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  • Ryan Gillespie

In Parramore, an Effort Begins to House Orlando's Homeless

On the streets of Parramore surrounding the Christian Service Center, tents serving as temporary homes line sidewalks and vacant lots, while people experiencing homelessness push shopping carts with their belongings through the neighborhood.

It’s ground zero for the increasing homelessness in the region, which studies show is a lagging indicator of rising rents, stagnant wages and far too few affordable housing units. It’s also where an effort was launched this month to learn more about who is sleeping on the streets, and to get them housed.

Throughout March, a team led by the Christian Service Center is visiting the neighborhood regularly, collecting surveys, and building relationships in hopes of connecting people experiencing homelessness with a shelter bed, an extended-stay motel room or, even better, an apartment.

The outreach is part of an effort funded by a $617,000 federal grant awarded by the City of Orlando in February. Most of the money will be directed to paying for rental apartments and hotel rooms. It’s sort of a proof-of-concept, which, if successful, could be used to combat homelessness throughout Central Florida.

“The idea here is if we can show in a specific community like Parramore, which has the highest concentration of people experiencing homelessness right now, we can theoretically do this in Apopka, Sanford, Kissimmee,” said Eric Gray, the executive director of the Christian Service Center. “If we can show results from it — maybe we reduce the homeless population in Parramore by 5%, maybe it’s 25%, I have no idea until we get to the end of it — but if we can put a percentage on it, then it becomes a math problem.”

Encampments aren’t unique to the historic downtown neighborhood west of Interstate 4, densest between Exploria Stadium and Creative Village.

Around the region, numerous others can be found in parks and sidewalks. Of the 2,100 people experiencing homelessness in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, 1,500 are in Orange, according to a Point-in-Time count last year. This year’s numbers are expected soon and are likely to show an increase, officials have said.

Cities across the country are facing a climbing number of homeless residents, too.

In a homelessness presentation Tuesday to Orange County commissioners, Donna Wyche, manager of mental health and homelessness issues, said public encampments have popped up in metropolitan areas as governments and nonprofit partners struggle to solve a worsening affordable housing crisis.

“Our community issues [are] just like everybody else’s community issues. There are tents, camps, panhandling. You’re hearing about it. I’m hearing about it, and we’re all aware. We see it every day,” she said.

According to The Gap, a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Florida has just 26 available and affordable rental homes per 100 extremely low-income renters, third-fewest behind California and Nevada. The report found that no state has an adequate supply of rental units for renters whose household income is at or below the poverty line.

“There’s just increasing research that the number of people you have experiencing homelessness is directly tied to the availability of affordable housing,” said Martha Are, the CEO of the Homeless Services Network. “Our ultimate solution is to have more housing.”

Eric Gray, with The EPiC Outreach Team, coordinated through the Christian Service Center, interviews a homeless client living in a tent in the Parramore neighborhood on Monday, March 6, 2023.

In Parramore, the growing encampment is among the densest and has created tensions with neighbors who find tents around their homes or on sidewalks right outside. Due to its proximity to homeless services providers, and the visibility of the encampments, it was a natural starting point.

“It’s not fair to Parramore,” Gray said. “It’s not to say that other communities don’t have a lot of people who are homeless, but people are sleeping in tents behind private residences all throughout this area and it’s scary for a lot of people.”

As part of the grant, Gray said he’d be able to get between 20 and 50 people off the streets and housed. He’s hopeful the money will go even further though, and he’s able to get people into apartments using available rapid rehousing dollars, or another pot for permanent supportive housing, typically for people on fixed incomes who can’t work due to a disability.

While the grant is large enough to pay the rent for 20 people for a year, his plan is to move them through the system quicker, in hopes some can support themselves with jobs sooner.

Outreach efforts began March 1 and, by March 9, 12 people had been housed in extended-stay hotels, Gray said.

That includes four families, three of which had children. One of the children was 3 weeks old, he said. Another woman housed is elderly and on oxygen. She arrived recently from Ukraine, Gray said.

“Her condition was such that we had to get her off the streets,” he said. ”The staff’s evaluation was she was going to die if we left her on the street much more than a day.”

Gray and other Christian Service Center staff are leading two-hour outreach outings in the area surrounding Exploria Stadium on Central Boulevard, Terry Avenue and Parramore Avenue several times a week. Later in the month, they’ll expand to encampments further north and south in Parramore.

The teams include volunteers from other agencies and are in partnership with Orlando police and code enforcement, who also manage encampments and periodically do sweeps to move them off public sidewalks and parks.

The groups are surveying people sleeping in tents or experiencing homelessness in the area, trying to gather identifying information, medical conditions they’re suffering from and whether they’d be willing to sleep in a shelter if space was available.

Two men qualified Monday and were taken by outreach teams to the Coalition for the Homeless shelter nearby, where they can stay until they can be placed in housing.

Such placements are evidence of systemic changes taking place within the region’s homeless services systems, said Lisa Portelli, senior advisor on homelessness and social services to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

“Those are little successes, but they’re very big successes to those two people who didn’t want to be on the street,” said Portelli, who was among outreach workers Monday. “The pilot is a real opportunity for our entire system to make some changes and be more responsive and learn a lot and achieve the success of housing.”

Another change funded by the grant is a four-day-a-week coordinated entry hub at the Christian Service Center, which Gray said is new to the city, and a place where anybody can come in off the street and receive a full evaluation and get information on various systems and treatments available. Gray said after the grant money runs out, the nonprofit will absorb it into its budget.

On Monday, Gray and Chelsea Reed, a volunteer, conducted surveys at a vacant lot between Ossie and Washington streets near the Callahan Center. Several people living in tents or congregating on the property agreed to answer questions.

A man named Cris, who was laying in a tent, said he was staying there because it was close to the Christian Service Center where he could take showers.

He has lived in the lot for about a month since the home he was living in was foreclosed on.

Nearby on Ossie Street, Heidi, who was experiencing homelessness for the first time, told Gray she has been sleeping in her car in a shopping center parking lots for about two weeks, but was eager to work and secure shelter beyond her SUV. She previously worked the front desk at a hotel.

“I really want to work,” she said. “I didn’t come here to ask the government for money.”

But shelter space for women wasn’t available Monday evening.

The surveys and anecdotes reveal each person’s story of becoming homeless and the challenges they have to overcome, Gray said.

With more than 130 surveys completed in the neighborhood, the agencies are beginning to learn the faces and names behind the challenge and hope that will allow for a better response. They are also learning that the number of people experiencing homelessness there may be far higher than they expected.

“The people we’re working with out here are in really bad shape, physically, mentally,” Gray said. “Some of them have been out here a few days, some have been 30 years. The stories are horrible.”

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