Editor's note: This is the third installment of a three-part series that explores the city's homelessness dilemma. (Part One: `"Stalemate," Jan. 19`, Part Two: `'Battle Ready," Feb. 2`)

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer
One City Commons
400 South Orange Ave.
Orlando, FL 32802 Orlando, FL 32802

Dear Buddy,

Let's be honest. All this talk about relocating the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida has sucked the air out of a much larger conversation this town desperately needs to have. Yes, the Coalition is a drag on Parramore's redevelopment, but finding another spot for it has proved almost impossible. Meanwhile, the region's homeless population is growing, but city policy forbids the Parramore-based social services that help them from expanding. You've got an untenable situation on your hands.

The social service agencies are frustrated, and you can't blame them. Last summer, for example, the city and the Coalition almost hammered out a deal to move the Coalition's case-managed residents – women and children, for the most part – to a spot near the Citrus Bowl. Orlando commissioner Daisy Lynum and other black leaders threw a tantrum, saying the Coalition was going to destroy nearby Jones High School. (Lynum wasn't so worried about the Coalition when she was shoving the Nap Ford charter school down our throats; it's actually closer to the Coalition's current location than Jones High would be to the other one.)

But politics trumped logic and now you're back where you started. It's not too late, though. You still have an opportunity to build your legacy on more than overpriced condos; you could be remembered as the mayor of a city that proactively cared about its neediest. The foundation is in place. Projects are in the works. But you're going to need some backbone to stand up to the parochial concerns that swallow homelessness issues in this city.

It worked in Miami. It can work here.

Miami cracked down on the homeless in the 1980s. The ACLU sued in 1988, and a federal judge told the city that it couldn't arrest the homeless for "life-sustaining activities" unless they had somewhere else to go. Miami responded by creating a dedicated funding source for social services in the form of a tax on high-end restaurant bills that generates about $7.8 million a year. The city also created an independent board of business leaders, politicos and homeless advocates to decide how to spend the money.

In November 2004, Miami voters approved a $15 million bond to build permanent, supportive housing with the goal of ending chronic homelessness in 10 years. It's a model worth ripping off. I won't tell anyone where you came up with the idea.

Last year, Orlando officials toured homeless facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Broward generates $7 million a year for homeless services through a transportation tax). Your people liked what they saw. Down south, homeless assistance centers force residents into treatment programs. Loitering is forbidden. Most importantly – in light of the current situation in Parramore – the shelters there are designed to blend in.

Your people were particularly interested in Camillus House, a shelter not unlike the Coalition, which recently agreed to move out of the business district after four years of negotiations. Miami had to bribe the neighborhood that Camillus House moved into with the promise of a huge University of Miami biomedical center and lots of jobs, otherwise the idea would have gone nowhere.

I count two things Miami did right: adequately funding homeless services and – as much as possible – removing politics from the equation. I'm not saying Orlando and Orange County aren't generous; both give hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to the Coalition. But Miami residents are willing to sacrifice $1 per $100 meal to help the homeless, and I'd like to think we're no less caring.

Central Florida is tax-phobic, true. But you don't even need new taxes. You're not getting all the money you could from federal and state sources. It's out there; you just need a plan. With more money you can move the Coalition, and split up its services to mitigate whatever impact it might have on its new surroundings. (You'd still have to find alternate locations, though.) Or, if the Coalition stayed in Parramore, it could be remodeled to better blend in. The Coalition could probably raise enough money privately to renovate if the city would allow it.

Quietly, you've moved toward establishing a regional commission on homelessness, and there have been some cursory talks of a partnership with Orange County. I've been told that you don't want to go out on this limb by yourself; you want to bring Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty on board before forging ahead. That's fine. He can provide the political cover you need to keep this thing from becoming a pet project of the tax-and-spend liberals on the Orlando city council.

Your staff often complains that Orange County and the region's other municipalities have dumped homelessness in your lap. There's an oft-repeated saying: "Winter Park doesn't have a homeless problem." Maybe so. But if those other municipalities want to stick their heads in the sand, then use your bully pulpit; get on the 6 o'clock news and demand that those laggards contribute to a solution. The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board will probably canonize you.

