By Brandon Arrington
It may sound corny, but I ran for office to help people. And while those of us elected to the Osceola County Commission are working hard to build an even brighter future for Osceola, we must not forget our fellow residents who are struggling in the present. When it comes to the challenges of homelessness in our communities, Osceola County has embraced a regional approach to target the root causes, as opposed to Band-aid approaches that simply kick the problem down the road.
One county alone cannot solve this problem that is why Osceola has partnered with the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness as well as the Homeless Services Network. I served as a board member for the Central Florida Commission for two years, and I appreciate the education and understanding my time on the commission board has given me. In that time, our region became focused on the “housing first” model. This approach, which starts with securing permanent housing before addressing an individual’s other issues, has proven to be an effective way to end homelessness. According to Shelley Lauten, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, “Osceola County is a key partner in seeking innovative solutions that support the housing first approach—a proven model across the nation. Your government leaders have leveraged taxpayer dollars with private investment and nonprofit solutions to ensure your dollars are well spent—and your neighbors are permanently housed.”
Programs like our rapid rehousing program have helped many homeless families in our county successfully transition to permanent housing. Last year alone, Osceola County government, along with other local agencies, worked together to house more than 130 homeless families, in addition to hundreds of other families who were assisted with other services like utility assistance, eviction prevention, and food and clothing. Successes like this are taking place throughout our region as we and our partners address this issue.
Osceola wants to be smart with your tax dollars by focusing on long-term solutions and we have been aggressive in pursing housing opportunities to move families from expensive hotel rooms to permanent housing where they then have access to services. That is why projects like Cameron Preserve, which was championed by Osceola Commissioner Viviana Janer, will bring 100 affordable rentals to our workforce corridor by the summer of 2018. Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez and the city of Kissimmee are working to bring more bridge housing with the help of the HOME program. This will provide homeless families waiting for permanent housing a temporary home to stay in, rather than having to be in a shelter or on the street.
The county also champions education and training as tools to lift up those that have fallen far behind in our community. This is clear with the efforts put forth by Community Vision’s “Project Open” program. Project Open transforms the lives of precariously-housed and low-income families, many with children, and many who are veterans. It is giving participants the skills needed to move out of poverty.
Last year, our community suffered a grievous loss when two Kissimmee policemen—Officer Matthew Baxter and Sgt. Richard “Sam” Howard—were senselessly gunned down by a mentally-ill man. Many of our homeless citizens suffer from mental illness, and addressing these mental health issues is central to any long-term solution. One measure Osceola has taken is a partnership with Park Place Behavioral Health Care to open a Central Receiving Center. This facility provides law enforcement an alternative to jail for placing those with mental health issues. If we have any additional public dollars, mental health and permanent housing is where I would like to direct our efforts.
However, we did take a step back last year, in my opinion, when the County Commission passed an ordinance designed to punish and jail homeless people in the U.S, Highway 192 corridor. I believe we should focus on helping these people, and that fining them or incarcerating them only makes a bad situation worse. This bad ordinance has had negative unintended consequences for residents and businesses just outside the tourist area. I do take solace that Sherriff Russ Gibson is a good man who has enforced this bad ordinance as compassionately as possible, and I’m confident his outstanding deputies will continue to be sensitive to these individuals. I voted against this ordinance and will work hard to repeal it in the future.
Government alone is not the answer. Ultimately, to significantly curtail homelessness in Osceola County we must continue to partner with our tireless/dedicated local churches and non-profit agencies. And while state and federal governments can be partners to assist with the necessary funding to address these issues, the final solution is going to require all of us to pitch in together.
It is our responsibility to provide real solutions, not excuses or feel-good stopgap measures. Working together as a regional community we can dramatically reduce homelessness, provide families with a better future, and restore dignity to our fellow citizens. There but for the Grace of God go you and I.
Brandon Arrington is the Osceola County commissioner for district 3.