When it comes to taking care of people who do not have shelter or food, we are bona fide meanies. That's an official designation from the National Coalition for the Homeless; according to its 2004 report, Florida is the second meanest state to its homeless population.
Best known for its hospitality industry and theme parks, Florida receives millions of visitors and billions of dollars in revenue each year, thanks to tourism. We welcome visitors from around the world wearing mouse ears and fanny packs; we just can't figure out how to be nice to our own unfortunate citizens.
On Feb. 22, Mayor Buddy Dyer gave his annual "State of the City" speech. He devoted 3,758 words to talk about city improvements, but he spared just 201 words — and vague ones at that — to comment on the growing issue of homelessness. He didn't mention that the Salvation Army has been without its mobile meal service for almost two years due to lack of funding, nor did he say anything about the fact that the fastest-growing segment of the homeless demographic is families — with an average of two children, often headed by a very young mother with no high school diploma.
That might be surprising news, considering that we usually encounter solitary men or women living on the streets. The Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida provided more than 240,000 nights of shelter in the past fiscal year; 60,000 of those were for children. According to the Coalition, one out of every four people they serve is a child whose average age is 8. You have to wonder why homelessness isn't at the forefront of Orlando's list of critical issues, as opposed to, say, building a multimillion-dollar performing arts center.
And it's not just people who suffer the loss of a roof over their heads. Hurricane Katrina left more than 1 million people without shelter, and it left hundreds of thousands of animals homeless too. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 464,419 cats and dogs were displaced by the storm, a figure that doesn't include livestock or exotic creatures.
Most of the animals were taken to nearby locations for care, but others were transported out of state, some to Florida. Many of the refugees are still receiving care from local volunteers and benevolent shelters.
What to do about it all? That's a difficult question for governmental agencies to answer. Fortunately, it might be a little easier for individuals, because there is no shortage of opportunities to step up and do something to help. We've even done the research for you by finding nonprofits that provide shelter and food for people and animals. Here's a list of what they need right now.
It's time for action.
American Red Cross of Central Florida
P.O. Box 536726
The Central Florida chapter of this volunteer-led nonprofit was started in 1917 and is part of the largest humanitarian organization in the world. It is constantly in need of volunteers to prepare for the hurricane season, to help in shelters and to help raise funds at community events. There is also a need for caseworkers and drivers. The organization only accepts donations of money and blood.
4680 Lake Underhill Road
The BETA Center is in its 30th year of helping pregnant teens and young mothers cope with becoming parents. The agency offers a residential program, educational courses and family-support services. The center needs volunteers to answer phones, sort donations and work in the nursery cuddling babies while their mothers are in school. The items most needed are diapers of all sizes, baby formula and nonperishable food items.
1771 N. Semoran Blvd.
Low-income families, mental health facilities, halfway houses and services for the homeless get food, diapers and hygiene products from this organization. Volunteers are needed at the food pantry to organize and label food and to assist with distribution. The pantry can never receive enough canned and frozen foods, personal-care products and baby formula. Nonperishable donations can be taken to Three Saints Thrift Store, 4270 Aloma Ave., Winter Park, (407) 671-7033.
Children's Home Society of Florida
3535 Lawton Road, Suite 260
The Children's Home Society of Florida offers temporary emergency shelter for children under 12 who have been taken from their families because of abuse or neglect. The nonprofit also has two additional shelters, Lilley House and Crisis Nursery, which offer shelter, plus child care for families in crisis. Mentors are needed to work with high-risk mothers and to chaperone parent and child visitations. Nonperishable food items, clothing, toys and gift cards are a great way to donate. Contributions can be taken to the main location, Lilley House (395 Piney Ridge Road, Casselberry, 407-262-7688), or Crisis Nursery (5616 Clarcona-Ocoee Road, 407-522-2288).
The Christian Service Center for Central Florida Inc.
808 W. Central Blvd.
Founded by a group of downtown Orlando churches more than 30 years ago, The Christian Service Center offers assistance to the disadvantaged with three food pantries, a Daily Bread meal program and a housing program for approximately 24 employable men. The nonprofit also offers emergency rent, mortgage and utilities assistance, and several other programs. There is a great need for nonperishable food, baby items and money. Volunteers can help serve meals, do administrative work or help sort food at one of the pantries. Contributions can be taken to the main location, the West Orange center (300 W. Franklin St., Ocoee, 407-656-6678) or the Winter Park center (741 N. Virginia Ave., Winter Park, 407-628-1692).
Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida
639 W. Central Blvd.
Serving Central Florida for almost 20 years, the coalition is currently the largest provider of homeless services in the area. In addition to providing shelter and food, the coalition offers support services such as health care, counseling, job placement and education. Their greatest need is for groups who can provide and serve meals at the 126-bed Women's Residential and Counseling Center and at the Pavilion, a shelter for more than 375 men. They also need help with administration during the week. Donations most needed are baby items, deodorant, razors, towels and diapers.
Habitat for Humanity Orlando
1925 Traylor Blvd.
This unique organization has been constructing homes for low-income families in Orlando for 20 years. Families are selected to receive a brand-new house based on specific requirements, and then take part in the building process alongside volunteers. To date, the Orlando affiliate has built 120 residences in Orange County, five of which were built in 2005. The nonprofit needs individuals for construction, to work in its home store and for administrative help. There is always a need for household items at the home store (2105 N. Orange Blossom Trail, 407-426-7192) and for building and construction materials.
Orange County Center Against Domestic Violence
P.O. Box 680748
Focusing on educating the community about domestic violence while helping those who are victims of abuse, this effective group has been the lone provider of domestic abuse services in Orlando since they opened in 1977. Financial donations are accepted, but there are other ways to help out. Volunteers are needed at the emergency shelter, to answer the crisis hotline, for contributions to the creation of newsletters and brochures and to become court advocates for those seeking protection from violence.
Heart of Florida United Way
1940 Traylor Blvd.
The vision of Heart of Florida United Way is to build healthy, safe, caring and strong communities. They succeed by acting as an umbrella agency for more than 90 charity organizations. Volunteers can search the HFUW website to find the nonprofit that will best suit them, as well as help sort merchandise at the gifts-in-kind center or work at special events. The group does not accept cash donations, but anyone wishing to donate items should call HFUW to find out what is most needed.
Lisa Merlin House
3101 N. Pine Hills Road
Women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction are the focus of this program started in 1992 by Lisa Merlin and her husband. In 2005, Lisa Merlin House helped more than 400 women, children and families recover from addiction through specialized programs and therapy. This summer, the nonprofit will open its Women and Children's Home for recovering pregnant and post-partum women and their children. The home will offer safe, long-term transitional housing and life-skills education. Volunteers can lead workshops, do administrative work and teach classes. Volunteers are also needed to organize and raise funds.
Loaves and Fishes
206 E. Eighth St.
Providing families with food, clothing, financial assistance and education to promote self-sufficiency is the goal for Loaves and Fishes. On average, 500 families receive weekly help from this nonprofit. Volunteers are needed to help package food bags, answer phones and pack clothing donations. Food items, toiletries and cleaning supplies are most needed for the pantry. Also, new underwear is always needed for men, women and children.
Meals on Wheels Etc.
2801 S. Financial Court
The elderly of Seminole County receive home-delivered meals and other services from this agency that promotes independence and dignity among seniors. Their greatest need is volunteers to deliver meals on weekdays, to help in the kitchen and to host themed parties. The organization needs donations of novelty items, such as lipstick and knickknacks for bingo prizes, craft supplies, canned food items and paper products.
Orlando Union Rescue Mission
1521 W. Washington St.
The hungry, hurting and homeless gain new life at this organization that offers men's and women's shelters, work rehabilitation programs and links to employment, drug counseling and college degrees. Volunteers are needed to prepare and serve meals, to assist with youth activities and to participate in community drives. The group needs monetary donations, furniture, food, clothing and hygiene products. Donations can be taken to the OURM Bargain Store (911 W. Central Blvd., 407-841-7578) or OURM Bargain Barn (315 N. Orange Blossom Trail, 407-423-7766).
Rescue Outreach Mission
1701 W. 13th St.
P.O. Box 412
With a strong focus on helping to rehabilitate the homeless, this nonprofit offers men's and women's shelters, food, clothing and educational programs. It provides 150 to 200 meals a day in Orlando alone, as well as a food pantry to the general public, and needs volunteers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Donation items most needed are paper products and utensils for meals. Volunteers are greatly needed on weekends to serve meals, fold donated clothing and help with child care and tutoring.
