Central Florida homelessness rose in 2022, amid higher rents

The number of unhoused locals rose in 2022, and when 2023 numbers are tabulated, things could be even worse.

Central Florida homelessness rose in 2022, amid higher rents
Photo via Central Florida Regional Commission on Homelessness

As Central Florida leaders search for solutions to the region’s unaffordable housing crisis, the Homeless Services Network found that the number of people who were homeless on any given day increased in 2022, and they expect the problem will get worse before it gets better.

Last year, the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, a nonprofit that works to address housing services in collaboration with the Orange County government, identified that, out of 1.4 million residents in Orange County alone, about 1,532 people are homeless on any given day.

Across the Central Florida region, which includes Osceola and Seminole counties, that number was 2,151 based on a Point in Time count conducted on March 9, 2022, of people in transitional housing, shelters, or on the street. About 70% to 75% of that total were identified in Orange County.

And it’s not a complete picture. According to Martha Are, executive director of the HSN, that figure doesn’t include homeless people who were in jails, hospitals or mental health institutions on the day of the count.

In 2019, the number of homeless people on any given day in Central Florida was 2,010. Specifically, it’s unsheltered homelessness — that is, people who are sleeping in areas that don’t serve as traditional residences, such as abandoned buildings or their cars — that’s seeing a marked increase.

Since 2019, the number of unsheltered homeless people has increased 27%, according to the HSN. In data researched and reported by Vox, the unsheltered homeless now account for 40% of all homeless people in the U.S, up from 31% in 2015.

“We have a lot of people that are paying a lot of money, you know, just to survive and barely making it,” Donna Wynche, the manager of Orange County’s Mental Health and Homelessness division who works in collaboration with HSN, told Orange County commissioners on Tuesday.

“We’ve always been told you should never pay more than 30% of your income on your rent or your mortgage,” said Wynche, referring to the federal government’s official definition of affordable housing. “There's lots of people paying a lot more than that,” said Wynche.

Average median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Orlando jumped over 30% from $1,395 in February 2020 to $1,950 in February 2023, per data from Zumper. Some locals have reported rent hikes of more than 60%, equal to hundreds of dollars that working people aren’t necessarily seeing added to their paychecks.

A 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that even a $100 increase in median rent is associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate.

The number of homeless students in Orange County, in particular, jumped dramatically last year, as did the number of evictions filed in Orange County, where roughly 70% to 75% of the metro region’s homeless population are located, according to reporting by the Orlando Sentinel.

LGBTQ+ youth make up a lot of the unaccompanied homeless youth on the streets, Wynche added: minors who have run away from home, sometimes due to fear of mistreatment, and some who have been kicked out or abandoned.

A 2021 report from the Trevor Project found that 28% of LGBTQ youth in the U.S. reported experiencing housing instability or homelessness at some point in their lives. Many also report mental health challenges and serious thoughts of suicide.

But it doesn’t take a Zillow search (save yourself, don’t do it) to know that rents are much higher than they were a few years ago, and the rash of layoffs, furloughs and difficulty collecting unemployment during the pandemic made everyone, even middle-income earners, more vulnerable to housing instability.

Two Orange County reports, aimed at identifying gaps in the local housing supply and behavioral health services, found that the county is in need of over 30,000 affordable units, Wynche pointed out.

And it’s cheaper, she added, to house people rather than to jail them or to leave them on the streets.

An economic impact study from 2014 found that Orange County was spending as much as $31,000 annually on outreach, jail, emergency room and hospitalization bills for each chronically homeless person.

When numbers on homelessness for 2023 are released, “I think you’ll see an uptick in homelessness in Florida,” Wynche predicted.

Help is coming (for some)

As grim as this all sounds, Orange County is working on solutions.

As state lawmakers move fast on legislation that would prevent local governments from placing temporary caps on rent hikes (i.e. rent control), while pouring more funds into housing development, Orange County leaders are embracing public-private partnerships to provide outreach and assistance (limited as it might be) to those who are determined to be in greatest need.

Who’s prioritized for that assistance is based on multiple factors, including their income, their expenses, and how likely they are to stay on the streets or die on the streets without their help.

“We recognize that some people are in the shallow end, and some people are in the deep end,” said Are. “The ones in the deep end are going to drown if we don't help them, and we don't have enough money to help everybody. And we don't have access to enough housing units to help everybody.”

A shortage in affordable housing units, influenced by skyrocketing rent and an influx of well-off residents to Orange County, has made housing people (especially low-wage workers in Central Florida’s tourism industry) harder.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds were able to help increase capacity at some local shelters, but that money is running out, which means shelter capacity could decrease in the next couple of years.

Orange County’s “Housing For All” trust fund, part of a 10-year plan initiated in 2020, has invested $33 million in public-private partnerships to increase the supply of affordable and workforce housing.

Orange County leaders have also allocated dollars from the county’s second round of American Rescue Plan Act funding to address housing issues, including the development of affordable housing and supportive services, such as job training.

On Tuesday, county commissioners also awarded $1 million in ARPA funds to the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, a social services organization that operates shelter programs in the region. They offer rapid rehousing, temporary housing, case management services and more, serving hundreds of people daily, per their website.

The Walt Disney Co. also recently donated $100,000 to the Coalition for the Homeless. (Maybe they could directly help their homeless employees next.)

Orange County has taken a “housing first” approach toward addressing homelessness issues for seven or eight years now,  said Wynche, and that’s something the county plans to continue.

A national model with bipartisan support, Housing First prioritizes getting people into permanent housing without making that contingent upon them being sober, mentally stable, being on medication or having a job.

“If someone has to climb a ladder to reach housing, they're never going to make it,” said Wynche.

But, with limited resources allocated toward the county’s goal of reducing homelessness, some worry this won’t reach everyone who needs help.

Multiple commissioners had concerns about how the HSN targets their resources.

“We don’t want people to hit bottom,” said commissioner Nicole Wilson.

Commissioner Mayra Uribe said she'd like to see more attention spent on crisis intervention.

“Not everyone suffers mental health. Not everyone has had an emergency where they didn't get to work for two weeks, or had a car accident. Not everyone's there,” said Uribe.

“There's nothing worse than someone about to lose their housing,” she added. “This process actually almost forces people to become homeless, because we don't have crisis intervention."

But Mayor Jerry Demings agreed that it’s important that resources are targeted.

“We do have to balance out the services that we offer for our residents of Orange County,” said Demings. Addressing problems on the front end, like mental health issues and risk factors for crime and incarceration, in collaboration with organizations like the HSN is important, he added.

Uribe suggested that they seek more public input, to better gauge what the needs are.

“It would be worthy to have another community town hall to really hear more of what we're seeing and hearing,” she said.

Commissioner Mike Scott said the county also needs to make sure folks are aware of existing resources. Sometimes, he said, people just aren’t aware that this assistance exists, or they don’t know how to access it. “When we talk about prevention, I want you to be intentional. What are we doing in ways of educating people to know that these services are available?"

Both Wynche and Are acknowledged the limitations of efforts to address the problem.

But there are also opportunities for improving strategies moving forward, including through initiatives such as Orange County’s new Tenant Bill of Rights, which grants tenants added protections against predatory landlords. Local advocacy groups, like Florida Rising, are pushing for more.

“We are performing as best we can in this perfect storm,” said Wynche.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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