If Shelley Lauten were to write the Great American Novel she had envisioned herself authoring when she was a child, the protagonist might be a self-professed book nerd who grew up to get a job at the Happiest Place on Earth and later work with people shaping the future of the City Beautiful. But instead of fiction, it would be an autobiography
Lauten has long been known for rallying community leaders around causes that improve the quality of life in Central Florida — from her early days as a business seminar leader at Walt Disney World to her work over the years sparking conversations at the helm of Leadership Orlando, myregion.org, the Urban Land Institute and triSect, a consultancy she formed with former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood. Today she’s taking on one of the most challenging issues yet: homelessness.
In fact, it was her work as a consultant for the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness in 2014 where she learned how the practice of serving those who were homeless had become siloed. More than 100 organizations in the region were helping people who lived on the streets, doubled up on the sofas of friends and family members, slept in their cars or permanently lived in low-budget motels. But the organizations weren’t coordinating with each other. That meant people were falling through the cracks, and there was an unintended competition for funding.
“I’ve been a community advocate for 30 years, always seeking ways to make Orlando and Central Florida a better place to live,” Lauten said. “I tended to focus on the ‘simple’ things, like how we more effectively grow our economy and build our transportation systems.”
But the human cost of the region’s success has not been fully addressed, she said. “How can we be a prosperous region when 46 percent of us don’t have $400 in cash or credit to get out of a catastrophe? In the blink of an eye, they could be homeless even for a short period of time. There’s something not working in our community if we have that large a population barely hanging on.”
Lauten became the commission’s CEO in 2016 and has advocated a comprehensive, coordinated system of care. She has approached the issue the same way she’s tackled other causes: by engaging leaders to create long-term solutions. She did this for 13 years as the president of myregion.org, a business unit of what has merged under the umbrella of the Orlando Economic Partnership. Under her leadership, the organization created a strategic framework for the region’s seven counties and 86 cities to work together on issues such as quality of life, transportation
In a pilot program that began in 2015, the commission advocated for a new initiative called Housing First, which was seeing positive results in communities around the United States. The approach focuses on stabilizing a person’s living conditions before addressing issues such as healthcare and employment. So far, the region’s organizations have housed nearly 400 of the most chronically homeless — people who had been on the streets for an average of eight years — and 96 percent have stayed in their homes.
“We’ve made progress on creating that coordinated system of care for people who are on the streets chronically homeless, but we’ve only made a dent in it,” Lauten said. “I’m really proud of starting that process, but it’s very fragile and it’s in its infancy. We now have to scale what we’ve learned from our initial pilot into a system that’s regionwide.”
Today, Lauten is turning more of her advocacy work toward one of the root causes of homelessness: a lack of housing that meets the needs of the working population. The average two-bedroom rental property in Central Florida costs $1,200 to $1,400 a month — a financial stretch for many.
“It takes $21 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Central Florida,” Lauten said. “Even if you have two people in a household making $10 an hour, which is above minimum wage, they can’t afford the average two-bedroom apartment. We have to get government and the for-profit developers thinking of new and different ways to provide housing for all income levels.”
She has no doubt the region will continue to improve its approach to homelessness: “I’m so proud of our progress. Nobody’s better at problem-solving and innovating than Central Florida leaders. When we put our minds to something — whether it’s a beautiful venue, an Interstate 4 that is going to be state-of-the-art someday, or now a social issue like homelessness — we can and will figure out how to get things done for the better.”