Churches, Family Promise battle Central Florida homelessness


Mori, who is starting third grade, ended up with his family at Family Promise of Greater Orlando.


In the shadow of Walt Disney World, which calls itself the happiest place on Earth, there is another, far-different story taking place. 

Family Promise of Greater Orlando is constantly scrambling to care for struggling families, a homeless phenomenon documented in the 2017 award-winning film The Florida Project. And it may be about to get worse. 

The federal government is discontinuing much of its aid to Hurricane Maria refugees who made their way to Florida in the storm’s aftermath, and the churches involved in Family Promise are bracing for a surge in families needing help.

There is a bright light, however.

Damien, Daniel and their mom, Dee, found shelter at Family Promise of Greater Orlando, which serves struggling families in the Central Florida region who don't have permanent housing.

Family Promise, a consortium of churches in the Central Florida area, has partnered with the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida to administer a grant from Orange County. The money will provide rental assistance and funding for caseworkers to find more permanent housing for folks who need it. 

“We haven’t actually felt the effects that strongly of the Maria refugees because it’s just recently they’ve been pushed out of motels and other shelter situations,” Family Promise Executive Director Tia Aery said. “They’ve been bridge-housed,” as the group calls it.

Still, everyone knows the influx is coming.

“We are part of the shelter program that has only limited space. We only take four families at a time, up to 14 people,” Aery said. “The capacity is quite small. But we are part of a bundle with a rapid rehousing project.”

That is the Orange County grant that allows Family Promise to partner with other agencies. 

“We’ve been subcontracted to provide housing stability case management services (for the grant),” Aery said. 

It will likely be used to help some of the Hurricane Maria refugees relocate. The bundle of help includes three case managers dedicated to this project. 

“We are trying to take families directly off the street or from their cars and instead of putting them in shelters and helping them with parenting skills, we literally look for housing first,” Aery said. 

“Once they are stable, we begin to work with them to, number one, either find or improve their household income and, number two, help them with other needs.” 

Homeless Services has a housing locator team that signs landlords for the program. Rent payments to them are guaranteed and there are other incentives. 

The county grant provides the first month’s rent, then charges on a sliding scale, based on what the family can afford. Average rental assistance is five to six months. 

Over the past year, the project served about 150-160 families. 

“About 85 percent of the people exit to permanent housing,” Aery said. “It’s 80 percent that has maintained their housing after that.” 

The families come from all over. 

“Just this past week we had four families, 14 guests in all, which included three families who would not ‘fit’ in traditional shelters. We had a dad with his 22-month old daughter and two moms with sons over 14,” said Alison Whitney, the Family Promise coordinator for Conway United Methodist Church.  

“We had a family that consisted of mom, her three teenaged kids and her grandson, the 2-year-old son of one of the teenaged daughters. We had a mom with three kids including a five-month-old baby girl. “ 

Over the years the church has seen what Whitney calls a true cross-section of society. There was the mom and daughter who lost everything in an apartment fire, parents who fell into deep debt due to medical emergencies and job losses. 

There are people who come to Florida to live what they believe will be the Disney dream, but can’t afford housing on what little money they make. 

Family Promise churches sign up for three to four weeks a year, sometimes more, to take in families. 

“We put the families in their own room. They are able to stay together. We get single dads, and we are the only program where they can stay with their daughters,” said Sandee Smith, coordinator for University Carillon United Methodist Church

Katy Ann and her sons were taken in by Family Promise of Greater Orlando.

About 54 volunteers provide dinner for the family. Evening hosts sit and help with homework and play games with the kids, maybe read books. Overnight hosts stay at the church in case there are emergency needs. 

There are about 22 churches and about 600 volunteers involved in Family Promise in Central Florida. Housing rotates from one to another. Twelve are host sites, and the others provide meals and other supports. 

That’s an impressive total, but Conway said, “We still need more host churches.” 

The need is that great. 

“Our policy is it is a 30-day shelter, but we will look at how the family is doing,” Aery said. “We are trying to get them into rapid rehousing. It’s an avenue to housing. 

“Typically speaking, families stay with us about three months. Kids are in school and parents are either already employed or they are looking for employment. In summer, the kids go to camp programs.” 

Unlike in the past, Aery said, Family Promise now focuses on the neediest. All are placed on a list and served based on need.  

“But for our assistance, some of them would die on the streets or not be able to self-resolve,” she said. 

Even with Family Promise and the bundle with the county, the lack of affordable housing is a big problem in Central Florida. 

“I think we are better prepared to handle this kind of influx (of Maria refugees) in that we have systems in place to register people and be able to think about where there are vacancies,” Aery said. “I don’t think there is enough shelter or enough housing available. We are struggling as it is. 

“I’d love to say we have this wonderful plan, but the fact of the matter is we are already struggling to provide housing to the ones on the registry. The biggest gap is the lack of affordable housing all over. Central Florida is hit particularly hard because there is a lot of growth and the housing market has gotten tighter and tighter.” 

Still, the cost of running the programs is minimal for what they provide because the churches absorb the costs of running Family Promise. Over the past ten years the number of donors has doubled. 

“And we’ve been doing this program with the county for the last two years now,” Aery said. “So, we are starting through Central Florida to see the numbers are fairly stable, even potentially declining.” 

—Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico. 


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