–December 10, 2012 | By Martin E. Comas, Orlando Sentinel
Seminole County, which found itself in the “60 Minutes” spotlight last year because of its growing homelessness problem, is planning to launch one of its biggest efforts to date to help homeless families.
County commissioners on Tuesday are expected to award nearly $1.5 million to the Harvest Time International charity in Sanford to help families break the cycle of homelessness. Supporters say the grant will provide a path for the chronically homeless to find steady employment and a permanent home, rather than just distributing money for temporary shelter and food.
“This is not a free handout. This is money that will be used for families that are willing to help themselves and become self-sufficient,” said André Smolinsky, a Harvest Time executive. The faith-based nonprofit operates a medical clinic and a food-distribution program in which the needy can buy food at a discount from the organization’s large warehouse.
Harvest Time has agreed to chip in an additional $450,000 in cash and services and will work with other charities. During the next two years, the total amount will allow the charity to help at least 150 families with job training, counseling, emergency shelter, utility-bill payments and rental assistance for up to 21 months.
An estimated 1,850 homeless adults and children live in Seminole — more than triple the number in 2009, according to the Homeless Services Network in Orlando. The number includes people living in homeless camps, in their cars, in abandoned buildings and doubled up with other families in apartments and motel rooms.
The county’s homelessness problem drew national attention last year when “60 Minutes” aired two television reports that profiled a Seminole family with two young children living out of a truck. The program focused on Seminole because it is one of Florida’s most affluent counties and sits in the shadow of Orlando and Walt Disney World.
Families receiving help through the new Harvest Time program, which is scheduled to begin in January, will have to go through a background check that includes an applicant’s mental health, education level, past employment and criminal background. The screening is a way of directing individuals into appropriate programs, agency officials said. Harvest Time will be required to provide county officials with monthly updates.
The screenings and monthly reports are important for the program to succeed, said Cathy Jackson, executive director of Homeless Services Network. Otherwise, a homeless family will be handed money and then trapped in a continuing cycle of “bouncing from agency to agency,” she said.
“Putting people up in a motel room and telling them to look for work without taking a look at their economic situation and what caused them to be in the situation that they are in doesn’t work,” she said.
Newly elected County Commissioner Lee Constantine agreed, saying that for the plan to be successful, it should be coordinated with nearby counties as part of a regional effort and be tied to schools to make sure homeless children are receiving help.
“It can’t be ‘Here’s a program to help the homeless.’ We then wash our hands and say we’ve done it. It can’t be that,” Constantine said. “I think it’s a solid plan. But there’s no question that if we don’t do something now, it will cost us more in the long run.”
Smolinsky said Harvest Time’s new program is designed to help people such as Aaron Smith. The 28-year-old man was at Harvest Time last week, shopping for food with his fiancée, Christa Murphy, 32, and the couple’s 3-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter. The couple also have a 9-year-old son.
By federal standards, they’re considered homeless because they live temporarily at a friend’s home in Kissimmee or with Murphy’s mother in Sanford. Smith makes ends meet by working as a handyman and a short-order cook. He wants to go to college to earn a business degree.
Smith said getting a temporary break on his rent or utility payment would go a long way in helping him get the education he needs to land a better job. “If all your money goes to rent and buying food and paying the utilities, there’s just no way I can go to school,” he said.
Sanford, which has about 75 percent of the county’s homeless people, will indirectly benefit from the grant, city officials said.
Every weekend, two charities have provided meals at city parks. But residents say the homeless cause problems in nearby neighborhoods, with many of them urinating in alleyways and harassing passers-by for money.
Sanford is studying the cost of renovating a vacant building — known as The Bridge — on Holly Avenue just west of downtown for the charities to use for feedings. The Harvest grant will help reduce the number of people seeking meals in Sanford’s core, city officials said.
The $1.45 million grant will come from $900,000 in county funds, about $458,000 in federal grants and $100,000 in state community-improvement grants.