When you picture your neighbors in East Orlando, you may think of the young couple down the street or your friends and family across town. Those not often considered are the diverse population of homeless individuals that live among us. For these neighbors, help and resources are scarce.
Recently a daytime drop-in center was proposed to help the homeless, although the center’s location has been one of heated controversy.
The proposed East Orlando center is a necessity to help the homeless however, according to Cathy Jackson, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida. “We can see that the number of homeless camps have gone up over the last couple of years, with many in East Orlando,” she says. “Throughout the region we’re seeing about a 20 percent population increase from years past.” At night, there is an enormous shortage of beds for the estimated 8,900 homeless individuals throughout the Central Florida region.
According to Jackson, there has also been an increase in the number of first time homeless in the area. “A few years ago, 60 percent of the homeless population had been homeless before for six months to over a year,” she says. “This year it was reversed. Roughly 45 percent had been homeless for three months or less.”
In East Orlando, there are almost no services for the homeless population. “The folks who find themselves homeless in this part of the county tend to be uncomfortable coming downtown for services,” Jackson says. “Partly because they don’t have transportation and party because there is a difference in culture.”
Advocates, like Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church Pastor Jeff Linman, agree. “The issue is that people are living out here and living in the woods behind many neighborhoods. Going downtown is like going to a foreign land for them,” he says. “They stay here because they feel safer and therefore are isolated from the services available downtown. We want to help them.” Linman also leads a group of area churches called Converge that addresses community services, including helping the homeless on this side of town.
The proposed East Orlando drop-in shelter is still in its early conceptual stages. “What we want to have is a place where government and faith-based services scattered throughout the community are available in one location in East Orlando,” says Linman. From utilities to job placement assistance to basic medical care and food, the proposed drop-in center will offer dozens of services to those in need.
Ideally, Linman sees the center as a place to help those who have nowhere else to go as well as those who may become homeless. “We’ve got chronic homeless issues that will be addressed in this program, but we also want to address those in danger of becoming homeless,” he says. “We are envisioning this to be a fairly broad-based service.”
For now, the center location is entirely unknown, according to Linman. Still, many residents are concerned the center will bring dozens, if not hundreds, of area homeless to their door. “We’ve had a lot of people who are supportive of the concept but they are having a fit about location in their backyard,” he says. “Do I think it’s a great idea? Sure I do,” says Waterford Lakes resident, Anthony Del Ponte. “But do I want it across the street from my house? No way. It will be tough to find a spot that makes everyone happy.”
Several sites throughout East Orlando have been identified as possibilities, including the old Whistle Junction site on the corner of Colonial and Econlockhatchee Roads, although no site or area has been narrowed down for the center. “It’s time to start addressing the needs of our neighbors,” says Linman. “They are in our backyards, at the grocery store and at the stop light. If we serve them here, it gets them off the street and may help them down the road to recovery.”
Article by Corey Gehrold