"We all think it's got to go," Orlando city commissioner Robert Stuart says. "It's probably not legal."
Stuart, who heads the nonprofit Christian Service Center, is referring to the city's 1999 ordinance that forbids social-service groups that help the homeless in Parramore, like his, from expanding or renovating. The city has long felt the presence of social services — especially the Coalition for the Homeless — in the blighted neighborhood has hindered redevelopment. So, at the behest of city commissioner Daisy Lynum and Parramore landowners, the city passed a law.
Since then there's been stalemate. The city wants the Coalition out of progress' way in Parramore but couldn't find a place to put it. Lynum didn't want it relocated into her district because too many social services are already crammed into poor, minority areas. Other commissioners weren't volunteering their districts, either.
Meanwhile, the situation has worsened. The city has as many as 7,000 homeless people a night, yet there are only 2,000 beds to put them in. Many homeless people prefer the streets to the Coalition; the men's pavilion, where homeless men can sleep on mats on a hard floor, is perceived as dangerous. The Coalition also puts women and children into separate facilities.
The Coalition and the city both agree that the facility, which opened in 1989, is outdated. It got so bad that in 2005, then-Coalition president Robert Brown threatened a lawsuit.
But the gridlock could be cracking.
At a Dec. 11 city council workshop, Lynum announced — for the first time, apparently — that she was fine with the Coalition's current location. "My opinion is keep the homeless coalition right where it is," she said.
The reason? "Every time someone comes to me to make way for Parramore improvements they want to bring the homeless to my neighborhood and I find that just unacceptable, to keep moving it further and further west into more minority communities."
"I was taken aback by it," Stuart says.
Lynum didn't call to revoke the 1999 ordinance, but if the city accepts the Coalition's location as a permanent reality, that seems the next step.
Later in December, city clerk Alana Brenner — the mayor's point person on homeless issues — told Orlando Weekly, "We've got to deal with them. If that means changing the ordinance, we've got to change that ordinance."
Brenner and Lynum aren't working in tandem. The city has no immediate plans to put changing the ordinance on its agenda. Nor has there been any official change in the city's homeless policy.
Nonetheless, the city and the Coalition are in talks — representatives met as recently as Jan. 17 — and allowing the Coalition to expand is certainly a topic for discussion, says current president Brent Trotter. The Coalition maintains, as it has for years, that it likes its home and will move only if it finds a suitable spot. It owns the city block upon which it sits, so the city can't force a move.
Were the ordinance lifted, Coalition spokeswoman Muffet Robinson says, the nonprofit would emphasize building affordable housing on its property. That's a priority among social service groups because the idea of creating affordable housing has been lost in the city's recent redevelopment efforts. Meanwhile, cities like Denver and San Francisco have employed "housing first" strategies — permanent shelters for the indigent — successfully.
"Everything's out there on the table to be discussed," Robinson says. "Everything's out there to talk about. It's government and sometimes it works a little slowly in the wheels of government."
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