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Fed up

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

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Transitional housing gives service agencies more leeway to control the environment of their clients, but it is often limited in scope, tied to often unrealistic expectations (or one’s willingness to study the Bible) and most importantly, has few mechanisms in place to measure success. The Coalition for the Homeless, for example, says that 1,213 men have been “served” by its First Steps transitional program between 2002 and June of last year, but it cannot say how many people actually completed the program, nor how many found their way into stable housing upon completion.

The group of four’s most common argument against permanent supportive housing, ironically, is financial: “We certainly have tried to explore the opportunity to create some type of better housing program around here,” says Robert Stuart, city commissioner and executive director of the Christian Service Center. “Unfortunately, that’s also resource-based.”

University of Central Florida professor James Wright, who sits on the board of the directors of the Coalition, suggests that the blame for a dearth of permanent supportive housing shouldn’t fall on the service agencies. “You might ask yourself: Who are the housing agencies in our community, and what are they doing to help get people off the streets?” Wright says. “I think you’ll find there that the answer is not a whole heck of a lot.” (Executives at the Orlando Housing Authority did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Support for a Housing First model hinges somewhat on one’s ideology – that is, whether homelessness is an inevitable result of bad luck and people making irresponsible decisions, or a social problem that can be solved with the right combination of resources. “Homelessness will always be a part of our culture and our communities,” says Coalition President and CEO Brent Trotter, who suggests that his organization is often unfairly saddled with the expectation that it can end homelessness. “We ask questions of this issue that we don’t ask of other issues. Can chronic homelessness be resolved? Well, can mental illness be resolved? Can lack of education be resolved? Can debilitating illnesses be resolved?”

Tsemberis disagrees. “This is a totally manageable problem,” he says. “This is not cancer research. This is not an illness or a condition with an unknown cure. We know the cure. For a small percentage of the cost of the bank bailouts, the wars we’re fighting … we would have more than cured all of homelessness in the United States, permanently.”

If that vision ever came to fruition, homeless services agencies would, logically, cease to exist. That’s why Michael Arth, a DeLand architect who ran for governor last year (see our Oct. 21, 2010 feature, “Reality Check”) suggests that the true aim of many homeless-service organizations is “perpetuation of the agency.” Five years ago, Arth says, his proposal to centralize Volusia County’s homeless services in a secluded “pedestrian homeless village” was met with derision from local homeless-services agencies. “[The agencies] just saw me as a rival,” Arth says. “They were fighting for their funding.”

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