Orange County may want something in return. They have leverage, and not just with this issue. They control the tourist-tax purse strings, and we all know that's where you're planning to come up with the money to build a new performing arts center, renovate the Citrus Bowl and either make over or rebuild the arena.

One hand can wash the other here.

A few weeks back, I spoke to Orange County commissioner Bill Segal. For the most part, he's on your side: He's a fellow Democrat and a founding board member of the Coalition who believes the shelter needs to leave Parramore. But he also told me this: "I don't want to take their problem without getting something for it."

Segal was talking about the Community Redevel-opment Agency, which siphons off property tax dollars – some of which would otherwise go Orange County – to help renovate downtown and Parramore. It's partially county money, but the county doesn't have a say in how it's spent. And they're not always thrilled with the choices you guys make. (That boondoggle you're pursuing at Otey Place is a particular irritant).

So you might hear talk of sunsetting the CRA sooner than you'd like or figuring out a way to use CRA funds for those big-ticket projects you want. Or the county might ask you to sign an agreement on annexation, because that's been a source of conflict too. "I want all that behind us," Segal says.

There are some longer-term issues to address. The region's mental-health care system for the indigent is a mess. The city's affordable housing schemes are, for lack of a better word, stupid. You often require developers to include affordable housing components in projects you're involved with. But look what constitutes affordable housing: A person can qualify for "affordable housing" if they earn 120 percent of the area's median income. Developers can sell "affordable housing" for as much as $189,000. I know you go by HUD guidelines, but you'd do well to explore housing for the very poor, those who actually need government help.

There is a homeless assistance center – like those in Miami – on the horizon, though there's no specific timeline. It's the culmination of the preferred-living center and drop-in center ideas that homeless advocates have chattered about for years. The center would be a one-stop shop for the chronically homeless, a place where they could not only find a bed and a warm meal, but also showers and laundry facilities. More importantly, they could get voluntary treatment for mental-health and substance abuse problems.

The center wouldn't replace the Coalition; its plans call for just 25 to 30 beds, and those coming in would be screened for past violent offenses. The Orlando Area Trust for the Homeless and the Homeless Services Network are setting it up. OATH still has $2 million of the $4.5 million the city and Baldwin Park developers gave it after the redevelopment of the Naval Training Center. HSN has a recurring $1.1 million, three-year HUD grant to cover operational costs, and there are also Orange County and state housing grants to be pursued, so that means no new local taxes.

It's a big step forward, but it's going to need your help. OATH is taking bids for a manager to oversee the project, and whoever ends up with that job will face a daunting question: Where will it go? There's going to be NIMBY backlash no matter where it ends up. And if it settles on commissioner Lynum's district – a logical location, because it's near downtown – she'll blow a fuse. What will you do?

Back down, like you did with the Coalition's Citrus Bowl site, and nothing will ever change. This city has talked endlessly about helping the homeless and endlessly about revitalizing Parramore. But nothing changes. Enough talk, Mayor. It's time to make something happen.

Last summer, OATH commissioned a report from the University of Central Florida's Center for Community Partnerships. It spoke mainly about creating a preferred-living system, and the homeless assistance center I mentioned above is part of that. But it also explored the idea of creating a "comprehensive and coordinated community system of care for homeless persons with mental health, substance abuse and dual diagnosis issues." In other words, integrating the many services already out there.

There are limited resources divvied up between often cash-strapped social service groups, and that sometimes leads to infighting. For instance, Coalition CEO Robert Brown fought the creation of a drop-in center a few years ago because he thought it would drain resources from more useful charities. I don't know whether the housing assistance center – or any new treatment program – will produce the same conflicts. Parramore's social service providers met regularly throughout 2005, and that's a good sign. But ultimately, you are going to have to shepherd any homelessness plan to fruition, no matter where it comes from.

And there's one truth you're going to have to face: The social service prohibition in Parramore is not sustainable. It's a lazy status quo that simply denies the problem and helps no one. The Coalition has talked about a lawsuit; I don't know if they'd win, but frankly, they should never have to go that far.

It's time to start talking about more than just moving the Coalition. This chessboard is set, mayor. It's your move.


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Jeffrey C. Billman

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