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New film sheds light on ‘hidden homeless’

Posted on Saturday, November 11, 2017 at 6:00 am

By Rachel Christian
Staff Writer
Editor’s note: This is the second story in the News-Gazette’s series on affordable housing in Osceola County.
A lack of affordable housing in Osceola County has now made its big screen debut.
A new independent film called “The Florida Project” portrays the not-so picturesque existence of families living paycheck to paycheck at extended stay motels.
The movie – which is currently playing at the Enzion Theater in Maitland – follows a 6-year-old girl and her wayward mother as they struggle to survive at a seedy motel along US Highway 192 in Kissimmee.
“The Florida Project” shares its name with Walt Disney’s vision for Central Florida, and the film plays to the stark contrast between attractive, high-end tourist destinations and rundown lodging facilities that act more like apartments than motel rooms.
The film has received critical acclaim since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but for thousands in Osceola County, the gritty depictions are a part of every day life.
Nearly 3,300 students were considered homeless in some capacity by the Osceola County School Corporation during the 2016-17 academic year. That figure includes 888 children who use a motel or hotel as their current home
Those figures worry Mary Downey, founder and executive director of the Community Hope Center. The nonprofit group is one of the leaders in Kissimmee’s fight to help families escape “the trap” of motel living.
“Many people end up here as a temporary solution, but once they’re in, it’s very difficult to get out,” she said. “They end up paying more in the long term for a room at a motel than they would for a one bedroom apartment.”
Many individuals find themselves working 40 -hour work weeks at low-paying service jobs where they are unable to set aside extra cash to pay for apartment deposits and application fees, Downey said. Some have been evicted more than once, poor credit or felony records, so that even if they have the money, landlords may refuse rent to them. Still others are senior citizens on fixed Social Security incomes who are unable to find affordable housing within their limited budgets.
The work of the Hope Center attracted the attention of Sean Baker, director of “The Florida Project.” He contacted Downey at the end of 2015 to learn more about the reality of the “hidden homeless.”
Baker went on to work directly with clients of the center, and even cast a couple as extras and minor supporting characters in the film.
Downey said she was pleased with how the movie portrays the hardship of children and families residing in motels along Highway 192 without exploiting their struggles.
“Everyone who ends up at one of these places has their own unique story,” she added. “So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
But not all individuals residing long-term in hotels and motels are model tenants.
In a 2015 court case, owners of Kissimmee motel HomeSuiteHome sued the Osceola Sheriff’s Office, claiming that law enforcement would no longer remove unwanted guests from the property, even when those guests refused to pay.
A federal judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Sheriff’s Office, stating that those who have “nowhere else to go” and have established residence in a hotel must be legally evicted. The decision did not bode well with many hoteliers, who now face a lengthy eviction process in order to remove individuals who commit grievances ranging from non-payment to property damage.
County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, a former hotel owner, said she and other community leaders are working on solutions that accommodate business owners and motel residents alike.
Choudhry and Downey share a similar view of how to solve the issue. Choudhry is in favor of a 24-hour, “one stop shop” resource center families can utilize when they need help. The goal is to connect those who are struggling with wrap-around services and resources in order to keep families off the street and out of motels.
“Most of the families staying in these motels are good, hard working people who are just down on their luck,” the commissioner said. “That’s why we want to establish this center and continue to work towards affordable housing and mixed-used developments that better serve their needs.”
Choudhry added that she wants to get the parameters of Florida Statue 509 more clearly defined so establishment owners know exactly what their rights are.