Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and representatives from government, business and the nonprofit sector will head to Salt Lake City to look at programs that help homeless families. (Video by FOX35)
To address the crisis of homeless families in Central Florida — where one of every 17 children spent at least part of last year living in a motel, shelter, the family car or someone else’s home — leaders called Tuesday for a major increase in affordable housing and support from politicians in Tallahassee.
“The current situation is not acceptable,” said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs at a news conference to discuss the latest numbers on the problem and outline the road ahead.
“While some of those kids do have a roof over their heads, the fact that they may be doubled up with family members or living in a one-room hotel with their entire family — that’s not sufficient to create the kind of self-esteem and security they need,” Jacobs said.
A report prepared for the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found as many as 44,000 parents and kids were homeless last year in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. The region’s one-in-17 rate for children is significantly above the national average of one in 45. And last year, the federal government ranked Florida highest in the nation for the rate of homeless families living in cars or on the streets.
Vowing to do better, Jacobs on Thursday will help lead 71 local representatives from government, the business community and the nonprofit sector for a two-day tour of Salt Lake City, considered the best in the nation for progress on housing the homeless.
“They are several years ahead of you,” said national consultant Barbara Poppe, former chief of the federal government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, hired to advise the regional commission. “You’ve got to be very aggressive because you have children — newborn infants who don’t have a stable place to stay, elementary-school kids who are falling behind because they don’t have stable housing. These children are the future of your region.”
Poppe, who lives in Ohio, said she was “astounded” to see the depth of the local problem because of Central Florida’s image to outsiders as a place of prosperity.
But she and Jacobs noted that the large number of families who lost their houses during the recession coupled with escalating rents of the rebounding economy are putting tremendous pressure on the rental market. And many parents don’t earn enough, even working full time, to cover basic needs.
“The demand is incredible,” Jacobs said. “And it’s not going to improve by itself. It’s something that really depends on government to either incentivize or mandate. And we are going to need the support of Tallahassee to do that.”
Jacobs said she already has asked her staff to compile a list of strategies for increasing affordable housing and plans to meet with leaders from Seminole, Lake and Osceola to persuade them to join the effort.
Salt Lake has had an advantage in that regard, leaders said, because the county, city and state are all united in their objective and how to achieve it.
“We’ve been able to get families back into housing quickly, and most of them will only need about four months [of support] to get back on their feet,” said Lloyd Pendleton, former director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force and the man most often credited with that state’s best-in-the-nation progress. “We’ve been able to cut their time in a shelter from an average of 56 to about 33 days. … and only 10 percent have come back.”
But Utah overall has a much smaller homeless population than Florida does: Statewide, there were just more than 13,600 individuals last year. That’s fewer than the number of homeless students in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties during the past school year.
But Utah also has virtually eliminated veteran homelessness and cut the number of chronically homeless individuals by 72 percent. Still, advocates there admit family homelessness is a much more complicated problem.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to address the needs of our families, though it won’t be as straightforward,” said Elizabeth Buehler, Salt Lake City’s homeless-service coordinator. “Like everyone across the country, we saw an increase in homeless families during the Great Recession.”
The county there has been able to use federal and state money to cover those first four months of getting families back into apartments, and it hopes to increase the number of housing vouchers using other funds in the near future. Support also has come from the Mormon church — although Central Florida leaders contend the faith community here has been just as supportive.
“We had a single church here that raised $5.6 million in one weekend for this effort,” said Andrae Bailey, the homeless commission’s CEO, referring to a First Baptist Church of Orlando collection drive in 2011. “In Salt Lake, success has come from the powerful combination of faith and business leaders with elected officials. And we feel like that’s a model we can follow.”
The overnight trip will run about $1,580 per person, with 19 government employees from DeLand to Sarasota using government money. Business and nonprofit leaders will pay their own way.
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