May 20, 2022

Editor's Page

Helping the homeless in Florida

Mark R. Howard | 1/27/2016

The traditional approach to helping chronically homeless people envisions them climbing a series of rungs up a virtuous ladder back into society: They receive basic assistance — blankets, meals, emergency shelter, etc. — before proceeding to address mental illness or substance abuse issues via medication, counseling and other services. Then, once someone’s sober and stable, he gets help finding a home and a job.

However well-intentioned, the traditional approach hasn’t worked. Most of the chronically homeless find it tough to stay on the ladder. It’s hard enough for anyone in recovery to avoid relapses, much more so if you’re without a home. Many chronically homeless people lack the most basic kind of identification and other documents that would enable them to plug into existing programs. In all but a few communities, a plethora of homeless shelters, food kitchens and other Band-Aid efforts provides doses of help that are rarely coordinated into a real strategy aimed at a permanent solution.

Some communities, however, have been trying something different. Rather than viewing sobriety and stability as steps toward housing, cities like Salt Lake City and Houston have begun to view housing as a step toward sobriety and stability.

In this approach, housing is the first step, not the final goal. Chronically homeless people are placed in apartments, no strings attached, and then offered “wraparound services,” including therapy and health care, on their terms. The “housing first” approach works. With the stable base of a home, formerly homeless people are better able to care for themselves and more likely to embrace the help they need. Salt Lake City has reduced the number of chronically homeless by 86%.

In Florida, until recently, only Miami has distinguished itself in addressing homelessness. Since 1993, revenue from a 1% tax on food and beverage sales at high-grossing bars and restaurants has flowed to the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which distributes the money to organizations that serve the homeless. The city has reduced the number of people living on the streets from more than 8,000 in the early 1990s to around 1,000 in 2015.

Miami is engaging with the housing first approach and is now being joined by some other cities — most notably, Orlando. There, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness had existed for years but didn’t begin developing much momentum until about three years ago, when community leaders grew frustrated at the lack of progress in addressing homelessness, particularly among veterans. At the time, Orlando had one of the highest numbers of homeless veterans in the country.

The commission hired Andrae Bailey, who combines a divinity degree with business training and a sense of social entrepreneurship in solving problems, to develop a program that would be a permanent solution. A study found that leaving someone on the street generated more than $30,000 a year in expenses related to incarceration, emergency room visits and other help — one homeless man alone had generated more than $1 million in medical bills at local hospitals. By contrast, getting someone into permanent supportive housing — a small apartment — cost only about $11,000 a year, the study found.

The commission decided to target some 1,200 chronically homeless veterans — “the most visible, the most expensive, the ones who get arrested all the time,” says Bailey, the group’s CEO. The commission raised money, worked with landlords, the VA, service providers and others to find homes and coordinate services. Florida Hospital contributed $6 million toward the initiative; the state and county have together chipped in about $3 million.

In December, the commission announced it had reduced the number of chronically homeless vets to “effective zero” — there may be a homeless veteran on the streets, but the rate of chronic homelessness among the group is essentially nil.

“After decades of struggling, we’ve come up with a most profound revelation,” says Bailey, 39. “The solution to homelessness is getting people a home.”

What’s impressive about the Orlando effort is the breadth of understanding and support it’s generated in the business community, which is rapidly becoming the most dynamic in the state in working with government and non-profit groups to address big civic issues and projects. The commission, for example, was able to assemble a group of more than 70 — including representatives from heavyweights like Disney, Universal, Florida Hospital, Orlando Health, Wells Fargo, the Orlando Magic, local universities and law firms, non-profit agencies, faith-based groups and area governments — to travel to Salt Lake City and Houston to see those cities’ homeless initiatives.

“The secret is everybody collaborating,” says Linda Landman Gonzalez, a vice president of the Orlando Magic who chairs the commission. “Unless we all talk to each other, we all end up feeling like we’re doing good, but we’re not achieving anything.”

Orlando seems to have a good framework for continuing that coordination locally; the issue now is whether the housing first model can take root statewide. A 2015 report by the Florida Council on Homelessness reported that Florida’s improving economy had reduced the number of homeless but found nearly 36,000 people living on the streets or in homeless shelters and more than 71,000 homeless school-age children.

Bailey, newly appointed to the state Council on Homelessness by Gov. Rick Scott, believes the state can develop a cohesive strategy in the same way that central Florida did, engaging leaders from both the business and public sectors. “It sounds obvious,” he says, “but the way to reduce homelessness is to give people a home. It all starts with housing. That’s the first rung.”

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