The Salvation Army
Orlando Area Command
P.O. Box 540657
Since 1920, The Salvation Army has provided shelter, food and outreach programs to the needy in Orange County. Separate shelters for men and women with children offer transitional housing, day care for parents seeking employment, meals and life-management programs. Shelters are in dire need of adult clothing appropriate for job interviews and personal hygiene products. Volunteers can lend a hand at the food pantry, the shelters or the soup kitchen. Clothing and household items can be taken to Salvation Army Thrift Store (1330 Semoran Blvd., Casselberry, 407-671-4419) or The Salvation Army Area Command main branch (416 W. Colonial Drive, 407-423-8581).
Second Harvest Food Bank
3730 Silver Star Road
For 23 years, Second Harvest Food Bank has fed the hungry in Central Florida. The organization collects, stores and distributes food throughout six counties with the help of more than 500 nonprofit partner agencies. Volunteers are needed in the warehouse to sort and label food and assist with food-drive pickups. Donations of food and money are most needed, but personal care and household products are also accepted.
Seniors First Inc.
5395 L.B. McLeod Road
Senior citizens benefit from this organization that has served Orange County for more than 37 years. Four thousand meals are provided to individuals each year, and that number is increasing. The group is desperate for volunteers to deliver meals to homebound seniors at least once a week. The food pantry also needs donations of nonperishable foods to stock its shelves.
599 Bablonica Drive
Homeless women with children find comfort in this shelter. Since opening in 1995, the organization has provided community housing for up to 271 mothers, and offers education on money management, parenting and other life skills. Volunteers are needed to organize food drives, answer phones and care for children while mothers attend courses. Donations of kitchen utensils, linens, clothing and children's items are also in demand.
Audubon Center for
Birds of Prey
1101 Audubon Way
Opened in 1979, this bird-loving facility concentrates on rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned and injured raptors. They help approximately 600 birds yearly and release 40-50 percent back into the wild. The nonprofit desperately needs volunteers to work the reception window, guide tours through the center, clean cages and help with rescue efforts. Donations of paper towels, laundry detergent, fresh meat and money are also in demand.
Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge
18515 E. Colonial Drive
Dedicated to rescuing, raising, rehabilitating and releasing wildlife, this refuge is the largest of its kind in Central Florida. Volunteers are needed to clean, build and repair cages, feed the animals and lead educational tours. Donations of towels, blankets, food and T-shirts are needed for wildlife upkeep. This nonprofit also accepts items that can be sold at its weekly rummage sale.
Fallin' Pines Critter Rescue
23643 Christmas Cemetery Road
Farm animals, birds, reptiles and other exotics have a home at this nonprofit that takes in handicapped, displaced or unwanted critters. Founder Shirley Cannan prefers to work exclusively with the animals, but volunteers are needed for lawn maintenance, carpentry and plumbing. Donations most needed are fruit and vegetables, used cages and carriers, soft towels and blankets, hay and of course, money.
Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary and Rehabilitation
13915 N. State Road 121
A permanent sanctuary for abused, confiscated and unwanted primates, Jungle Friends is home to approximately 75 primates and is one of only three rescues of its kind in Florida. Volunteers can become caregivers, habitat-builders or run outreach programs. Financial donations are most needed, but building materials, hardware and outdoor supplies are always desired.
Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary
1708 Ken Thompson Parkway
For 25 years, sick, injured and stray birds have been rescued and rehabilitated at Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary. Hundreds remain there permanently, while those more fortunate are released back into the wild. There is a dire need for volunteers to assist with rescue and dispatch on the weekends, and to support the rehab staff at the on-site hospital and kitchen. Donations of pet carriers, dry dog and cat food, and medical supplies are most needed.
Save the Manatee Club
500 N. Maitland Ave.
Co-founded by Jimmy Buffet and former Gov. Bob Graham to save manatees from extinction, this group focuses on fund-raising for public awareness, research, rescue and rehabilitation. Monetary donations are preferred, but volunteer staff is needed to work at educational booths during events, to write letters and e-mails to Florida decision-makers and to report information to researchers. Manatees can also be adopted for an annual fee that benefits the organization.
The SPCA of Central Florida
2727 Conroy Road
As the largest animal welfare agency in Central Florida, this nonprofit has been promoting responsible human behavior toward animals since 1937. Volunteers are needed at the shelter for animal companionship, maintenance and clerical work. The group is also seeking foster parents and adopters. Donations of money, towels, laundry soap, food and office supplies are gratefully accepted. Volunteers and donations are also needed at their Sanford shelter (2800 County Home Road, Sanford, 407-323-8685).
NEW START, OR END OF THE LINE?
