Shelter from the storm 

Is a mat on a concrete floor a bed? According to the city of Orlando it is, if a homeless person sleeps there. And the city has too many of them, says an obscure rule made last decade. So as of Nov. 2 there's a moratorium on "residential social service facilities."

Mayor Glenda Hood says the 120-day ban will allow time to study homelessness from a regional perspective, to contact social service agencies and decide if the limit -- which would allow only about 900 beds in the city, which now has more than 1,300 -- is "appropriate."

But really the ban is about keeping Covenant House, the nonprofit shelter for runaway and abused children, from buying the Syrian Lebanese American Club on Mills Avenue in Colonialtown. In August, Covenant House announced its plan to buy the club for $846,000, which caused an outcry from neighbors. Patty Sheehan, a former city council candidate from the district, claimed Covenant House's proposed 54 beds would encourage dangerous, delinquent youths to loiter nearby. And she had a printout from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department that allegedly showed 900 calls to the Covenant House facility there during the past eight years for problems such as auto theft, drug trafficking and assault.

But in her appeal this week to the city council, Covenant House spokeswoman Paula Tibbetts says crime in the area surrounding the Fort Lauderdale facility actually decreased during the past 12 years. And she noted that calls to police included many crimes committed against the shelter's residents, which had happened elsewhere and were reported from Covenant House.

But Sheehan also had statistics for police service calls at the day center on Orange Avenue in Orlando that Covenant House has operated since 1996. She noted more than 100 calls for service during a single four-month period.

But that period was an aberration, said Tibbetts. The increased calls came during a time when youths were sleeping in the building's entranceway and parking area. "While that made the kids feel safer, the sight of numerous youths outside in one location during the night was unsettling to observers," Tibbetts wrote in a response to neighborhood concerns. Covenant House told the kids to go elsewhere.

Staff there said the shelter is crucial to Covenant House's mission of getting children off the streets and into schools and jobs or reunited with parents. "I spoke to a young man this morning who was awakened by a kick in the stomach," Elizabeth Kunz, Covenant House senior program coordinator, told city council members debating the moratorium, "because the safest place he found to sleep last night was a parking garage."

Still, after hearing from Kunz and two others opposed to the moratorium, the council affirmed it. Hood promised to foster a regional dialogue about homelessness and Orlando's proper response to it. The moratorium is really in effect only until Dec. 14, she said, when city staff will advise the council whether it should adhere to a limit on beds instituted in the 1980s.

Jim DeSimone, the mayor's spokesman, says the regional issue is what drives the council's action. Orlando's cap, set at 0.5 percent of the city's population, was meant to protect the city from becoming a dumping ground for other cities.

Helaine Blum, staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association and current president of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, told the city council its definition of "residential social service facility" is slippery. "If emergency shelters for homeless adults fit within that definition, the Coalition for the Homeless Pavilion could never have been permitted `downtown`." By Blum's count, only 16 beds currently qualify under the cap's language.

"She's wrong," DeSimone counters. But the staff review will include an inventory of beds, he says.

Blum castigated the council for caving in to pressure. "You are not creating a discussion about homelessness and how to address it from a regional aspect," she said. "What you are doing is preventing an agency that has found a properly zoned piece of property from providing very needed shelter to abandoned, abused and neglected homeless youth."


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