Fed up

How Orlando's homeless-service agencies have failed to solve the problem

In the early morningon Jan. 28, 2011, a small army of volunteers working for the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida fanned out into the streets of Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties to find out how many people were sleeping outdoors during one of the coldest nights in the state’s history. The results were appalling: 2,418 people were found outside in the cold; 728 of them were described as “severely mentally ill” individuals, 521 were chronic substance abusers, 500 were veterans, 205 had HIV/AIDS and 91 were victims of domestic violence. The volunteers also tallied the individuals staying at homeless shelters that night and found that the number of people in Central Florida without homes that morning was 4,515. In an Orlando Sentinel story on this homeless census, reporter Kate Santich wrote that the workers “encountered one man who is HIV-positive who had been without medication for two months. Another had liver cancer.”

Despite the discovery of hundreds of severely ill people living on the streets, some without access to medication, the story didn’t spark much public discussion on the problem of homelessness – that would have to wait another four months.

In late May, the Sentinel and other local media outlets (including this one) took notice of a bitter feud that had been re-ignited between the city of Orlando and Orlando Food Not Bombs, a ragtag group mostly comprised of young anarchists that have intentionally defied an ordinance that forbids the distribution of food in downtown parks without prior approval from the city. The ordinance had not been enforced since September 2008, when federal Judge Gregory Presnell ruled the law unconstitutional. Yet on April 12 this year, the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the city, clearing the way for police to arrest and detain three Food Not Bombs activists on June 1, an event that set off a firestorm of media coverage. In subsequent interviews Mayor Buddy Dyer pulled no punches, suggesting that the group – which says its goal has been to draw attention to “our society’s failure to provide food and housing to each of its members” – was more interested in exploiting the homeless for political gain than helping them get back on their feet.

“Dyer argues … that other organizations do a better job of addressing the bigger issue,” Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote on June 7.

It was an unfair comparison, considering that the city-funded Coalition for the Homeless, the largest homeless-services provider in Central Florida, has a budget in the millions and received $1,269,150 in total government support during its last fiscal year. Orlando Food Not Bombs, on the other hand, has $400 in its bank account as of this writing, and its most prominent member, Keith McHenry, lives out of his van. In addition, Food Not Bombs has never stated its intention to relieve anybody of homelessness, but ever since the city began arresting activists, the group has been criticized – explicitly and indirectly – by city officials, homeless-services agencies and members of the community for not doing enough.

That criticism seems like it would be more apt if it were directed toward the organizations with the money, the power and the authority to combat homelessness – such as the city of Orlando, Orange County, the major homeless agencies and the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. What have they done to alleviate homelessness in Orlando? The answer is, sadly, not all that much.

Despite the fact that the city’s four largest homeless-services organizations – the Salvation Army, the Christian Service Center for Central Florida, the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission – have combined budgets of more than $10 million, some of the richest and most powerful people on their boards and access to more resources to help the homeless than any other activist group in town, Central Florida’s estimated homeless population holds steady at just over 10,000 individuals. These groups have little to show for their combined decades of experience with those living on the streets.

Right now, all eyes (and scrutiny) are on the dispute between Food Not Bombs and the city, but that’s just a distraction from the larger issue: that the system in place to help the homeless in Orlando is broken.

Usually, the longevity of an organization can be considered a measure of its success. But for the agencies battling homelessness, it can also be considered a measure of impotence – the oldest of Orlando’s agencies, the Salvation Army, has been around for 91 years; the youngest, the Coalition, has been around for nearly 25 years. Homelessness, despite the decades put in by organizations such as these, is not waning.

That can partially be blamed on the fact that most agencies are “bailing the leaking boat of homelessness,” according to the White House’s former “homeless czar” Philip Mangano, who says the approach to homelessness in too many agencies is heavy on services and light on housing. “If good intentions, well-meaning programs and humanitarian gestures could end homelessness,” Mangano says, “it would have been history decades ago.”

