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Fed up

How Orlando's homeless-service agencies have failed to solve the problem

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In the early morningon Jan. 28, 2011, a small army of volunteers working for the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida fanned out into the streets of Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties to find out how many people were sleeping outdoors during one of the coldest nights in the state’s history. The results were appalling: 2,418 people were found outside in the cold; 728 of them were described as “severely mentally ill” individuals, 521 were chronic substance abusers, 500 were veterans, 205 had HIV/AIDS and 91 were victims of domestic violence. The volunteers also tallied the individuals staying at homeless shelters that night and found that the number of people in Central Florida without homes that morning was 4,515. In an Orlando Sentinel story on this homeless census, reporter Kate Santich wrote that the workers “encountered one man who is HIV-positive who had been without medication for two months. Another had liver cancer.”

Despite the discovery of hundreds of severely ill people living on the streets, some without access to medication, the story didn’t spark much public discussion on the problem of homelessness – that would have to wait another four months.

In late May, the Sentinel and other local media outlets (including this one) took notice of a bitter feud that had been re-ignited between the city of Orlando and Orlando Food Not Bombs, a ragtag group mostly comprised of young anarchists that have intentionally defied an ordinance that forbids the distribution of food in downtown parks without prior approval from the city. The ordinance had not been enforced since September 2008, when federal Judge Gregory Presnell ruled the law unconstitutional. Yet on April 12 this year, the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the city, clearing the way for police to arrest and detain three Food Not Bombs activists on June 1, an event that set off a firestorm of media coverage. In subsequent interviews Mayor Buddy Dyer pulled no punches, suggesting that the group – which says its goal has been to draw attention to “our society’s failure to provide food and housing to each of its members” – was more interested in exploiting the homeless for political gain than helping them get back on their feet.

“Dyer argues … that other organizations do a better job of addressing the bigger issue,” Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote on June 7.

It was an unfair comparison, considering that the city-funded Coalition for the Homeless, the largest homeless-services provider in Central Florida, has a budget in the millions and received $1,269,150 in total government support during its last fiscal year. Orlando Food Not Bombs, on the other hand, has $400 in its bank account as of this writing, and its most prominent member, Keith McHenry, lives out of his van. In addition, Food Not Bombs has never stated its intention to relieve anybody of homelessness, but ever since the city began arresting activists, the group has been criticized – explicitly and indirectly – by city officials, homeless-services agencies and members of the community for not doing enough.

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