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Financial woes last week forced the firing of nine employees at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, but money trouble hasn't stopped President Tom Allison from pursuing expansion plans. Even as the pink slips were being handed out Allison was meeting with community groups about a proposal that would significantly expand services to Central Florida's homeless, drug- and alcohol-addicted, and mentally ill -- by busing them out of town.

Allison's proposal includes more beds for families at the downtown campus, a new pavilion facility and infirmary across from Orange County's 33rd Street jail and a treatment/vocational training center funded by the Wayne Densch Trust to be built near Eatonville. Allison, a former director for the Orange County Jail who took over as Coalition president in July, calls it "cutting back to grow out." The total would double the capacity of local homeless services.

The Coalition announced last week that five full-time and four part-time employees were being fired to avoid a projected quarter-million-dollar budget deficit. The layoffs, plus a $150,000 advance from the city of Orlando, should cover the deficit.

But while cutting costs, Allison has been meeting with city, county and community representatives about expanding the Coalition's facilities and services. His first goal is convincing Orange County to grant five acres of county-owned property on John Young Parkway, across from the Orange County Jail. The land was originally targeted for use by Wayne Densch Charities for a treatment facility for the homeless who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs.

Densch pledged $5 million, but the deal fell through when the Legislature failed to appropriate additional money. After that disappointment, the Coalition, the Wayne Densch Trust and various other groups began working on separate -- sometimes overlapping -- projects. Allison talked to various nonprofit agencies and, he says, "they have all indicated they want to be involved." Allison envisions a 33rd Street site, the first part of the proposal to be completed, that would include an infirmary for 75 men and women, and a shelter for 125 men and 25 women.

A shuttle service would be established to take the homeless from downtown to the outlying facility. Once funding sources are secured, Allison says, a building could be up in six to nine months.

A new shelter on 33rd Street would enable the Coalition to enclose and renovate the downtown pavilion for use as short-term housing for married couples, single men with children, and families with older male children. (Boys over age 9 are not accepted in the current family residences.)

Allison says converting the downtown campus from a way station for hundreds of single men into a family center also will help address the concerns about panhandling and other problems associated with a concentration of homeless people. Some of the operational costs at both facilities could be covered by proceeds of the sale of the Naval Training Center. About $3.5 million has been invested in a trust with the interest, about $280,000 annually, to be used for operational expenses, Allison says.

The Coalition also would be involved with a proposed long-term substance abuse and treatment facility and vocational rehabilitation center being championed by the Wayne Densch Trust. Densch is hoping to build a facility on 50 acres on Kennedy Boulevard north of the city of Eatonville. Although its focus would be helping get the homeless off drugs and alcohol, Trust President Leonard Williams says some treatment beds would be available for the community's working poor.

Williams says his group has no timetable for development. "We are going to do it slowly and do it right," he says. But, he adds, it's promising that by working together, his group and the Coalition could provide the comprehensive care and support needed to get the homeless back into society. Shelter is important, he says, but it is not all that is needed "to get them back into the stream of life."


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