The number of unsheltered homeless people in Central Florida has more than doubled, new data shows

The latest data on homelessness in Central Florida shows the region is no longer a place where older adults can retire and live comfortably with dignity.

click to enlarge The number of unsheltered homeless people in Central Florida has more than doubled, new data shows
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After reporting a slight decline in the number of unhoused people in the Central Florida region just ahead of the pandemic, advocates say the direction has now sharply reversed, with new figures showing a rise in homelessness that's worse than ever.

The number of homeless people in Central Florida who are living in their cars, on the streets or otherwise without access to emergency shelter or transitional housing more than doubled this past year, according to the region’s latest Point in Time count, with the bulk concentrated in Orange County.

According to the latest data, the number of homeless people counted across Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties this January rose 28 percent in total — from 2,258 people in 2023 to 2,883 in 2024. Meanwhile, the total number of those people without any sort of shelter across the region increased 105 percent — from 587 people to just about 1,200.

Martha Are, chief executive officer of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, a local nonprofit, described the situation during a press conference Wednesday as a “tragedy.”

Another word for it, she says, is a “crisis,” not only because of the rise in homelessness, but because the region has also lost nearly 400 shelter beds — including beds for homeless youth — and about 200 permanent supportive housing units.

Permanent supportive housing, a form of housing assistance, can be a lifeline for people who are chronically homeless who have more complex health needs, such as a disability or mental illness.

“Our options are declining,” said Are, “while our numbers are going up.”

Are, whose nonprofit helped facilitate the count on Jan. 23, 2024, said volunteers documented a particularly concerning spike this year in the number of older adults who are unsheltered.

“For many people who live on Social Security or pensions, the cost of housing, food and medical care is simply outpacing their modest cost-of-living increases,” said Are.

More than 700 of the Central Florida region’s homeless population is over the age of 50, and nearly 200 are over the age of 65. Of those older than 65 years old, more than half lacked somewhere to stay, be it a hotel room, a friend’s home or a homeless shelter.

“Our options are declining,” said one housing advocate, “while our numbers are going up.”

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Many of those older adults on the streets are elderly women, said Are — older women who have never been homeless in their lives, don’t know anything about how to navigate the social services system, and figured they would live out the rest of their days in comfort and safety.

They never expected their landlord to hit them with a $500 rent increase during the second or third year of the pandemic, or to find themselves on the streets, trying to figure out where to go.

“Half of these folks are not even in a shelter,” said Are. “They are out on the street, extremely vulnerable, and very scared.”

And, she added, “a little bit angry.”

It was only a couple of years ago that Florida became a hot spot for some of the most dramatic rent increases in the nation, with large metro areas like Orlando, Miami and the Tampa Bay regions bearing the greatest brunt after an early-pandemic lull in market changes.

Average rent in Orange County, for instance, jumped 33% from 2020 to 2023, according to Zillow data analyzed by The Guardian, creating a near-impossible situation for those who didn't see a similar jump in their monthly income. Rent in Osceola County increased 26% during that same time period, and rose 28% in Seminole County.

Recent data from sites like Zillow and show that rent hikes have started to level off over the last year, but the massive hikes during the years prior have still left renters — and homeowners facing their own massive property insurance hikes — with a higher cost of living that is eating into a greater share of their budgets.

Nearly half of Florida’s middle-income renters are reportedly cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their monthly income on rent or housing. Among low and extremely-low income renters — who make less than 30 percent of the area median income — that share of renters is much higher, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Higher housing costs have, in part, been attributed to factors like demand, particularly in the Sun Belt, and lack of affordable housing supply. The U.S. Department of Justice is also looking into an alleged price-fixing scheme orchestrated by large, corporate landlords to boost profits at the expense of everyday middle- and low-income people.

The greater number of homeless people in the region, said Are, is not due to a greater number of people with mental illness moving to the area, nor even an issue of job loss.

“It is because we had a sudden increase in rents,” she said, noting that the region’s housing market has consistently been ranked one of the worst in the country by the National Low Income Housing Coalition for years.