The first federal task force on homelessness was formed in 1983, but it was only after two decades of failed outreach efforts, elaborate treatment regimens and ineffective transitional programs that policy makers realized that the cure to homelessness starts, not ends, with housing. “If you ask a homeless person what they want, they never ask for a pill, a program, a protocol or a series of steps,” Mangano says. “Homeless people ask for one thing: a place to live.”

The “Housing First” model of dealing with homelessness, which emphasizes getting people into stable homes rather than moving them through homeless shelters and transitional housing programs, was embraced by the Obama administration last year. The idea originated in New York City in 1992 after a clinical psychologist named Sam Tsemberis noticed that many of the homeless he brought to emergency rooms would reappear on the streets less than a month after being admitted to the hospital. Upon speaking at length with homeless individuals, Tsemberis found a “unanimous” desire for simply a place to stay. “The erroneous assumption was that it was something about their mental illness and addiction that caused their homelessness,” Tsemberis says. “But it wasn’t. It was an income problem.”

Tsemberis then set out to create a “completely barrier-free” method of getting people off the streets and into housing. His model is predicated upon several assumptions: that housing is a human right, not a privilege to be earned by proving one’s sobriety or mental stability; that people respond better to treatment and training when they have the stability of a home; and that it is actually cheaper to house the chronically homeless – and rehabilitate them – than to let them languish on the streets (or counting on them to complete a series of preliminary programs with numerous opportunities to fail or drop out). In a 2006 New Yorker article titled “Million-Dollar Murray,” for instance, author Malcolm Gladwell found that one alcoholic transient in Reno, Nev., was costing the city a million dollars per year in medical expenses. Tellingly, that did not even include the costs incurred from corrections or the courts, two systems that are also notoriously burdened by the homeless.

The Housing First model is usually manifested in “permanent supportive housing” units where people can live, usually with the condition that they meet with case managers or counselors – who are sometimes stationed on the ground floor of the apartment building – on a regular basis. The results have been encouraging. With the aid of generous donors and a proactive governor, Denver’s program was able to reduce its chronically homeless population by 64 percent between 2005 and 2009. Similarly, in San Francisco, which has heavily invested in supportive housing, 7,225 homeless adults have been placed in permanent housing between 2004 and 2011; the city’s homeless policy director Dariush Kayhan says that 95 percent of those individuals have stayed off the streets, owing to the “supportive” adjective in the equation. “The day you sign the lease is the first day you begin working with them on the issues that led to your homelessness,” Kayhan says.

Despite the purported fiscal and practical advantages of Housing First, Orlando’s major homeless-assistance providers have remained largely focused on temporary services such as food, clothing and emergency shelter, as well as various transitional programs. Statistics supplied to the Weekly from providers generally speak little of outcomes: The Coalition handed out 302,000 meals last year, and the Christian Service Center gave away 27,000 articles of clothing, though neither organization can say how many left their transitional housing facilities to move into permanent homes. And though the need for permanent supportive housing is the most dire need of all – Cathy Jackson, executive director of the Homeless Services Network, estimates that the region is 1,115 beds short – both the Coalition’s and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission’s near-term construction plans are for creating more transitional housing.

Transitional housing gives service agencies more leeway to control the environment of their clients, but it is often limited in scope, tied to often unrealistic expectations (or one’s willingness to study the Bible) and most importantly, has few mechanisms in place to measure success. The Coalition for the Homeless, for example, says that 1,213 men have been “served” by its First Steps transitional program between 2002 and June of last year, but it cannot say how many people actually completed the program, nor how many found their way into stable housing upon completion.

The group of four’s most common argument against permanent supportive housing, ironically, is financial: “We certainly have tried to explore the opportunity to create some type of better housing program around here,” says Robert Stuart, city commissioner and executive director of the Christian Service Center. “Unfortunately, that’s also resource-based.”

