It's a straightforward idea, but also a new priority for housing agencies here and across the country: To help the homeless, start by finding them homes.
The "housing first" approach to homelessness recently adopted by federal agencies has been embraced by Orlando's leaders, who approved nearly $2 million toward the effort at a City Council meeting Nov. 16.
"We're committed to the housing-first model, affirmative supportive housing," said Mayor Buddy Dyer, who pledged to combat homelessness while running for reelection. "It's a good model. It's a clear path."
The housing first approach puts a priority on finding a stable living situation for the chronically homeless, followed by treatment for mental health or substance-abuse issues.
Taking different approach
For years, the prevailing approach was "treatment first," which involved placing the homeless in temporary shelters for counseling, sobriety and job training, after which they were expected to support themselves.
Researchers, as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, now agree that didn't work. Many couldn't find work, struggled to stay sober or were unable to adhere to the strict conditions of those programs.
Studies have found that putting people in a stable living situation first is more effective, officials said.
"The idea is, you identify the most vulnerable people and ... place them into a housing unit and then surround them with the supportive services that will make them successful," Dyer said.
HUD's embrace for housing first forced local agencies to quickly shift in that direction, as many are funded primarily by federal grant awarded by the agency.
As local agencies are still adapting to the new approach, money from local governments is "hugely significant," said Martha Are, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida.
"It's going to help us, really, with some of the most chronically homeless people," Are said.
The Homeless Services Network got the biggest piece of the funding doled out by Orlando this month: $600,000 per year for the next three years, with the possibility of up to three more three-year renewal terms.
According to Are, most of that money will go to pay rent. The agency hopes to start placing needy people in homes by next month: "We've got a team who are working to find landlords," she said.
The agency uses HUD's criteria for chronic homelessness: A person with a "disabling condition" who has been homeless for at least a year, or who has had at least four "episodes" of homelessness in the past three years.
"We use that to create a list of who's eligible, and then we identify those with the highest priority," she said.
The city also awarded about $120,000 to the Health Care Center of the Homeless for its "Barrier Buster" program, which covers costs associated with finding housing, like utility bills, moving costs and security deposits.
Plan to end homelessness
Homelessness has been a persistent problem for Orlando in recent years.
In 2008 the Regional Commission on Homelessness launched a plan to end homelessness in the area in 10 years -- just before the recession hit.
In his "state of the city" speech last year, Dyer set another goal: Moving one-third of the city's chronically homeless into stable housing within three years. Since then, he said, two-thirds of that goal has been accomplished.
At the Nov. 16 meeting, Lori Pampilo Harris, a program manager for the Corporation for Supportive Housing and board member of the Florida Housing coalition, called the city's financial commitment a "bold statement."
"While others may have surrendered to the thinking that homelessness is too complex of an issue ... the city's leadership has said that they chose not just to cope with the homelessness but now will invest into a proven solution," she said.
Said District 5 Commissioner Regina Hill: "I've gone out to see other places in the nation that is supporting supportive housing -- and it works."