Homeless center draws massive crowd

News-Gazette Photo/Martin Maddock

Valerie Allen, a veteran who founded a volunteer-based nonprofit organization called Veteran Connection, addresses the Osceola County Commission on Monday.

By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Over 30 people spoke for more than 75 minutes on a single issue during a packed Monday night Osceola County Commission meeting. The issue was homelessness.

Pastors spoke alongside state representatives; veterans lent their voice beside college students; nonprofit and community leaders stood behind the same microphone as Osceola County residents grappling with the issue first hand.

Specifically, speakers voiced support for a proposed one-stop community crisis center that would

News-Gazette Photo/Martin Maddock
Valerie Allen, a veteran who founded a volunteer-based nonprofit organization called Veteran Connection, addresses the Osceola County Commission on Monday.

provide assistance to homeless families and the working poor in Osceola County.

State legislator John Cortes (D-Kissimmee) took to the dais and implored the commission to take action.

“I’m tired of doing nothing, and I would like to see something done,” said Cortes, fresh from Tallahassee and the 2018 legislative session, which ended March 10. “We haven’t been doing anything constructive, and we need to be constructive. I’m here to work with you, not

against you.”

Where it started

County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry spearheaded the issue – and the idea for the facility – last summer.

Choudhry has described her vision as a place where families and individuals can receive housing placement, emergency assistance, meals and case management services. The centralized location would make it easy for nonprofits to collaborate care and track individuals who receive assistance, according to the commissioner.

Choudhry largely based her concept on other private-public partnership models already in place across the country.

She estimated that a $850,000 to $1 million investment from the county could launch the crisis center.

Choudhry, elected to office in 2016, said the funds are available in the county budget. She also argues that taxpayers are already paying for the community’s homeless population through higher hospitalization and incarceration rates.

Choudhry’s crisis center concept has failed to gain support from most of her peers on the County Commission. The board approved a study on the center in August, but at the next meeting, Commissioner Brandon Arrington said the study should be placed on hold.

Since then, Choudhry has held public workshops, town hall meetings and expanded her reach on social media to gauge public interest and recruit supporters for the crisis center.

Her efforts culminated Monday night, as one speaker after another voiced support for the idea.

A lack of affordable housing

Discussions kicked off with a presentation by Shelley Lauten, chief executive officer of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. The Orlando-based regional nonprofit organization stressed the importance of a “housing first” model, which places people in long-term housing as quickly as possible and works to fix the underlying causes of homelessness.

Lauten said affordable housing must become a priority in order to achieve this goal.

“Housing first does not work without housing,” she said. “We cannot stabilize people without homes if we don’t have homes to stabilize them into.”

Lauten provided statistics from a 2018 study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition which listed the Orlando Metropolitan Area as having the least amount of low-income housing in the nation, second only to the Los Angeles area.

So, what were Lauten’s recommendations to the Osceola County Commission?

Create more housing options for residents making $35,000 a year or less, and provide wrap around services to those struggling with housing related issues.

Citizens voice support for center

Other agenda items were briefly heard by the board before over an hour of public comment regarding the crisis center began.

Other local leaders, including Kissimmee City Commissioner Wanda Rentas, voiced bi-partisan support for a one-stop resource center.

“There is a lot of money that I often complain the county wastes. You have betterment grants – start spending it where we need it,” Rentas said. “I’m for this center because it’s needed. If you were born with a silver spoon, many of us here were not.”

Nonprofit and religious leaders spoke of working poor families stuck in poverty traps along U.S. Highway 192. The groups, which included Gray’s House of Hope, Housing For All, the Show Up For Homelessness Ministry and others, described the wide range of resources they offer.

Each focused on the advantages of a central location where groups could coordinate efforts.

“We don’t want a handout, we don’t feel entitled. We just want a hand up,” said Valerie Allen, a veteran who founded a volunteer-based nonprofit organization called Veteran Connection. “If you want to say ‘thanks for your service,’ help end homelessness for veterans.”

Mirium Martinez, pastor of the Rock Church in Kissimmee, offered to host the one-stop center pilot program on the church’s 20-acre property off U.S. Highway 192.

Some of the most moving public comments were provided by those who encountered homelessness first hand.

“It’s very hard living out on the streets, in the woods,” said Maggie Malone, a homeless resident suffering from a vision disability. “ If Osceola County would help those who need it, especially the blind and homeless, I think this one stop center would help.”

A deaf man used an interrupter to describe the difficulties he’s faced getting help and finding resources.

Two other men thanked an area nonprofit for offering free haircuts and showers on U.S. Highway 192 earlier that afternoon.

“My hair was down to here, and I got that Puerto Rican hair, it gets thick, you know what I mean?” homeless resident Anthony Rivera told commissioners as he pointed to his freshly cut hair. “We need a shelter in this town. If you’ve never been homeless, you’ve never slept on concrete, then you don’t know what it’s like.”

Criminal defense attorney paralegal Jeanette Martinez shared her story of homelessness.

“I’ve been homeless before, so I know what these people are going through,” she said. “If I lose my job, I would be in that same position again.”

Once the public comments ended, Choudhry thanked her supporters for turning out.

“I look at the crowd and the people on the streets, and I think the big deal is us, us as humans, trying to help one another,” she said.

Choudhry asked the commission to think of the center as a community investment, much like the $100 million investment the county made to the development of NeoCity.

Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. was absent from Monday’s meeting, prompting Choudhry to postpone a vote on the one-stop center until May.

Choudhry said she wants to meet with supporters next month to re-group and outline plans that incorporate the Rock Church property into pilot program designs.