests," Nowlin said. "Be hospitable and make them feel welcome."
SHELTERS OPEN/HOW TO HELP: Shelters in South and North Walton are open Thursday night and need volunteers to continue to house individuals escaping the dropping temperatures. In Santa Rosa Beach, the Coastal Branch Library/Community Center is located at 437 Greenway Trail, in DeFuniak Springs, the DeFuniak Springs Community Center is located 361 N. 10th St.
To volunteer contact Vortex of Volunteers at www.facebook.com/vortexofvolunteers or call Tami Reinhart at 259-3035, or Frank Day at 974-2071. For The Matrix, call 892-1090 or Candy Nowlin at 307-8100.