Women escaping homelessness find shelter at One Hopeful Place in Fort Walton Beach

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Wendy Rommel-Petito's main goals include obtaining her own house, repairing her relationship with her daughter and celebrating the birthdays of her twin grandkids.

Rommel-Petito, 55, is among the first group of women to receive temporary housing at the nonprofit One Hopeful Place homeless shelter at 1564 Percy L. Coleman Road.

One Hopeful Place opened in November 2016. Last fall, local officials celebrated the completion of the shelter’s phase II expansion building, which has beds for 50 men and currently shelters almost 30.

Previous coverage:One Hopeful Place homeless shelter in Fort Walton Beach to begin sheltering women

Affordable housing:Crestview to replace houses in high-crime area with 'safe, affordable' homes

Solutions for homelessness:Homeless crisis took hundreds of years, it won't be solved overnight. But there is hope.

Wendy Rommel-Petito prepares lunch for she and some of the other residents of the women's area of One Hopeful Place.

After being remodeled, the original shelter space at the site began housing women on March 22. As of Wednesday   it housed eight women, and a few more should be able to move after additional shelter staff is hired, interim shelter manager Donna Morgan said.

Rommel-Petito moved to OHP more than a week ago. Before then, she said she had spent about a month “camping” in various local hotels after moving to the area from across the country.

She had stayed in several homeless shelters in Bremerton and Port Angeles, Washington, for four years before moving to Florida to be closer to her family.

Rommel-Petito said she first became homeless in Washington after some “crazy people” burned down her home and killed her dog. During her four years of homelessness there, including a stint working with a street ministry, she saw many homeless people die of heroin overdoses, and she used Narcan to save others who had OD’d.

She said she drank alcohol and smoked weed at the time but didn’t use hard drugs.

“The day I left (to move to Florida), some guy took my friend out and OD’d her and then just dropped her off in front of Salvation Army’s parking lot and just left her there,” Rommel-Petito said. “She passed. And she had an autistic kid. It’s just been a rough … you see a lot.”

It’s no surprise that Rommel-Petito prefers looking ahead.

“God has a plan. It’s not mine,” she said. “I’m here for a reason.”

Rommel-Petito, who is battling COPD, multiple sclerosis and other major health issues, said she is in the No. 35 spot on the list of applicants for a house managed by the nonprofit Crestview Housing Authority.

“I’ve been on the list for four years,” she said, adding that she wants to move to Crestview to be closer to her daughter and grandkids.

More like this:Still hopeful: ‘Homeless people aren’t bums’

Related news:Homeless shelter seeks new manager

Rommel-Petito said there is hope for all homeless people to get off the streets.

“If you go out there doing the same-old, same-old, you’re going to get the same results,” she said. “If all those other things aren’t working — who you’re hanging with and what you’re doing and this and that — I don’t think it will work. We all have to make the effort to change.”

At One Hopeful Place, “We get a roof, we get a shower, we’re getting clothes, we’re getting everything,” Rommel-Petito said. “THIS IS a miracle! It’s a million-dollar haven to me. You could be over in that tent (in a field next to the shelter). I don’t want to be back out there. A lot of them (homeless people) out there in Washington are lying in vacant parking lots with no blankets, no nothing. I’ve seen them with their feet frozen. I’ve seen three of my best friends froze to death, and it wasn’t even that cold. It’s the wetness, too.”

U.S. Army veteran Cathy Elias talks about the path that led her to One Hopeful Place. Elias is among the first group of women to receive temporary housing at the nonprofit homeless shelter.

Another member of the first group of women at One Hopeful Place is Cathy Elias, who began living there about 1½ weeks ago.

Elias, 47, is a disabled Army veteran, a former construction worker on the Emerald Coast and a former police officer in Biloxi, Mississippi.

She said she hurt her spine while walking down some stairs a couple of years ago, an injury that put her in a nursing home for 10 months. Elias said she started living at OHP after her significant other broke up with her and she had to leave the house they shared in DeFuniak Springs.

For a few months some years ago, she had lived on the streets of downtown Fort Walton Beach. Her main hangout at the time was under a gazebo at Sound Park, across U.S. Highway 98 from City Hall.

That period of homelessness stemmed from “living beyond my means,” Elias said. “I had a town house (in Fort Walton Beach), but it was expensive. It was more than I could afford, and I knew that when I moved in, but I thought I could make it with the work. And then the work fell off, and what can you do? It only takes a few months for your landlord to go, ‘Hey, where’s all my money?’ 

The shoes left at the door of One Hopeful Place now include sparkly tennis shoes and high heels. The nonprofit homeless shelter recently started providing temporary housing to women.

She spent some time living in a tent off Hollywood Boulevard, where she was attacked by a homeless man but was able to beat him off.  

“It helps when you have a bat,” Elias said.

She also recalled standing on a corner while asking for help, and one car driver after another passed her by without looking at her.

“I didn’t think of anything because I had been one of those people,” Elias said. “I had had a job and a home and money. People don’t want to admit there are homeless. They act like they don’t see you. They stereotype. It could be them.”

Elias said she is working with her Veterans Affairs representative to obtain a housing voucher so she can get a permanent place in the area.

Of the local homeless population, Elias said, “We’re not all bad people who are looking for a free ride. There are those, and there are the addicts, but some of us would actually like to have normal lives.”

One Hopeful Place is overseen by Bridgeway Center Inc., a local nonprofit behavioral health care provider. Morgan, the interim shelter manager, said the women’s section of the shelter needs laundry soap, bleach, toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, trash bags, twin sheets, bottled water, underwear and bras.

To learn more, visit https://onehopefulplace.org or call 850-586-7879.