Homeless ‘crisis center’ to be discussed

Staff Writer
There is no homeless shelter in Osceola County.
That fact has sparked discussion and debate among government leaders, nonprofit groups and church officials in recent months as the county’s population booms, wages stagnate and affordable housing remains scarce.
Other nearby counties – including Orange, Seminole and Polk – have some kind of temporary emergency housing facility in place. These operations vary in size, scope and available services, though all are subsidized by a mix of private fundraising, grants,

News-Gazette Photo/Martin maddock
A man panhandles along John Young Parkway on Thursday. A meeting will be held on Monday to discuss creating a homeless facility in Osceola County.

and often times, a mix of state and federal funds.
A meeting is set for Monday night in Kissimmee to address issues relating to homelessness in the county. It is being spearheaded by Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, who has pressed for a one-stop 24-hour community “crisis center” that would pair individuals with available resources and serve as an alternative to traditional shelter models.
“This wouldn’t be a hand out,” Choudhry said. “It would be a place that provides wrap around services through community organizations to get people off the streets long term.”
Choudhry describes her ideal center as a place where families and individuals can receive housing placement and support, emergency assistance, meals and case management services. The centralized location is meant to make it easier for nonprofits to collaborate and track individuals who receive assistance.
Choudhry said the concept is to place people in long-term housing as quickly as possible while working to fix the underlying issues that contribute to homelessness.
Choudhry has been in contact with nonprofit groups like the Community Hope Center, which have been supportive of the commissioner’s idea.
Mary Downey, executive director of the Hope Center, said Choudhry’s concept is a good one. Currently, when individuals come to her organization seeking temporary emergency shelter, the Hope Center must refer them to other agencies, such as a homeless shelter in Polk County.
“We are always open to the idea of new ways to better serve the needs of those in our community,” Downey said. “I think there are gaps in assistance that need to be filled.”
But Downey emphasized that the only true way to resolve concerns about Osceola County’s homeless problem is to create more affordable housing in
the area.
“We don’t want to slap a Band-Aid on this,” she said. “We can’t provide people with a long term fix if there aren’t enough affordable housing units to move them into.”
Choudhry’s crisis center concept has failed to gain support from most of her peers on the County Commission. At an Aug. 21 meeting, the board approved a study by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness to explore the feasibility of a crisis care center in Osceola County.
But at the next meeting, Commissioner Brandon Arrington said the study should be placed on hold.
It wasn’t the first time the commissioner had publicly spoken out against the idea. Arrington said addressing the homeless population is an issue for nonprofits and churches, not local government.
He also cited financial concerns over operating such a facility 24 hours
a day.
“We don’t have the money in our budget for something like that,” he said. “The start-up and operational costs would be too high to maintain something like that.”
Instead, he proposed that the county encourage charities and businesses to step up and help fill the gap.
But Choudhry denies the claim that the center would prove costly for the county. She maintains that for less than 1 percent of the county’s $157 million general fund budget, a crisis center could be established in Osceola County.
Choudhry argues that tax payers are already paying for the community’s homeless population anyway.
“We are overloading our jails and hospitals because people are on the streets and not receiving the help they need,” Choudhry said. “We jail them for panhandling over and over, but don’t follow up with them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The commissioner said she is frustrated with the response she’s gotten from her fellow commissioners. She took to social media Jan. 17 to vocalize her views directly with the public. Her post appeared on a day when temperatures across Central Florida plunged below freezing.
“As many of you all know Osceola County has no shelter,” Choudhry wrote in a post on Facebook and Twitter. “I will continue fighting to get an Emergency care center in place…”
Choudhry said her social media post was meant to spark the public’s interest in the issue.
The commissioner said she still wants to see the feasibility study funded, citing the benefits of price estimates and options specific to Osceola County.
But this preliminary step, like Choudhry’s proposal itself, has received the cold shoulder from other county commissioners.
The Connect Osceola Citizens & Homeless Committee Meeting will be Monday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at county administration building, Suite 4727.

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