County officials call on rebooted homeless commission for aid Help for families in Osceola sought
The rebooted Central Florida Commission on Homelessness met for the first time Wednesday amid calls from Osceola County representatives to do more for the hundreds of families living in rentby-the-week motel rooms there.
A new $5.25 million grant from the charitable foundation of billionaire Jeff Bezos, announced last week, can’t be used directly for those families, unless their rent is being paid by a nonprofit or church — or unless they’re kicked out.
“That’s the largest issue we have — the working poor living on that [U.S. Route] 192 corridor in those hotels,” said Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez. “We’re not doing anything [for them]. Somehow we have to find a better road map to help.”
Just this week, the Kissimmee Utility Authority shut off power to one of the aging hotels along the corridor, the Lake Cecile Inn, leaving up to 40 families living there without heat or lights, and water is scheduled to be cut off Thursday. The hotel is closing for renovations and had served notice to the residents in early November.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Orlando attorney Jeremy Hogan, who filed for an emergency injunction against the hotel’s owners as well as the power and water companies. “I was hoping to get the people there a little more time. But right now all I can
do is wait for the judge to rule.”
Cheryl Grieb, chairwoman of the Osceola County Commission, said the case is only the latest in a series of hotel renovations in the area that have displaced families.
“People keep moving here because we’re the land of magic,” she said. “We’re the fastest-growing county in Central Florida, but we don’t have the housing for all the people coming here.”
Both Grief and Alvarez serve on the newly restructured homeless commission, which includes elected officials from Orange, Osceola and Seminole as well as business, faith and nonprofit leaders. The collaborative effort is “the envy of the country,” said Heart of Florida United Way CEO Jeff Hayward, as communities across the nation struggle with the complexities of homelessness.
Yet Michael Griffin, vice president of advocacy and public policy at AdventHealth and the new chairman of the homeless commission, said the organization has plenty of work ahead.
“A kid [shouldn’t] have to go to bed in her family’s car because one of her parents lost their job and they lost their apartment,” he said. “When we have families teetering on the edge of homelessness, we need to be able to help them.”
The Bezos grant — the largest made by the foundation this year — can only be used to help families with minor children that are “literally homeless,” meaning they are staying in their cars, on the streets, in the woods or in a designated homeless shelter. That leaves out the families who double up with relatives or stay in weekly hotels and motels, most of whom work but can never save enough for the security and utility deposits necessary to move into an apartment.
Only when those families are kicked out do they become eligible to be helped, said Martha Are, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida. It could, for instance, help those already in shelters to move into apartments and rental housing. It might cover temporary housing for large families that show up at crowded shelters with no room for them. Or it might pay to hire and train bilingual outreach workers.
Nonprofit service providers that want to do such work will be able to apply for funding under the grant starting in January, Are said.
Meanwhile, though, the outlook for impoverished families could get bleaker as competition for housing tightens.
“At least quarterly, there’s a hotel that’s not able to pay its utilities, and the power gets shut off,” said the Rev. Mary Lee Downey, executive director of the nonprofit Community Hope Center in Kissimmee. “What happens when those residents are displaced? We’re not doing enough for our workingclass families.”