By the end of summer, seven women and their children should have a house to call home — one place, together — in Seminole County. All seven women are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, and all are at a critical point that requires them to take back their jobs as mothers and learn to live clean, with the help of friends and counseling professionals.
The house, still under construction, is a chance for a new start provided by Lisa and Bruce Merlin. The Merlins are former addicts themselves; Lisa just marked 21 years sober, Bruce has 17. Since 1992, they've run the Lisa Merlin House, a similar setup for women only in Pine Hills.
Some of the women who enter the program check in as the only option other than jail; others have simply come to the end of their own personal line. Last year, the Merlin House treated 88 women and their 267 family members.
Because of the program's limited funding and limited beds, many women are turned away. Acceptance into the Pine Hills household is not easy; the desire for sobriety must be absolute and relationships have to be dropped at the door, not to be resumed until graduation, or beyond.
Walking through the well-worn Pine Hills house is like walking through a maze of bedrooms and hallways, leading to the living room, the kitchen, a schoolroom and an outside patio that overlooks a well-equipped children's playground (for visitations). It's a homey environment that's been supersized.
The Merlins previously rented their house for mothers and children, but decided to build the $1.5 million, 6,450-square-foot facility. They recently celebrated the topping of the roof, but there's a lot of work left, and it might not happen if more funds don't appear.
A fund-raising bachelor/bachelorette auction dedicated to the Merlin House is set for May 6 at the Rosen Centre Hotel on International Drive, but that probably won't bring in enough cash to finish the job. Though the operation is hailed by city and county agencies, the Merlins receive almost no government funding. Donations add up to just enough to keep the doors open.
The cost of finishing the Seminole home while still running the Pine Hills home has the whole operation in jeopardy. And that's a problem, says Lisa: "We can't put them back in the same environment. We have to find housing that's satisfactory and affordable."
— Lindy T. Shepherd
A FORCE OF NATURE
Shirley Cannan doesn't have a receptionist; there is no team of volunteers to help with the workload; she has never received a dime of government funding. She also doesn't have much of a personal life.
Cannan is the megaforce behind Fallin' Pines Rescue in Christmas, a nonprofit that rehabilitates handicapped, unwanted and displaced farm animals, birds, reptiles and other exotics. Since opening in 2003, Cannan has saved hundreds of critters, including 329 baby squirrels in 2004 alone. And nobody touches the animals but her.
"I am so funny about my animals," Cannan says. "I just have such a bond with them (the animals) that I really prefer to handle them on my own."
Cannan began her work with animals as a volunteer for the Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge in Orlando. She spent 40 to 70 hours a week managing a golf shop, and the rest of her time working with the animals at the refuge.
"I immediately began taking young squirrels home with me at night," Cannan says. "You're talking around-the-clock feeding with a syringe, all night long." Was she exhausted? Yes. "But," Cannan says, "you go into a special mode. You do what you have to do. You don't think about the hours of missed sleep, you just do it."
Cannan spent the next 13 years fostering and rehabilitating a variety of wildlife at home and footing the bill. In 2003, she decided to go for nonprofit status.
"Financially, they (Back to Nature) had it so much easier," Cannan says. "If you're not a nonprofit, you can't ask for donations. You have to pay for everything on your own. Being able to take donations was probably the main reason behind me going nonprofit."
Cannan chose her Christmas homestead on four acres of land as the location for the shelter. She continues to pay most of the bills on her own, though she does receive free medical supplies from a local veterinarian. The majority of her days are spent with the animals. But running the shelter wouldn't be possible without making sacrifices.
"There are times when I get discouraged," she says. "People will bring me these animals that they have owned for years and they have something like an abscess or a broken leg and they can't afford to pay the vet bill, so they just get rid of them. It's like they don't realize that it costs me money, too. I just don't understand how people can give up an animal like that.
"The highlight, though, is when you take in an abused or handicapped creature and give them their life back. And more importantly," Cannan says, "you also restore their confidence with people."
— Rachel Baumbach
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Food Not Bombs is an international group "organized along anarchist principles of egalitarianism, consensus, cooperation, autonomy and decentralization." They distribute vegan and vegetarian food with an anti-war, anti-poverty ideology.
This is the second attempt at keeping a Food Not Bombs chapter going in Orlando; the first fizzled out years ago.
This time the chapter is flourishing. Food sharings, followed by meetings, are held at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Lake Eola Park, on the Central Avenue side.