Although a majority of Orange County voters voted in 2022 to limit how much landlords could increase rent, two industry groups — the Florida Realtors Association and Apartment Association — sued the county to block the measure from going into effect. After a court battle, and a refusal by the state Supreme Court to take up the issue, those industry groups won.

The measure would have capped rent increases at no more than 9.8% for just a single year, to help stabilize the county’s skyrocketing rent prices. But even that was too radical a reduction in profits for the real estate lobby, which poured at least $2 million into an opposition campaign against the ballot measure.

As it is today, rent control won’t be coming to Orange County, nor any other community suffering from the consequences of higher living costs any time soon. After Orange County voters showed the state that there was popular support for the idea, the state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year banned local governments from trying to limit rent increases again.

Are, whose organization serves as one of the predominant lifelines for the region's homeless population, argued that local nonprofits aren’t to blame for the increase in homelessness.  Local groups like hers, she said, housed more than 5,800 people experiencing homelessness over the last year. The problem, in part, is that more people are becoming homeless, and there is a shortage of affordable places to live.

She also explained that their funding isn’t enough to keep up with the higher cost of living and greater demand for their assistance. Although local governments — including Orange County and Orlando — have poured tens of millions of dollars into housing initiatives, Are said it’s still not enough.

The city of Orlando, for its part, dedicated $58 million of federal pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to address issues of homelessness and unaffordable housing. Some of that is going toward a hotel conversion project off Colonial Drive near downtown.

According to public meeting records, Orange County leaders last month also approved $1.6 million for the Homeless Services Network to continue running a rapid rehousing program, and another $2.1 million for the nonprofit to coordinate permanent supportive housing.

Are says a depletion of federal relief funds, however, has contributed to a loss in shelter beds in the community, and the cost of providing these services is going up.

“We need more support,” she said Wednesday. “We need more housing units, especially for households with extremely low incomes. We need public-private partnerships to ensure that none of our citizens have to sleep outside.”

Organizations like hers, she said, also need support from everyday residents, who can use their voices to call on their elected leaders to prioritize the development of affordable housing — for neighbors struggling to support themselves and their families through low-wage jobs — over luxury housing.

Out on the streets, she said, it is “our sons, our daughters, our sisters, our brothers, and unfortunately — our grandparents.”

Many local jobs in the tourism and hospitality industries, pivotal to our region's economy, pay less than what experts consider a living wage for the greater Orlando area.

These aren’t transient people who are sleeping on the streets or under the overpass, said Are, but our former neighbors who can no longer afford to live in a community they call home. Data from the point-in-time count provided to the media shows that most of those counted by volunteers were from here, not new to the area.

Orange County had the highest number of homeless people in the tri-county region this year, with 2,091 people identified as homeless, up from 1,626 in 2023. In Osceola County, volunteers identified 353 homeless people, while 440 were counted in Seminole County.

The annual point-in-time count — a federally mandated census — is “imperfect,” Are admitted, and doesn’t include the number of homeless people who were in jail, hospitals or hotel rooms that individuals paid for out of their own pockets on the day of the count. It does, however, offer at least a partial picture of the problem at hand.

And although homelessness has been a chronic problem in Central Florida for decades at this point, Are says it’s worse than ever.

The latest figures show Florida is no longer a place where older adults can retire and live comfortably with dignity. 

Some fiscal conservatives might scoff at the idea of using public or even private money to help people who are unable to afford shelter for themselves and their families, but advocates say the cost-effectiveness of housing people is a worthy consideration.

Brian Postlewait, chief financial officer for the Homeless Services Network, told Orlando Weekly that simply housing and taking care of people is the “cheapest way” to address the problem.

An economic impact study from 2014 found that the cost of providing permanent supportive housing to a chronically homeless person in Central Florida was about one-third of the total cost of doing nothing, once you factor in the cost of homelessness on the criminal justice, healthcare and social service systems.

According to the most recent data,  about 11 percent of those identified as homeless in Central Florida reported having a substance use problem — a struggle that can be effectively impossible to overcome without some sort of treatment or behavioral support — while another 12 percent said they were homeless as a result of fleeing domestic violence.

A stronger social safety net, and the “political and community will” to do something about rising homelessness, said Are, is critical.

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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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