After 15 months of contentious meetings, the Mayor's Working Committee on Homelessness delivered its report to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer in June 2004. "I look forward to receiving the report and acting on it," Dyer said at the time.
But he didn't act on it. For more than a year, nothing happened. The city didn't push to improve substance-abuse or mental-health care for the indigent or push to build affordable housing for the very poor. Even the most basic suggestions appointing a homelessness liaison in the mayor's office and forming a regional commission went unheeded.
"There hasn't been sensitivity to doing something," says Robert Stuart, head of the Christian Service Center and committee co-chair.
Finally, in the last months of 2005, something started happening: The Dyer administration restarted an effort to push the Coalition for the Homeless and specifically, its men's pavilion, an open-air facility that nightly houses about 300 of the region's chronically homeless out of development's way in Parramore.
Created in the mid-1980s by an amalgamation of churches, the Coalition bought its property with help from the Downtown Development Board in 1990. It was an old television studio that stretched from Parramore Avenue to Terry Avenue, just north of Central Boulevard in the heart of Parramore. At the time, the location was ideal: close enough to government services to be attractive to the Coalition's clientele and cheap enough to be affordable for the cash-strapped nonprofit. The Coalition paid just $900,000 for an entire city block.
For a decade, the city's relationship with the Coalition was a national model. But as developers began eyeing Parramore, things soured. Suddenly, the Coalition and other nearby social-service agencies were undesirable. In 1999, the city banned new agencies from locating in Parramore and forbade existing ones from expanding. Meanwhile, the Glenda Hood administration began negotiations to relocate the Coalition, until talks broke down.
The idea resurfaced in 2004. Two weeks after the homelessness committee completed its report, the Mayor's Parramore Task Force announced its recommendations. Chief among them: moving the Coalition.
Then nothing happened.
In September 2004, Coalition CEO Robert Brown wrote Dyer an eight-page letter outlining his concerns about moving and asking the mayor to kick-start some of the homelessness committee's recommendations, but the mayor didn't respond. In January 2005, city clerk Alana Brenner found the letter and asked Dyer who was in charge of these issues. His answer: She was.
In the next six months, talks picked up. But there were no quick fixes. The Coalition was willing to move, but only to a spot that met its clients' needs. Commissioner Daisy Lynum was adamant that the Coalition had to leave not just Parramore, but her entire district. The city refused to allow the pavilion near houses, schools or parks.
"It's impossible to meet all those criteria," Brenner says. "They don't go together."
By October 2005, a rumor surfaced that the Coalition might move near the Citrus Bowl, to a city-proposed site that it deemed acceptable. The site wasn't close enough to downtown to support walk-in traffic it lies outside of Parramore but there was bus transportation and room for the Coalition to grow. The spot was close enough to neighborhoods and schools to be advantageous for its residents, mainly low-income families who are temporarily, not chronically, homeless and trying to get back on their feet.
But politics killed the deal. The site was two blocks from Jones High School, a traditionally black school graded among the worst in the state. The student body at Jones has already been thinned by students taking advantage of the state's offer to move them from failing schools; if the Coalition moved in, critics said, more students would leave.
Black leaders called the proposal racist because the Coalition wouldn't dare move into a white neighborhood.
"[P]lacing the shelter near or adjacent to Jones High School would potentially endanger the lives of Jones High School students," state Rep. Bruce Antone wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to Dyer. A week later, Lynum, Antone, state Sen. Gary Siplin, Orange County commissioner Homer Hartage and city commissioner Ernest Page held a press conference to denounce the proposal.
Coalition officials responded by saying the center was already closer to the Nap Ford Community School than it would be to Jones in the proposed location, but their objections were ignored. On Oct. 31, in a series of letters to black leaders and newspapers, Dyer said he never supported the Citrus Bowl location.
Enter the Counselors of Real Estate firm. In September, Brown suggested that the city contract with the Chicago-based firm. CRE consultants flew in the week after Thanksgiving, interviewed officials, visited a handful of potential sites and delivered a draft report in December.
It didn't say much. "It allowed us to have some independent, objective voice that corroborated some of the things we all knew," Brenner says.
Coalition officials were disappointed; they wanted CRE to quantify their impact on Parramore's economy, but the report didn't do so. While City Hall accepts that if the Coalition and other social services move the neighborhood will boom, Brown isn't convinced. The Coalition's property value, he says, has tripled in recent years, so things can't be that bad.
But there is anecdotal evidence that the Coalition's presence is turning off investors; both Hughes Supply before it was bought by Home Depot and Bank of America have indicated that the shelter's presence prevented them from making more investments in Parramore. Hughes said it wanted to build a second tower, but its employees refused to move into Parramore because of the abundance of vagrants and the perception of crime.
Those two things crime and the shelter are hot topics at every Parramore meeting. The city can address crime with more cops. The shelter is a tougher nut to crack.
"No matter how misguided the city's vision [in Parramore], they'll probably never do a lot of the things with all that impaction of homeless people and social services," says Orange County commissioner Bill Segal, a founding board member of the Coalition in the 1980s. "[But] where do you put it? It's toxic. Nobody wants it near them."
One proposed site, on Division Street in an industrial area outside of Lynum's district, had inadequate public transportation and was too far away from downtown to meet the Coalition's needs. As the CRE report noted, "[I]t would be the best for everyone, except the clientele." The city and the Coalition have mutually exclusive needs. The city wants to push the Coalition out of sight, and the Coalition says it needs to stay downtown to be useful.
Both Dyer and the CRE consultants mentioned splitting up the Coalition's services, housing the pavilion at one spot and its case-managed residents and families at another. That might be ideal, but it would also be expensive.
Brown says moving the pavilion will be self-defeating. "What drives this controversy is the chronic homeless guy," he says. The city put the Coalition in Parramore to get those people off its downtown streets and park benches.
"If it's too far away," he says, "these guys are not going to stumble there at 10 o'clock at night." So the city would be back at square one.
What's next? "We're going to get the CRE report finalized," Brenner says. "Then Bob and I are going to get into a room and duke it out. I can't tell you where it's going to go, exactly."
The city can't force the Coalition out, because the Coalition owns its property. It could cut off financial support; in 2003-2004, Orlando contributed $430,000 of the Coalition's $2.8 million budget. But that's not enough to shut the place down.
Orlando's problem isn't unique. Across the country, cities have tried to force shelters away from central business districts, and virtually all of them have failed. Cheap land and proximity to social services not to mention the inevitable not-in-my-backyard concerns keep shelters in poor neighborhoods near downtown.
But here the status quo won't work much longer. Orlando's homeless population is growing, and the city's six-year-old ban on new or expanded social services is choking already cash-strapped agencies that can't expand to meet the need.
"This problem is getting bigger, and there's no indication that it won't be getting bigger as far as the eye can see," Brown says.
Next week: The impact of the city's prohibition on expanded social services in Parramore, and whether it's even legal.[email protected]