University of Central Florida professor James Wright, who sits on the board of the directors of the Coalition, suggests that the blame for a dearth of permanent supportive housing shouldn’t fall on the service agencies. “You might ask yourself: Who are the housing agencies in our community, and what are they doing to help get people off the streets?” Wright says. “I think you’ll find there that the answer is not a whole heck of a lot.” (Executives at the Orlando Housing Authority did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Support for a Housing First model hinges somewhat on one’s ideology – that is, whether homelessness is an inevitable result of bad luck and people making irresponsible decisions, or a social problem that can be solved with the right combination of resources. “Homelessness will always be a part of our culture and our communities,” says Coalition President and CEO Brent Trotter, who suggests that his organization is often unfairly saddled with the expectation that it can end homelessness. “We ask questions of this issue that we don’t ask of other issues. Can chronic homelessness be resolved? Well, can mental illness be resolved? Can lack of education be resolved? Can debilitating illnesses be resolved?”

Tsemberis disagrees. “This is a totally manageable problem,” he says. “This is not cancer research. This is not an illness or a condition with an unknown cure. We know the cure. For a small percentage of the cost of the bank bailouts, the wars we’re fighting … we would have more than cured all of homelessness in the United States, permanently.”

If that vision ever came to fruition, homeless services agencies would, logically, cease to exist. That’s why Michael Arth, a DeLand architect who ran for governor last year (see our Oct. 21, 2010 feature, “Reality Check”) suggests that the true aim of many homeless-service organizations is “perpetuation of the agency.” Five years ago, Arth says, his proposal to centralize Volusia County’s homeless services in a secluded “pedestrian homeless village” was met with derision from local homeless-services agencies. “[The agencies] just saw me as a rival,” Arth says. “They were fighting for their funding.”

But Cathy Jackson, who once worked as a development director for the Coalition for the Homeless, disagrees with the notion that homeless agencies perpetuate the problem to perpetuate themselves. “When you’re running a 24/7 shelter that is packed with crying children, distressed moms, mentally ill adults, folks coming off of substance issues,” she says, “you’re not spending your time trying to think of ways to increase that population.”

Money has always been the biggest challenge for homeless-services providers – Commissioner Stuart wagers that the area’s homeless services are “10 times under-funded.” That’s where the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness comes in. Or, at least, where it should have come in. The board includes Orlando and Orange County mayors Buddy Dyer and Teresa Jacobs, as well as some heavy hitters from the private sector – Alex Martins, president of the Orlando Magic, Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney World Resort, and Rasesh Thakkar, CEO of the Tavistock Group, to name just a few. In addition, former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, now with JPMorgan Chase, joined the board in December of last year, and Judge Belvin Perry is a member as well. Of the top 10 people on Orlando Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful” list, four sit on the board of the commission.

The appeal of the commission when it was first assembled was that such financial and political clout would help enact the changes necessary to end homelessness in Central Florida in 10 years, an effort branded as “Ten2End.” Implementing the Housing First methodology is just one of 25 steps laid out by the commission; those steps are as maddeningly vague as “Enhance and expand support service programs that produce monitored results” and as specific as “Establish a local Homeless Housing Trust to facilitate the generation of housing and housing options for the homeless and the precariously housed.” (This has not happened yet.) Some goals are even more distant now than when the commission started, like “Develop transportation resources to assist homeless persons and those at risk of homelessness to return to self-sufficiency.” In December 2008, less than a year after the Commission began its work, the LYNX bus system discontinued six routes in Orange County.

Understandably, members of the Commission are now backpedaling from the 10-year figure. “I think it’s an admirable goal, but it all honesty, will we ever end homelessness?” asks Ed Timberlake, the managing chair of the board as well as a chairman at Seaside Bank & Trust. “Maybe not, but we can put a real dent in it.”

Executive Director Ray Larsen largely blames the recession for the group’s underwhelming performance thus far: “I guess it’s fair for you to say – gosh, it’s been three and half years, couldn’t we do [more?]” he says. “But it’s been a wicked three and a half years.”

