Local leaders look for homelessness remedies
By Ken Jackson
Editor note: This is the second story in a recurring series that takes an in-depth look at the Osceola County’s homeless issue. Last week, county leaders identified the root causes of the county’s unique problem. They also shared some ways to solve or help combat them, which will be looked at in this story.
At the Jan. 22 State of Homelessness in Osceola County summit held at Florida Hospital Celebration Health, experts and industry officials who battle homelessness every day delivered sobering news: the nation’s top tourism destination also is the top homeless destination, as 1 in 100 homeless children in America live in Osceola County.
On Jan. 22, the State of Homelessness in Osceola County summit was held at Florida Hospital Celebration.
The problem is multi-faceted, and each one is difficult to work with. It involves a lot of families … many live in hotels ill-equipped for their long-term needs … who desperately want to get out of the situation … but usually require some government assistance … of which there isn’t enough locally.
According to some of the experts who spoke at the summit, while homelessness can’t likely be completely eliminated, Osceola County’s challenges can be addressed to make a significant impact. Yes, it will cost money, but federal funds are available, and philanthropic efforts can help to fill in what the government can’t, but everything must be done in a coordinated manner.
Currently, Osceola County has the capability to assist 163 homeless families in getting out of a temporary homeless situation, like moving in with family members or living in hotels, and back into their own housing every year. The $420,000 for this “Rapid Rehousing” effort comes mostly from Housing and Urban Development funds and local Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
The assistance often comes in helping pay for deposits, first and last month’s rent and past due utility bills or deposits. But more must be done, said Andrae Bailey, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, because there are an estimated 1,700 homeless families in the county.
“This isn’t even paying the interest on the principal,” he said. “What the county is doing now is helping people do what they’re trying to
“More money is available in private and federal dollars to improve on this. But Osceola County must work collectively with regional partners.”
A multi-group study released at the summit showed that to best combat short-term homelessness, new money committed to the problem must be used for short-term shelter for families with children, and to set up a system of care and access to 1,500 units of affordable rental housing for homeless families.
The Victory Village project, which took a 55-unit U.S. Highway 192 hotel and used federal grants to turn it into 26 units of rent-controlled housing right along a bus line, is the starting point in a series of strategic responses to the revitalization of the all-important tourism sector.
But when that comes up, many residents and businesses have the human-nature NIMBY reaction (“Not in My Back Yard”). But County Commissioner Michael Harford, whose district 1 includes most of the West U.S. Highway 192 corridor, said the time for that passed long ago.
Funding Shelter – or Jail Cells
According to the study, 333 Osceola County Jail inmates called themselves transient or homeless. They have accounted for 2,840 bookings, or 8.5 each, over a nine-year period, and jailing those inmates cost the county more than $9.4 million, or roughly $28,300 per inmate. Thirty-seven of those inmates accounted for 44 percent of all their bookings.
Currently, there are 26 permanently supportive housing units in Osceola County, but 500 are needed. At a cost of $9,600 per unit including costs for case management (that could be offset by client contribution), the county could have shelter for these chronic inmates at an annual cost of $4.5 million.
The Hotel Problem
According to the study, 25 percent of Osceola County’s homeless are living in low-cost hotels. That’s five times the national average, and they’re spending an average of $200 per week, and don’t pay for utilities, phone or cable. But, most of these rooms do not have adequate kitchens, forcing families to buy expensive ready-to-eat meals or eat at restaurants.
And, if the family can’t find that $200 and stops paying, hotel operators have little recourse.
Enforcement of Florida Statute 509 that says, in short, that owners can have room renters removed as trespassers for not paying is a sticking point for some members of the U.S. 192 Hotel/
If the renter establishes the hotel as a permanent address by getting a driver’s license or registering children for school there, owners are being forced to file eviction lawsuits which can take up to 8-10 weeks and $1,500 per case.
Peggy Choudhry, a hotelier and president of their association, said a lawsuit is currently in the works against local law enforcement on this issue, but did not give details of the ongoing litigation.
Mark Waltrip, chief operating officer of Westgate Resorts, said code enforcement of hotels is key to helping ease this problem, but tourist tax dollars, paid on each hotel room, also must be invested wisely in the tourism market.
“Bed taxes went to expand the Gaylord Palms,” he said. “How did that help who pays the bed taxes?”
Philanthropic Efforts Are Needed
Mark Brewer, president of the Community Foundation of Central Florida, oversees a group with the mission is to build community by building philanthropy. He said the challenge ahead to help solve Osceola County’s homeless problem can’t be delegated.
“It’s time for philanthropic sources in Osceola County to consider this a problem,” he said at the Jan. 22 summit. “There are 300 nonprofits in the Orlando area focused on homelessness, but investors must be able to find out what they’re looking for. It’s not so much about money, it’s
And as bad as Osceola County’s problem has gotten, Brewer said a collective impact among those groups that combines a common agenda, mutually-focused activities, continuous communication and the strong backbone of a leader or organization is necessary.
“The biggest nonprofits should take the lead. Nobody wants to lead if they don’t have the capability,” he said.
Harford agreed that help beyond what government can provide is going to be needed in this case – as long as those in need are willing to seek and accept the help.
“This is an ongoing battle on a number of fronts,” he said. “We don’t have the resources ourselves. People are looking for pathways to hand-ups, not hand-outs. Many of them are professionals who have lost their jobs due to this economy who are unable to find what they need, from family or