Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Plan to End Homelessness in Central Florida:

It would be easy to argue that this is the worst time to launch a plan to end homelessness in Central Florida. Money is tight everywhere.

But perhaps it's just the opposite: There's no better time to deal with the homeless quandary.

It's impossible to ignore as many as 9,000 homeless people in Central Florida. But it's not just about them. It's about the strain on community services, from hospitals to law enforcement.

The good news is that after years of talking about it, leaders in Central Florida finally are prepared to act.

Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer are co-chairs of a regional commission. Business is engaged, led by Walt Disney World President Meg Crofton and Orlando Magic's Alex Martins, both on the 21-member homeless commission.

And now, the last piece is in place: someone to coordinate this partnership between governments, businesses and social-service agencies.

Ray Larsen, most recently the senior vice president for Community Outreach with the Central Florida YMCA, comes on board July 1 as executive director. With a powerful board behind him, Mr. Larsen needs to quickly address the challenge ahead.

Here are some ways:

*How about a one-stop service for the homeless? Investing $2 million to start drop-in centers in Orange, Osceola, Seminole counties and the city of Orlando is money well spent. Starting with Orlando makes the most sense because it has the largest concentration of homeless people. Pulling together services there, from help with drug abuse to job counseling, would make a big difference. The more people who get help, the fewer homeless people there will be to worry about.

Better yet is to help some of these people apply for federal aid, running the gamut from veterans' assistance to food stamps to disability. That saves money, and is less of a strain on local agencies.

*What about coordinating services? That can be done by working with all the social agencies and faith-based groups to cut down on services that overlap, like providing meals or clothing. That doesn't involve spending money. The commission can even save some by streamlining services.

*Where's the money? Having each of the four communities fund these initiatives, at a total expense of $50 million yearly, is going to be a tough sell for now. That's why it's critical that Mr. Larsen tap into private dollars by knocking on every door possible of businesses in Central Florida. Consider the money preventive medicine.

It's the true definition of a team effort. Without it, the homeless challenge falls apart.

published June 17 in the Orlando Sentinel

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