Pan­han­dling study puts men­tal health, home­less­ness in fo­cus

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION - By Scott Cal­la­han

As a long-stand­ing res­i­dent of Cen­tral Florida, I am com­mit­ted to help­ing make it the best place pos­si­ble to raise a fam­ily and to own and op­er­ate a busi­ness.

I, like most lo­cal busi­ness lead­ers, see the im­pact of pan­han­dling ev­ery day, es­pe­cially in down­town. That is why I vol­un­teer with Re­think­ing Home­less­ness, a lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, and helped spon­sor the re­cent study on pan­han­dling in Or­lando.

It is a first-of-its-kind deep dive into this com­plex and many times con­tro­ver­sial is­sue that seems to sel­dom have so­lu­tions that work… or so it seemed be­fore the data re­port. I will ad­mit that I was skep­ti­cal about what we would find.

This project be­gan as a search for an­swers. Who are the peo­ple in our com­mu­nity that are liv­ing on the streets and why are they there? What per­cent­age of them are pan­han­dling and why? Are eco­nomic con­di­tions the pri­mary cause of this epi­demic or is there more to this is­sue than that?

What we found through care­ful re­search was both shock­ing and en­light­en­ing, and could give us the in­sights we need to fi­nally work to­ward so­lu­tions.

To be­gin with, the pan­han­dling study tells us that our com­mon per­cep­tions of Or­lando pan­han­dlers are quite dif­fer­ent than what the data says. For in­stance, we learned in the study that most pan­han­dlers are chron­i­cally home­less. This dis­man­tles our idea of the “pro­fes­sional pan­han­dler,” some­one we have come to think of as pre­tend­ing to be home­less or in great need, to so­licit their in­come on the streets.

The im­age of some­one driv­ing their car into down­town, lazily mak­ing money and then go­ing back home was com­pletely dis­pelled in the re­port.

We also got new men­tal health con­texts of the se­vere needs of this group of chronic pan­han­dlers. They have, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, mod­er­ate to se­vere men­tal ill­nesses or phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties that push them onto our streets.

And yes, the money we hand them ev­ery day is al­most ex­clu­sively be­ing used to buy drugs and al­co­hol. While we didn’t re­ally need a de­tailed re­port to tell us that, what we did learn is that these in­di­vid­u­als’ men­tal ill­nesses makes their ad­dic­tions clin­i­cal in na­ture.

Most of us prob­a­bly as­sumed that was how our money was be­ing used, but un­der­stand­ing their dis­abil­i­ties and diseases help me see how com­pas­sion should al­ways drive us to help…even if we don’t like the drug and al­co­hol abuse that’s oc­cur­ring. We prob­a­bly shouldn’t give these in­di­vid­u­als cash, but they don’t de­serve our scorn and judg­ment in ex­change.

Now, the ques­tion is what can Cen­tral Florida do to help those peo­ple get off the streets and, in turn, curb pan­han­dling in down­town? How do we im­prove their qual­ity of life while si­mul­ta­ne­ously im­prov­ing the qual­ity of life for those of us who are im­pacted by their daily rou­tine? This study points us to­ward long-term so­lu­tions that have real po­ten­tial to be ef­fec­tive.

As the study tells us, the chron­i­cally home­less are wrestling with de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­nesses and per­ma­nent phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. We need long-term so­lu­tions to ad­dress their needs and to ef­fec­tively help them get off the streets.

The good news is that our city lead­ers, even if we don’t want to give them credit, ac­tu­ally have a good track record on the is­sue of home­lesness. We need to en­cour­age these lead­ers and other pol­icy mak­ers in Cen­tral Florida to look to the study to help guide more in­vest­ments and de­ci­sion­mak­ing, while uti­liz­ing our com­mu­nity’s re­sources, to ad­dress chronic pan­han­dling in new and in­no­va­tive ways.

The City of Or­lando is a na­tional leader in com­bat­ing home­less­ness, hav­ing made steady progress over the years on the is­sue. I am con­fi­dent that with that record and the in­for­ma­tion the study pro­vides, the city, busi­ness lead­ers, and all car­ing mem­bers of the Cen­tral Florida fam­ily will work to de­velop new pro­grams to ad­dress chronic home­less­ness and solve pan­han­dling once and for all.

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