All together now: drop-in center 

The idea has been around for three decades or longer, but it took homeless advocate and UCF doctoral student Kelly Caruso to bring it to the attention of city leaders. In a meeting with several high-level administrators in July 2002, Caruso said what homeless experts in many cities already know: The best way to bring most of the homeless off downtown streets was to offer them a place to go during the day.

Up to that time, men, women and kids without permanent residence were subjected to a number of indignities at the hands of city leaders. In Orlando, it's against the law to sit or lie down on a city sidewalk. You can't nod off on a park bench. You can't even beg for change unless you do it in one of 30 blue boxes spread around downtown.

Caruso, who heads the homeless agency The Ripple Effect, was frowned on for handing out free bologna sandwiches in Lake Eola Park because the upscale neighbors who lived nearby bitched about it. (She has since moved her operation to an underpass near City Hall.) No wonder the nation's homeless voted Orlando the ninth meanest American city, according to a study released by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Homeless shelters are typically open during evening hours, running tenants out at 8 a.m. so beds and rooms can be cleaned. Therein lies the problem. Where do homeless people -- those who don't have a job or who work at night -- spend their days? At the downtown library, in Lake Eola Park, or slumming the streets, much to the dissatisfaction of businesses trying to make a buck downtown.

Caruso, a 44-year-old Arizona native who formed the all-volunteer Ripple Effect 12 years ago, believes a drop-in center will go a long way to alleviate the sight of downtown homelessness, while relieving many of the afflictions homeless people often endure. She pictures a center offering showers, voice mail, fax machines, laundry and medical services, as well as employment and mental health counseling. She sees some of the city's main homeless agencies -- The Coalition for the Homeless, the Health Care Center for the Homeless, Lakeside Alternatives and the Goodwill Agency -- forming a collective to offer services. "It could be a major collaboration for a one-stop shop where all the different organizations can set up an office," she says.

The problem is, not all of the homeless agencies on her list are receptive to the drop-in center idea. Bob Brown, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, worries that it will take public dollars away from homeless agencies and won't serve the people it is supposed to: the population of mostly male homeless known to be resistant to rehabilitation and assimilation back into mainstream society. "The most objectionable homeless are the very small percentage who have been duly diagnosed with some kind of addiction and mental health disorder," Brown says. "They are not going to go to a drop-in center. They're not going to walk a mile or a mile-and-a-half to eat a bologna sandwich and watch reruns of Oprah. They are not going to respond to a group of well-meaning people. They don't want to go to a drop-in center -- they want to score drug deals because they are sick people."

Brown says that on Oct. 1, the Coalition, a two-acre campus located in the heart of the Parramore neighborhood, housed 699 homeless people, only 295 of which could be classified as hard-core homeless. His point: Women and children make up the fastest-growing part of the homeless problem. "It's hard to know what the population is," he says. "It's not just guys panhandling under the freeway. It's also moms with kids. It's part of the unseen population we're trying to deal with."

Further, Brown says, the Coalition already provides a drop-in center, but it's more like a drop-in, overnight shelter. The space is a large concrete building where up to 500 men can sleep on a concrete floor for $1 per night (the Coalition also offers a work-for-shelter program). The Men's Pavilion, as it's known, has 14 showers, toilets and outside lockers. Built 15 years ago, the Pavilion "was what [city officials] wanted so homeless guys weren't sleeping on the steps of City Hall or peeing on Suntrust Bank," Brown says. It has a reputation for violence, which Brown says is exaggerated but police say is related to drug and alcohol problems. "When you have that many people in that small an area, you're going to have some blowups," says OPD Sgt. Brian Gilliam. "We get a lot of calls because they don't allow drugs and alcohol on the premises."

With some exceptions for night laborers, the Pavilion is empty during the day. But Brown says it can be modified to become the kind of 24-hour drop-in center Caruso envisions. That's implausible, however, because the city passed an ordinance in 1999 prohibiting new or expanded social services in Parramore. The low-income neighborhood already had an over-concentration of such agencies, city officials said.

Last week, Mayor Buddy Dyer's Downtown Strategic Transition Team unveiled 20 recommendations that committee members hope Dyer will incorporate. On the list is a "day facility for the homeless." Similarly, former Mayor Hood's much-ballyhooed homeless summit last fall came to the same conclusion -- Orlando needs a drop-in center.

The transition team, however, hopes the Coalition for the Homeless would be one of two implementers of the idea. (The city planning department was the other.) That concerns Caruso and her supporters, who think the Coalition doesn't have the passion for the job and opposes the idea because they're worried about funding. "I think they look at it like some kind of turf war," says District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who sits on the Ripple Effect's board of directors. "They think, 'Oh, the city is going to take away my funding.' I look at it like the two things can complement one another."

Other homeless agencies are waiting to see what still another homeless committee, this one formed by Hood just before she resigned office in February, recommends to Dyer. If that committee also recommends a drop-in shelter, city officials could feel enough pressure to set aside funds for one. Donations for the center, Caruso says, have been sparse because many people "are waiting to see what the city does," she says.

Even so, the drop-in center is still a long way from fruition. Money is a big concern. "A fully operational one-stop center is a breathtakingly expensive concept to contemplate," says James Wright, a UCF sociology professor who sits on the committee on homelessness. "None of the homeless providers are overfunded. Quite to the contrary. They are doing more with limited funds than any of us have a right to expect."

Location is also a problem. Neighborhoods will complain if it's placed to close to them. Caruso is limited to a small sliver of industrially zoned property in between Orange and Division streets south of Orlando. She thought she had a building last winter but she couldn't raise enough funds to rent it.

If and when she does finally raise the money, the debate over the center won't die down. A drop-in center might produce unintended consequences.

"One thing that bothers me as a concept," says Wright, "is that some people might buy into an 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' mentality. 'I don't have to deal with them. I don't have to put up with them.' The large community sees them as disgusting and filthy people who get in the way of shoppers. I don't like the symbolism of that. If the homeless are inside a drop-in center, people will assume that someone has taken care of the problem so 'we don't have to.'"


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