It was amazing to see the report recently showing that homelessness has been reduced in Central Florida by almost 25 percent during the past year. I first visited Central Florida in 2013 in my role as the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
I was here to challenge and inspire this community to be part of the national movement to end homelessness. While progress had been occurring in many parts of the country, there was little notable progress in this community. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the USICH were releasing, concurrent with my visit, a report that ranked Central Florida No. 1 on chronic homelessness in the United States for like-sized cities, and in the top four in every category of homelessness we measured.
I had come to Orlando upon the invitation of Andrae Bailey, who had contacted me as the CEO of the newly reinvigorated Commission on Homelessness. He noted that although things “looked really bad now, leaders had a plan to change homelessness once and for all.”
I was skeptical.
The plan that Bailey described was very different from what was happening in most communities in America. A mandate would bring together top leaders who would begin working together in a structured way. Research and data would be used to make an economic case for solving homelessness. The commission would seek to energize the general public and make the human case using a new campaign Bailey said would be called Rethink Homelessness.
Again this plan seemed as improbable as it was ambitious.
What I witnessed over the next 24 months might be one of the more astonishing transformations I have seen in my career leading this work. The Central Florida community has seen leaders like Mayors Buddy Dyer and Teresa Jacobs direct new public policy and investment toward the Housing First model — the strategy focusing on providing housing for those on the streets that was working around the nation.
Top business leaders like the Orlando Magic’s Linda Gonzalez and Central Florida Partnership’s Jacob Stuart are not only well versed in what works to end homelessness; they have mobilized other business leaders to advocate for federal, state and local investment to make that happen. Thousands of business, faith and civic leaders are working together, sometimes daily, and the community’s advocacy is driving investments that were changing lives.
The results have been historic. Central Florida reported last December that it had effectively ended chronic homelessness for veterans on the streets, housing hundreds of veterans over the past two years, and as noted earlier, the annual point-in-time count showed a 23 percent drop in just one year. The movement had turned into results, and these results had begun to make an impact on so many who had been hopeless and without help previously.
I applaud the Central Florida community for what it has accomplished. The region has been transformed from one of the most disconnected epicenters of homelessness to a community that is beginning to capture national attention for demonstrated success that others now want to emulate.
There is still much work to do; hundreds still live on the streets, many of them children and families who need help into housing. But I encourage Orlando to take a minute to applaud its leaders for the work they have put in, the courage to admit that things were not working before and needed to change, and the strength to make the tough choices that have yielded this great progress.
Based on Central Florida’s extraordinary success, I’m now a true believer in the model these leaders have created, and I hope it is replicated in other communities. Orlando stands as a proof point that transformation on homelessness can happen anywhere that leaders have the courage to lead real change and commit to tackle the challenge collectively.
Bailey has made a believer of me, and Central Florida’s results are making believers around the nation.
Via Orlando Sentinel