In 2015, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) worked with a wide network of community partners to continue transforming the lives of homeless Veterans, families and children, as well as the chronically homeless. For decades, Orange County has been the leading provider of homeless services in the region, budgeting more than $5 million annually. In 2015 another $2 million was added to that annual amount, and the County partnered with the City of Orlando to help attract new federal grants for the region to house the chronically homeless and families.
The quest to lift families, Veterans and individuals out of homelessness is a regional effort, and is built on the tireless work of an integrated partnership between the elected officials, agency, charitable and church leaders from Osceola, Seminole and Orange counties, the cities of Orlando, Kissimmee and Sanford, and countless philanthropy and social service partners. Through the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness (CFCH), a nonprofit regional commission that is committed to eradicating homelessness in Central Florida, and that is co-chaired by elected officials from throughout the region, Orange County is able to leverage its collective efforts. Thanks to the collaborative work of many nonprofits, faith-based institutions, philanthropic initiatives, private-sector businesses, and charitable and community organizations, our region is making a huge impact on homelessness.
In January, Orange County welcomed a new residential facility for 250 single homeless men. Mayor Jacobs joined Brent Trotter, CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, and more than 200 members of the community to celebrate the grand opening of the Men’s Service Center at Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. More than a place to sleep, the two-story, 32,000-square-foot facility helps men transition to self-sufficiency by providing case management, access to mental-health services and job-skills training. In addition, there is an initiative directed toward homeless Veterans and providing beds for the physically disabled, with 50 beds dedicated to substance and alcohol-abuse recovery.
In February, Orange County hosted a joint meeting with the CFCH and the Orange County Homelessness Committee, chaired by Dick Batchelor, to learn about a successful program in Utah. Lloyd Pendleton, former director of the Homeless Task Force for the state of Utah, facilitated the meeting and shared his state's successes on a centrally led and locally developed strategy to defeat long-term homelessness.
Continuing her commitment to creating a better future for citizens struggling with homelessness, Mayor Jacobs addressed national and regional homeless advocates in March to announce a 59 percent decrease in Veterans’ homelessness in Central Florida, since 2011. The total number of homeless in the tri-county area dropped due to the Veterans Administration’s shift to a “Housing First” model, according to a study of the issue completed for the CFCH. Once Veterans have an address, they can receive treatment for other issues through case management and other services.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness featured Mayor Jacobs and Central Florida’s efforts to reduce veteran homelessness by highlighting the event. The goal announced at the meeting was to end Veterans’ homelessness by 2015.
To meet that goal, hundreds of volunteers surveyed Central Florida homeless during the week of July 20 for the “Veterans Surge.” The survey was used to create a registry of Veterans, and eventually, to place them in permanent housing. The initiative was led by the CFCH in collaboration with the local Veterans Affairs (VA), the nonprofit Homeless Services Network (HSN), Heart of Florida United Way’s “Mission United” initiative, the faith community, political leaders and other nonprofits. During the Surge, trained volunteers engaged as teams to fill out questionnaires with the homeless on the streets, or in identified hot spots, such as homeless camps in the woods. Data collected on the Veterans is used by the HSN, the VA and partners to get Veterans into the system and off the streets. The registry of veteran names allows the VA to verify eligibility, match the Veterans to national VA programs, depending on individual needs, and then follow up when housing becomes available.
Across Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, 418 homeless Veterans were located by volunteers who collectively dedicated more than 2,000 hours to the outreach. The Surge was the first step of the “Heroes Come Home” initiative, which includes locating, housing and assisting homeless Veterans. The 418 men and women are now registered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which will streamline the process for providing them with the homes and aid necessary for their stability.
Helping homeless families and children is even more complex than helping the chronically homeless. From the lack of affordable housing and transportation to bad credit and eviction history — many times through no fault of their own — the barriers to ending family homelessness are staggering.
Through the CFCH, Mayor Jacobs established the Family Homelessness Committee in late 2014 to study affordable housing, homeless prevention and programs related to family homelessness, and asked community leader and child advocate Dick Batchelor to serve as chair. The committee heard testimony throughout 2015 from national experts and local leaders from a wide range of disciplines, including the faith community and nonprofit organizations. The testimony helped to identify the face of family homelessness in the schools, on the streets, in domestic abuse shelters, and in hotels and motels. To partner with that effort, Rulon Munns agreed to lead the Orange County Committee of the CFCH, which looks at Orange County’s overall safety net of programs.
In May of 2015, Mayor Jacobs announced a new partnership between the faith community and Orange County to suppport families impacted by homelessness and poverty. In partnership with the County’s Health Services Department team and about 80 members of Central Florida’s faith community, the launch of Open Table helped to expand this national program. Through Open Table, congregation members are educated and trained to help transform the lives of the homeless and families in poverty. A group of church volunteers compose a “table” and use their “intellectual and social capital” to create the transformation. They commit an hour a week for a year to help the youth, individual or family to meet goals established in a document called a Life Plan.
In July, Orange County and the CFHC hosted the first-ever Central Florida Landlord Summit with other community partners to address homelessness and help individuals, families and children find safe, stable and affordable housing in the region. The event was attended by landlords and community leaders from Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties.
In September, Mayor Jacobs joined former U.S. Senator, HUD secretary and Orange County Mayor Mel Martinez and community leaders to unveil a newly completed CFCH report, titled The Path Forward: Rethinking Solutions for Homelessness in Florida that explores the causes of homelessness and calls for a response by communities across the state to prioritize permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing and affordable housing to better serve our homeless populations.
The report, with funding support by JPMorgan Chase, was developed by Barbara Poppe, a nationally recognized leader on community homelessness issues and the former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, and provides comprehensive strategies for creating policies and programs aimed at making homelessness rare, brief and one-time event, especially among youth and Veterans — the groups most impacted in the state. Additionally, new permanent supportive affordable-housing units will be developed through a generous $600,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase to Ability Housing of Northeast Florida, an organization that has successfully been addressing the shortage of permanent supportive-housing options for chronically homeless individuals, Veterans and families in Jacksonville. The Orlando region will receive $500,000, and $100,000 will benefit their Jacksonville location.
After the release of the two reports, Mayor Jacobs led a delegation of more than 70 key regional leaders on a fact-finding mission to Salt Lake City, Utah, in October to see first-hand how leaders in Salt Lake City are working to find solutions to family homelessness and how their approaches may apply to the Central Florida community.
In October, the CFCH Family Homelessness Committee and Mayor Jacobs announced the release of a report commissioned by Orange County titled, The Current State of Family Homelessness in Central Florida. The report provides new details and statistics that document the challenges that children and families in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties face in terms of stable housing, and provides six key recommendations that will be reviewed by the CFCH Family Homelessness Committee. Poppe led the research team to author the nearly 70-page report. The report offers new information, detailed data and potential systemic solutions that, when combined, will have the potential to make a lasting positive impact.
Poppe’s research found that one in 17 children in Central Florida will experience some episode of homelessness this year and that too many families are only one major life event or crisis away from homelessness. After reviewing the report’s recommendations, the Committee will offer implementation strategies to the CFCH for approval.
In November, Mayor Jacobs announced an allocation of $1.5 million dollars from the County, to be used for rapid re-housing, through a contract with the HSN. These new dollars will allow the HSN to serve 150 families with help on housing searches, rent assistance and case management. Rapid Re-housing (RRH) is an intervention designed to help households quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing. In RRH, traditional barriers that might have prevented an individual from securing housing are reduced or eliminated. Resources and services are typically tailored to the needs of the household served. Services are not time-limited, but generally average about six months.