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Fed up

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

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The Commission has had some well-publicized financial troubles (interesting, considering that the salaries of some of its board members dwarf its annual $400,000 budget). Still, it appears that how the group uses its resources deserves some scrutiny: In its first year, for instance, the Commission had expenditures of $199,721; $125,000 of that was dedicated to Larsen’s salary.

The Commission’s other employee, Joel Miller, is an outreach worker who walks the streets of Orlando, hoping to bring some of the hard-core homeless into the net of local services and federal benefits. By comparison, similar groups in the cities of Miami, San Francisco and Denver have 40, 38 and 16 full-time outreach workers, respectively. Larsen points out that Miami-Dade County has a surcharge of 1 percent on nearly all food and beverage sales, which funds programs like outreach for the homeless and domestic-violence victims.

The Commission has had some successes, though. Judge Perry helped to create an alternative sentencing program that allows a homeless person to perform community service in lieu of paying for the court costs associated with arrest – on June 28, Perry rescinded 1,603 collections-court writs that had been issued for transients. (It should be noted, however, that at the time there were an estimated 50,000 outstanding writs in the Ninth Judicial Circuit.) In addition, the Commission is currently collaborating with the University of Central Florida to create an academy specifically for case managers specializing in homelessness – currently, most case managers in Central Florida, according to Larsen, are trained to deal with specific illnesses and conditions; as a result, a mentally ill, drug addicted and unemployed homeless person may need a different case manager for each of those impairments.

But there’s still a sense of half-heartedness surrounding the Commission: none of the three counties have given a dime to it, despite the fact that it had asked Orange County for $4.5 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel. (The Sentinel also says that $3 million was requested of the city, but last fiscal year, it only gave $74,800.) Then there are the controversial homeless donation meters downtown, which Larsen says have raised roughly $400 since they were installed at the suggestion of the Commission three months ago. A look at the organization’s meeting minutes indicates that many board members are frequently absent, or send substitutes, even though meetings are only held once every four months or so. For instance, there is no evidence that Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis Jr. has ever attended a meeting of the Commission during his three years on the board, and Thakkar appears to have only attended one meeting since March 2008.

After the first meeting of 2010, the “members absent” field was removed from the minutes.

To Neil Donovan,executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, gauging a society’s attitudes on poverty is not a matter of measured judgment, but of hard science – to him, empathy for the poor waxes and wanes in 50 year cycles. At the beginning of the typical cycle, Donovan says, citizens are enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospect of addressing persistent poverty, and come up with innovative new ideas to do so. But near the end of the cycle, he says, society is frustrated with having made little progress with ideas that once seemed so promising, and hence, is more apt to punish the less fortunate. “We’ve ended the third decade, and now we’re in the fourth decade,” he says. “At that point, people start to circle the wagons.”

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