The Commission has had some well-publicized financial troubles (interesting, considering that the salaries of some of its board members dwarf its annual $400,000 budget). Still, it appears that how the group uses its resources deserves some scrutiny: In its first year, for instance, the Commission had expenditures of $199,721; $125,000 of that was dedicated to Larsen’s salary.

The Commission’s other employee, Joel Miller, is an outreach worker who walks the streets of Orlando, hoping to bring some of the hard-core homeless into the net of local services and federal benefits. By comparison, similar groups in the cities of Miami, San Francisco and Denver have 40, 38 and 16 full-time outreach workers, respectively. Larsen points out that Miami-Dade County has a surcharge of 1 percent on nearly all food and beverage sales, which funds programs like outreach for the homeless and domestic-violence victims.

The Commission has had some successes, though. Judge Perry helped to create an alternative sentencing program that allows a homeless person to perform community service in lieu of paying for the court costs associated with arrest – on June 28, Perry rescinded 1,603 collections-court writs that had been issued for transients. (It should be noted, however, that at the time there were an estimated 50,000 outstanding writs in the Ninth Judicial Circuit.) In addition, the Commission is currently collaborating with the University of Central Florida to create an academy specifically for case managers specializing in homelessness – currently, most case managers in Central Florida, according to Larsen, are trained to deal with specific illnesses and conditions; as a result, a mentally ill, drug addicted and unemployed homeless person may need a different case manager for each of those impairments.

But there’s still a sense of half-heartedness surrounding the Commission: none of the three counties have given a dime to it, despite the fact that it had asked Orange County for $4.5 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel. (The Sentinel also says that $3 million was requested of the city, but last fiscal year, it only gave $74,800.) Then there are the controversial homeless donation meters downtown, which Larsen says have raised roughly $400 since they were installed at the suggestion of the Commission three months ago. A look at the organization’s meeting minutes indicates that many board members are frequently absent, or send substitutes, even though meetings are only held once every four months or so. For instance, there is no evidence that Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis Jr. has ever attended a meeting of the Commission during his three years on the board, and Thakkar appears to have only attended one meeting since March 2008.

After the first meeting of 2010, the “members absent” field was removed from the minutes.

To Neil Donovan,executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, gauging a society’s attitudes on poverty is not a matter of measured judgment, but of hard science – to him, empathy for the poor waxes and wanes in 50 year cycles. At the beginning of the typical cycle, Donovan says, citizens are enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospect of addressing persistent poverty, and come up with innovative new ideas to do so. But near the end of the cycle, he says, society is frustrated with having made little progress with ideas that once seemed so promising, and hence, is more apt to punish the less fortunate. “We’ve ended the third decade, and now we’re in the fourth decade,” he says. “At that point, people start to circle the wagons.”

Donovan might have to reconsider his formula. It was 14 years ago that the city passed an ordinance which made Orlando the first in the nation to require that panhandlers carry a permit. That law proved ineffective and was thrown out by the city in 2000, but not without a replacement measure: On Sept. 1 of that year, police began checking compliance with “blue boxes” that mark the only places in downtown where panhandling is legal. (Since that day, there have been more than 2,674 panhandling arrests in the Orlando Police Department’s jurisdiction.) And as the city’s prestige has grown over the last decade, so has its reputation for singling out the homeless. Award-winning Associated Press reporter Todd Lewan visited Orlando and wrote a lengthy article published in February 2007 concerning the city’s fraught relationship with the homeless, taking note of signs at Lake Eola Park, of which this is the most (in)famous: “Do not lie or otherwise be in a horizontal position on a park bench.”

In 2009, Orlando received the dubious honor of being named the third “meanest city” in America by the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty. “Instead of using resources to enforce the law, [the city] should be devoting those resources to helping to end homelessness,” says Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights program director at the nonprofit. “One could see that the city, really, is interested in moving homeless people out of sight.”

