Gimme shelter or gimme cash 

City officials anxious to turn over the 1,100-acre Naval Training Center property to a developer selected to transform the longtime base into a neo-traditional neighborhood seem to have neglected one important partner.

The Homeless Network, a coalition of 29 homeless-services providers operating in Orlando, insists the city has so far failed to live up to its part of a bargain that convinced advocates for the homeless to relinquish their rights to buildings on the base in 1994.

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By the end of the week, the leader of the homeless-services agency chosen to represent the network plans to press the city for answers in a letter to Mayor Glenda Hood.

"The city has obligations in the plan. We need to remind the mayor of those obligations," says Richard Mildner, chairman of the Coalition for the Homeless of Orange County. In addition to the Coalition for the Homeless, the network includes the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, the Central Care Mission and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission.

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In 1994, Congress decided to close the Naval Training Center and other military installations across the country in a budget-tightening move following the end of the Cold War. To standardize the base conversions, Congress then enacted federal law which -- among other provisions -- allowed homeless-service providers to claim buildings on the bases for their use. The local homeless network proposed using a series of buildings at the decommissioned Orlando base for a mental-health treatment center and transitional housing for single adults and families.

But residents from Winter Park and neighborhoods bordering the base objected loudly during meetings held by the city to gauge public opinion on proposed uses for the base. Eventually, the city convinced representatives of the homeless network to agree to give up its rights to the base buildings by promising that the treatment center and housing would be provided elsewhere.

Over the past four years, city officials had cobbled together the commitments needed to satisfy the homeless network. Wayne Densch Charities was to contribute $5 million toward the construction of an alcohol, drug and mental-health rehabilitation center. The state of Florida was counted upon for $1 million for the first year's operations and up to $3 million per year for future operating costs. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was to kick in $1 million. And the city would pass along $3.5 million from the base developer, Orlando Partners, which had to pay that sum in exchange for the right to develop the last large tract of prime real estate in Orlando.

It appeared that everyone would wind up with what they wanted.

But in May, Densch withdrew its commitment after the Florida Legislature refused to pony up the operating funds. Suddenly, where there had been expectations of nearly $10 million to build and run the mental-health treatment center -- as well as provide transitional housing for homeless families and single adults -- all that remained was $3.5 million from Orlando Partners and $1 million from HUD.

That left the homeless services providers holding less than half of what they believed they needed to execute the plan. "There is no plan," says Mildner.

Still, city officials insist the plan lives on. "The city's commitment is still there on all of those issues," says Tom Kohler, director of the city's Downtown Development Board.

Kohler explained that the city had arranged for the $3.5 million Orlando Partners' contribution to the homeless network and already has financed transitional housing for 100 homeless persons in a former hotel on West Colonial Drive. Also, Kohler emphasized that the city considered Densch's $5 million -- which Kohler says is still available whenever a suitable deal can be put together -- as part of its contribution.

"The city is the one coming to the table," Kohler says, suggesting that Orange County and the city of Winter Park also should contribute. After all, their residents dominated the crowds that attended public meetings in 1994 and fought mightily against any proposals to locate homeless services on the Naval Training Center property.

Yet Kohler didn't dismiss the possibility of further support from the city. "There could be more money. I don't know," he says.

Although apparently no contract was ever signed, city and homeless network officials agree that a deal was struck in 1994: The city would obtain the property for the treatment center and provide $6 million over 30 years for transitional housing, while working with developers to provide another 200 units of transitional housing. In exchange, the network would yield to pressures to keep homeless services off the base property, paving the way for a more profitable use of the land.

In 1995, Orange County joined Densch and other partners in the plans for the treatment center and offered land for the center, which also would have been used to treat jail inmates. Heading into the 1998 state legislative session, legislators were expected to fund the center's operations.

But now -- with the Densch dollars drawn back and the state out of the picture -- homeless officials want the city to find others willing to come up with missing cash or else dig into its own reserves.

Otherwise, the homeless network could decide to bring a lawsuit against the city. "It's up to the homeless providers to decide if they are going to sue the city," says Helaine Blum, treasurer of the Homeless Services Network and a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society in charge of homeless advocacy. "I doubt that would happen."

Mildner declined to comment on the contents of his letter to Mayor Hood or specify how much the city would need to come up with to satisfy the homeless network. But he made it clear that the network will insist that the city do whatever it takes to meet the needs of the city's homeless for transitional housing, alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation and other mental health treatment -- as was agreed upon in 1994.

"Anything short of that will not be tolerated," he says. "Somehow we have to find a way to make it a reality."


More by Lawrence Budd


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