Homeless for the holidays

A solution to break up the large number of homeless agencies in the Parramore neighborhood should be announced shortly, a hopeful Mayor Glenda Hood told the Orlando City Council last month.

Hood made the statement Nov. 12 as city leaders discussed the $3.5 million that a developer had paid to keep a homeless agency out of the Naval Training Center redevelopment.

District 6 Commissioner Ernest Page was surprised to learn that the money had gone to the Coalition for the Homeless. But he hoped the funds might be used to disperse homeless services in Parramore, the low-income downtown community between I-4 and Orange Blossom Trail, where the Coalition and similar agencies are located.

"There are discussions going on," Hood said. "We're working with them. They're coming up with a plan and a proposal for how to distribute services in a different manner in the future."

"Well," Page responded, "I'll be interested in knowing what those plans are."

So would the rest of us. The truth is, plans to increase the number of beds for Orlando's homeless aren't expected to alleviate what Hood called the proliferation of shelters in that downtown pocket.

Instead, hoping to offer still more beds elsewhere, several non-profits have worked together to buy a 30-year-old motel southwest of Parramore near I-4 and Orange Blossom Trail. Part of the hotel -- 116 rooms -- will be made over into efficiency apartments for single homeless people. Another 60 rooms will house a pilot program jointly run by the Coalition and the Wayne Densch Center.

"I know the mayor would love to have [the Parramore] area cleaned up," says Carole Mason, program director of the Wayne Densch Center in Eatonville. "But no, this is not going to change anything. There's a lot of things that need to happen prior to reducing or relocating facilities."

Nine homeless agencies currently operate in Parramore, offering a range of programsÃ?from job training to free meals to emergency shelter. Five of them, including the Salvation Army and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, offer a combined 1,125 spaces for the estimated 3,500 homeless each night in Orange County.

Parramore used to be the only area where city officials allowed homeless agencies to locate. Now, with a number of projects on the drawing board, including the $53 million Hughes Supply headquarters breaking ground this week, city leaders have come about as close as they ever have to admitting that grouping them together was a mistake.

"The whole homeless issue came out in the late 1980s," Tom Kohler, head of the Downtown Develop-ment Board, told commissioners. "We were all learning on the job." Last year, the council initiated a policy that no social-service agency could relocate or expand in Parramore.

The largest of the agencies, the Coalition, at one time was hailed as the savior of downtown because it offered a place for vagabonds to sleep and bathe other than parks, the library and business doorways. But during the past decade, the Coalition has come under fire from Parramore landowners and District 5 Commissioner Daisy Lynum, who took office in 1998. The main target has been the Coalition's men's pavilion, a concrete-floor warehouse that, on a cold night, can house 500 men. These men are what are commonly referred to as the hard-core or chronic homeless. They're resistant to rehabilitation and most likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness and some kind of drug or alcohol problem. They're also likely to have some sort of physical ailment.

Until earlier this year, no homeless provider offered much to this group except to warehouse them on the floor of the pavilion. Two attempts to build facilities that would treat mentally ill homeless people fell through.

In addition, about 300 inmates at the Orange County Jail are mentally ill and homeless. Many people still prefer them locked up, but that doesn't make practical sense. It costs $67 per day to house an inmate; a shelter bed or low-rent apartment costs less than $10 per day.

"Many of them are here not because their crime was so serious but because there's nowhere to take them," says Jill Hobbs, manager of the county's community corrections division.

The Coalition took the $3.5 million it received from the Naval Training Center deal and put it into a trust. The Coalition then formed a nine-member board of trustees, OATH (Orlando Area Trust for the Homeless), which allocated $1.5 million of the $2.5 million to buy the hotel. It then leased back the 60 rooms that will house the pilot program begun this year to rehab some of the hard-core homeless.

"The OATH money is supposed to increase services, not to relocate services," says Michael Poole, who was the Coalition's executive director when the Naval Training Center money came through. "The primary use of OATH funds was to build a mental-health and substance-abuse facility."

The converted hotel, which will be called Maxwell Garden, is expected to be that facility, though homeless officials expect they'll have to relocate in several years, says Helaine Blum, who heads the non-profit organization that will run Maxwell Garden.

In any event, Maxwell Garden isn't expected to reduce the need for space at the homeless agencies in Parramore. Specifically, the Coalition's men's pavilion isn't going anywhere.

"That is a great goal," says David Jasmund, former chairman of the Coalition's board of directors and current member of the executive committee. "But we'll always have a population that the pavilion serves. As the population in Central Florida grows, the population in the pavilion will grow."

What's more, relocating homeless agencies leads to the same territorial problems that convinced the Coalition to accept the $3.5 million in the first place.

A federal provision allowed the Coalition, along with other public and non-profit organizations, to petition the government for ownership of buildings on the 1,100-acre Naval Training Center site after the government shut it down. But in a series of community meetings, nearby homeowners threw a fit when they learned the homeless might be locating there. Orlando city officials also were concerned that developers wouldn't want to build next to the Coalition buildings, which were centrally located on the former base.

Among the comments made at the public meetings was that the homeless should be loaded on boxcars and shipped up north. "I had just visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.," says Poole, who represented the Coalition at some of those meetings. "The imagery was just too great at the time. People have a misunderstanding. It's unfortunate how they act."

The not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, phenomenon showed itself not only in Colonialtown, but also in Winter Garden and Eatonville. In addition, NIMBYism was a concern of the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, a Protestant Evangelical agency which entered into negotiations with the city last spring to sell its men's shelter on West Central Boulevard. Mission officials weren't moving anywhere unless the city bought the Landmark Hotel on West Colonial and authorized the necessary permits to turn it into a homeless shelter. The cost, $3 million, was too much for city officials. But without the assurance of relocating, the Mission was staying put.

One way around NIMBYism is a concept called Housing First. It is the belief that housing should be the main priority for the homeless even if that means there are few, if any, requirements (such as alcohol treatment) that residents must adhere to. Housing First calls for finding permanent housing for the homeless instead of having them move through a series of transitional homes. Transitional or group housing is what the public often associates with homeless agencies.

Of course, once in permanent housing, the homeless still need attention. Many of them have little practical knowledge of contemporary society. They put metal in microwave ovens, have difficulty operating such gadgetry as a thermostat and mistakenly clean carpets with bleach. Yet, even with these limitations, Housing First studies have been positive.

"The demo projects have been unanimous that [transitional housing] is not necessary," says Jim Baumohl, a Bryn Mawr College professor who has studied homeless issues.

Parramore, meanwhile, continues to grow, even as partisans -- the city, landowners, tenants, non-profits -- battle over turf. Seven townhouses next door to the Coalition's men's pavilion recently sold even before the developer has finished building them. Which means Parramore can develop even with the shelters in place.

"It can," says Tom Kohler, head of the Downtown Development Board. "But you do it so much faster and easier without that impediment. Without it, you remove a lot of angst. Developers are some of the most conservative people in the world."

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