Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews

'The Florida Project' portrays the underbelly of Kissimmee’s famous tourist strip

We talk to some of the real people living the low-rent motel life

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Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto star in - 'The Florida Project'
  • Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto star in 'The Florida Project'

The Hope Center is located smack dab in the middle of the 192 corridor, between hotels and attractions. It was created as a one-stop shop for motel families and the chronically homeless to get services, health care and access to supplies. In Osceola County, about 5,000 children are considered homeless by the county, which includes families living with relatives, staying in motels, or finding places to sleep in shelters, cars or the woods, says Angie Etman, program director for the center. Downey says since the Hope Center has been open, they've seen 19,000 people facing homelessness and given out 15,000 monthly bags filled with food and hygiene products. The organization has helped 600 people gain some form of employment and found housing for about 300 families.

Osceola County has a shortage of affordable housing, which, compounded with low wages throughout Central Florida, has led to thousands of families living in motels and hotels across 192. A 2014 version of United Way's ALICE Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) shows that the gap in affordable housing rental stock for Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties is 95,618 units. Osceola County does not have an emergency homeless shelter for men.

"We have an affordable housing crisis here in Osceola County and Central Florida," Downey says. "The reason why we have so many families in the motels and hotels is because first, there's not enough affordable housing. Second, when affordable housing becomes available, there are large barriers put in place so that people who are in the motels are not able to obtain that housing – they may have double evictions or very poor credit. So even though they may be paying $900 to $1,300 a month at a motel, they're not able to [get housing] because of their poor history."

Downey says she's started to see generational poverty among motel families.

The Magic Castle - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • The Magic Castle

"I have seen families that we provided services to over the last 11 years come back and their children come back with children," she says. "I call it an epidemic, a catastrophe for our community because we should not be seeing generational poverty of children growing up in a hotel and seeing no other options for them but also being in a hotel."

Debbie Buxton, who co-owns with her husband the purple Magic Castle, where The Florida Project was made, says the motel has been purple since they bought it 12 years ago, though they gave it a fresh coat before filming. Homelessness is the No. 1 issue on 192, Buxton says.

"We don't do extended-stay type things," she says. "We tend to stick with tourists and families that just moved here and are staying for a week or two and they're trying to find a place to live. The county really wants 192 to come back to what it was 30 years ago, but nobody has a solution to how to get these families out of hotel rooms. Filming it here was very exciting and maybe it opens up some people's eyes to what's happening."

Orlando Weekly reached out to Osceola County staff but did not get a response by press time.

Down the street from the Magic Castle, Kenny Gautney, 72, was hanging out with his shopping cart in the shade of the Visitors Flea Market, near Machine Gun America. He used to stay at the Magic Castle for a week at a time back when he had money, but he hasn't been there in a long time because he says he's "broke as a joke." Gautney can't stay in the woods anymore, so he's taken to sleeping in a secret spot he won't disclose.

"I've been here in Kissimmee on and off for about 10 years," he says. "I used to hitchhike, but I'm getting so old, I can't go anymore. I go in and out of Celebration hospital, then they kick me out the doors and I'm right back where I started from."

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