Last year at Lake Eola Park, police cited 159 homeless people for trespassing. Some of the orders have questionable justifications: on June 11 a homeless man was cited for “Harassing turtle,” on Aug. 24, two were barred from the park for “Throwing stones in lake,” and on Christmas Eve, a homeless man was barred from the park indefinitely for “Trashing the restroom.” In addition, 14 were trespassed last year because they “Violated park rules,” though the specific rules are not mentioned; for 20 others, “Requested to leave by ranger” is the only explanation given.

A look at the city’s legal briefing against Orlando Food Not Bombs in last year’s filing with the Eleventh District Court over the city’s large group feeding ordinance offers a surprisingly candid look at how the city views the downtown homeless. “The revitalization of downtown Orlando is a priority for the city,” the brief states. “The city of Orlando recognizes that a historic impediment to downtown development is an over-concentration in downtown of social services aimed at low-income and homeless citizens.”

Some of the homeless report that the majority of their troubles downtown come from police, and hence, many have expressed that they actually like the parking lot at the intersection of Sylvia Lane and America Street that the city has designated as an authorized group-feeding site – Orlando Food Not Bombs, though, has derided it as a “feeding cage” because of the barbed-wire fencing encircling the lot.

“It’s in the cut; the cops don’t bother you here,” said a man named José, who declined to give his last name on a recent Saturday morning. “Peace and quiet.”

Perhaps most troubling about the city’s largely punitive approach to homelessness is that a criminal record makes it harder to find a job, and hence, get off the street. A 2006 study by the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing found that men who had been incarcerated were roughly 6 percent less likely to be employed, and if they did have a job, made between 15 and 26 percent less money.

When Mayor Buddy Dyer is asked about allegations of police intimidation and harassment of the homeless, he answers: “I’m among the homeless quite a bit, and I’ve never had one single person say anything like that to me.”

After three membersof Orlando Food Not Bombs were arrested on June 1, marking the beginning of a crackdown that has resulted in a total of 27 arrests so far, University of Central Florida public administration professor Jay Jurie decided it would be good to quantify the argument embedded in the group’s name. In the July issue of Sounds of a Democratic Society, a magazine published by the UCF student group Students for a Democratic Society, Jurie calculated that the federal government’s most recent contributions to the Women, Infants and Children program, school lunch subsidies and food stamps totaled $101.6 billion. The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2012, on the other hand, was $671 billion.

Jurie says skewed spending priorities are evident at the local level as well: For example, a recently completed project that outfitted the fountain at Lake Eola with new Plexiglas skin and colored lights cost the city $1.6 million – more than three times the amount it gave to organizations aiding the homeless last fiscal year. In May, the city pledged $25 million toward a new performing arts center after spending $28.4 million to acquire the property opposite City Hall.

“What makes a great city?” Jurie writes in an email to the Weekly. “Is it the one that has built the grandest temples to the power and clout of the most affluent, or is it the one that first and foremost looks after the public health, safety and welfare of its residents?  Obviously, in pursuit of the former, the city of Orlando has deep-sixed the latter.”

But Mayor Dyer suggests that counties bear more of the responsibility for addressing homelessness, not cities. “The municipal government is not really the one that is responsible for health and human services,” Dyer says.

Considering that many of the unsheltered people found within Orange County on that cold January morning were found in downtown Orlando, however, it seems as if Dyer and his fellow commissioners could stand to pay more attention to the issue. But then again, they have paid a lot of attention, in a way: at Orlando Food Not Bombs’ twice-weekly food sharings, it’s not uncommon to see two plainclothes police officers, four to six uniformed police officers and two parks officials watching the activists pass out food. On June 20, two code-enforcement officers were also dispatched to the park (in addition to the regular cohort of police officials) to inform the group that their posters – all of which were resting in a stack on the ground – were in violation of city code, since the group had not applied for a permit to display them.

“This is stupid,” remarked 22-year-old Orlando Food Not Bombs member Palmer Harrell, as code enforcement officer Jerry Reid retrieved a copy of city code section 64.300. “This isn’t even real.”