Central Florida Commission on Homelessness Helps People Move Off the Streets
In synchrony, a mass of vehicles approaches a red light, easing to a halt. A sun-weathered woman steps into the road, weaving between windows, holding a sign that reads, “Please Help.” Drivers fumble with phones, change radio stations, look into the distance or anything they can to turn a blind eye to the person in need. The light turns green, and they go on with their lives. But not everyone can escape an uncomfortable reality so easily.
The Florida Department of Children and Families reports that at a single point in time in 2017, the state’s homeless population was 32,109. About 20 percent were chronically homeless, meaning they had been homeless for a year or more with a disabling physical or mental condition. Other populations of homeless individuals include families who are living on the streets or in temporary quarters, such as with relatives, and youths who are drifting without a place to live.
The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness works to bring together stakeholders in the counties of Orange, Osceola and Seminole to identify and manage the root cause of homelessness, one population at a time.
“About five years ago we didn’t have a cohesive system of care for people who are chronically homeless,” said Shelley Lauten, CEO of CFCH. “Our effort, our mission here at the commission is to build a coordinated system of care across three counties — not to end homelessness, but to make homelessness rare, brief and a one-time occurrence in Central Florida.”
Housing the First 100
In 2015, CFCH led the community initiative to implement the Housing First model of care with 100 of the most chronically homeless individuals in Central Florida. Housing First is an approach that offers permanent housing and provides the services and connections to the community that people need to avoid returning to homelessness.
“What we documented was the average person of these hundred has been on the streets of Central Florida for seven to eight years,” Lauten said. “So, it wasn’t just some transient passing through. These were our residents.”
Florida Hospital and the city of Orlando contributed $7 million for community partners to create a regional system to identify the most chronically homeless individuals based on their use of emergency rooms and the criminal justice system.
“When we quantified those 100, we realized it was costing us $31,000 a year per person to keep someone on the streets of Central Florida,” Lauten said.
With the Housing First model, placing people in homes and providing them with intensive case management and care reduced that cost per person to $18,000 per year.
Criminal justice visits pre- and post-housing have been reduced by 85 percent since the program was implemented.
“Most of the time when people are going to jail, and they’re being criminalized for being homeless, it’s for something as simple as sleeping on a bench,” Lauten said. “When you’re home, you obviously won’t be penalized for those crimes.”
Since the pilot program’s launch, the region has moved beyond the original 100 to help a total of 339 chronically homeless individuals. Of those, 96 percent have stayed in their new homes.
“For the first time ever, we don’t just have a theory about the Housing First model,” Lauten said. “We’ve applied it to 339 people in our community, and we are seeing incredible results. Our goal now is to expand on that.”
A Common Struggle
“Forty-six percent of Central Floridians do not have access to $400 in cash or credit,” Lauten said. “Think about that. If you’re just making it paycheck to paycheck and you have one major medical bill, or an unexpected expense, you’re close to being on the streets of Central Florida.”
Last summer, Lauten was introduced to Ann Anderson, who was a cook and had experienced medical and subsequently financial difficulties. She lost her job and ended up living in the woods. Anderson was one of the first people housed in the program.
“She lived like that for three or four years,” Lauten said. “After an accident or illness, if you don’t have a family, if you don’t have a support system, how long before you’re one paycheck away from being my customer?”
Andrew Williams is an example of one of the most chronically homeless individuals who was helped by the program. A truck driver in the Central Florida region for many years, Williams got into a devastating driving accident. He lost his job. He lost his healthcare coverage and started self-medicating. He lived on the streets for eight years.
Case managers worked with Williams to build trust and to help move him into a stable environment. Williams has been in a home since last fall. Since then, by choice, he no longer self-medicates, he’s stable and he works two days a week.
On average, prior to housing, Williams was in the emergency room four times a week. He reports that he hasn’t been there once since moving into his home. When necessary, he now visits his local health center, which is a much lower cost to the community.
“Since people are staying in their homes with this model, we’ve reduced the cost of emergency room visits by 60 percent,” Lauten said. “Andrew is a ‘best practice’ example. Not everyone is going to be as successful. But 97 percent of the most chronically homeless individuals have stayed in these homes. And their sense of worth, their sense of dignity and their sense of feeling like they’re a part of this community is the best part of my job.”
Breaking the Stereotype
The Housing First scattered-site housing model places individuals and families in apartments and small houses all over Central Florida, inconspicuously spread throughout the community.
“You may be living next to one of these formerly homeless individuals and you’d never know,” Lauten said. “When I tell people they might be living next to you, it’s like — ‘Really?’ There’s a stereotype that they’re somehow crazy, dangerous or more volatile than any of the rest of us.
“Part of our goal at the commission is to help all of us in this community break through the stereotype,” Lauten said. “Yes, they have a mental or physical disability, but they’re really not much different than you or me.”
Homes End Homelessness
Lauten laughed as she exclaimed, “It’s like the discovery of the obvious! The only way you can end homelessness is to move people from the streets, into a home. Homes end homelessness. It’s the only thing that does.”
The Housing First program in Central Florida has so far addressed only the chronically homeless. Future efforts will address the other homeless populations that need attention and care, including families with children.
“We have over 12,000 kids in our schools who are, by definition, either precariously housed or homeless,” Lauten said. “And that number is vastly under-represented, because it doesn’t account for infants ages 0 to 5.”
Precariously housed individuals and families are those who are on the streets purely due to economics. “They simply can’t afford to live in Central Florida anymore, and family homelessness is hidden most of the time,” Lauten said.
Another population the commission has identified is youths ages 13 to 24, often homeless from running away in crisis. “That just breaks my heart as a grandma in this community,” Lauten said. “I can’t imagine a 13-year-old out on our streets.
“We know now how to address the chronically homeless population,” she said. “The other two, we’ve only just started on what’s the best system of care for managing youth homelessness, and economic homelessness — which is primarily families. We don’t know yet. But we’re working on it.”