County of­fi­cials call on re­booted home­less com­mis­sion for aid Help for fam­i­lies in Osce­ola sought

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich

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.”

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