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Fed up

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

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But Cathy Jackson, who once worked as a development director for the Coalition for the Homeless, disagrees with the notion that homeless agencies perpetuate the problem to perpetuate themselves. “When you’re running a 24/7 shelter that is packed with crying children, distressed moms, mentally ill adults, folks coming off of substance issues,” she says, “you’re not spending your time trying to think of ways to increase that population.”

Money has always been the biggest challenge for homeless-services providers – Commissioner Stuart wagers that the area’s homeless services are “10 times under-funded.” That’s where the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness comes in. Or, at least, where it should have come in. The board includes Orlando and Orange County mayors Buddy Dyer and Teresa Jacobs, as well as some heavy hitters from the private sector – Alex Martins, president of the Orlando Magic, Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney World Resort, and Rasesh Thakkar, CEO of the Tavistock Group, to name just a few. In addition, former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, now with JPMorgan Chase, joined the board in December of last year, and Judge Belvin Perry is a member as well. Of the top 10 people on Orlando Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful” list, four sit on the board of the commission.

The appeal of the commission when it was first assembled was that such financial and political clout would help enact the changes necessary to end homelessness in Central Florida in 10 years, an effort branded as “Ten2End.” Implementing the Housing First methodology is just one of 25 steps laid out by the commission; those steps are as maddeningly vague as “Enhance and expand support service programs that produce monitored results” and as specific as “Establish a local Homeless Housing Trust to facilitate the generation of housing and housing options for the homeless and the precariously housed.” (This has not happened yet.) Some goals are even more distant now than when the commission started, like “Develop transportation resources to assist homeless persons and those at risk of homelessness to return to self-sufficiency.” In December 2008, less than a year after the Commission began its work, the LYNX bus system discontinued six routes in Orange County.

Understandably, members of the Commission are now backpedaling from the 10-year figure. “I think it’s an admirable goal, but it all honesty, will we ever end homelessness?” asks Ed Timberlake, the managing chair of the board as well as a chairman at Seaside Bank & Trust. “Maybe not, but we can put a real dent in it.”

Executive Director Ray Larsen largely blames the recession for the group’s underwhelming performance thus far: “I guess it’s fair for you to say – gosh, it’s been three and half years, couldn’t we do [more?]” he says. “But it’s been a wicked three and a half years.”

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