Across the country, cities are criminalizing homelessness. A 2019 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that 34 percent of the homeless population living in the Orlando area are without shelter beds, yet city ordinances prohibit camping, sleeping, begging and food sharing. Without access to shelter, privacy and food, these individuals are subject to cycling through the criminal justice system, accruing court fines and debts as they struggle to survive.
This system places an additional burden on the individual — and on the community. “There are a multitude of court costs associated with arrests,” said Shelley Lauten, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. “Every time you have a misdemeanor or a felony, you’re getting charged with court costs, which digs the homeless individual further into the poverty hole.”
A 2014 study by the commission tracked 110 homeless individuals over the period of one year. It showed the people in the study group were arrested more than 3,000 times. Frederick Lauten, chief judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, witnesses firsthand the circular system of arrests among people experiencing homelessness.
“Generally, these offenders are seen at first appearance, 24 hours after their arrest, and are often quickly released back into the community, only to be re-arrested and put through the same cycle over and over again,” he said. “Housing First helps eliminate this unproductive, resources-demanding cycle.”
The region’s Housing First program provides homes to members of the chronically homeless population, or people who have been homeless for one or more years while suffering from a mental or physical disability. To date, the initiative has provided homes, services and social support to an initial group of 339 formerly homeless individuals. Service providers have tracked their use of the criminal justice system pre- and post-housing.
“The data is still coming in,” Frederick Lauten said. “However, court and adjudication costs one year post-housing decreased 84 percent — a reduction of $31,000 in Orange and Osceola counties. Across the region, days spent in jail have gone down by 85 percent, saving approximately $42,000 in jail costs.”
By all accounts, Housing First seems to be working. “The home itself isn’t going to keep someone from committing a crime,” said Kristy Lukaszewski, policy and programs director at the commission. “Of course, it’ll help with certain issues, but it’s the supportive services the folks are provided that help them reintegrate into a world off the streets.”
He Got Up, a community-driven effort that works closely with the court system and the Housing First program, reduces or often eradicates monetary debts by translating them into service hours. The court works with individuals to replace monetary obligations with community service so they can apply for license reinstatement. Removing offenders from the collections program, which often charges exorbitant interest penalties, diminishes financial deficit, replacing it with community-focused efforts.
The combination of programs in the Housing First initiative is designed to have lasting effects for the individuals it helps, Lukaszewski said. “The stability of housing, the catered services and the Housing First program itself keep these individuals connected to a community that truly cares and wants to see them succeed.
Breaking the Cycle
Shelley Lauten, CEO of Central Florida Commission on Homelessness
The Central Florida criminal justice system sits at the epicenter of a troubling cycle. Throughout the region, men and women experiencing homelessness move from jail to the streets and back again for a host of crimes ranging from mental health-related incidents to panhandling and illegally sleeping in public places.
For the homeless who cannot afford to pay citations and court costs, even a short jail sentence can be tantamount to a life sentence on the streets, given that a criminal record and collections issues can disqualify an individual from both housing and employment opportunities. However, Central Florida is taking steps to stop this cycle — with Housing First.
Our region’s Housing First pilot has placed 339 of our most vulnerable neighbors into housing with intensive case management services. These individuals are using our criminal justice system 85% less. While a home will not deter criminal behavior, it does protect these individuals from being criminalized for living on the streets.
Not only is supportive housing helping individuals stay out of jail, but community initiatives such as “He Got Up” help ease the burden of court costs through fee mediation and even service hour replacements. This helps individuals clear their records and provides them with a fresh start.
The only way to truly end homelessness is with homes … and our region is working to house and support our neighbors currently living on our streets.