May 4, 2011

What to do with the Homeless

We are a Green Products webstore and have this blog which is largely about Green issues. But on occasion we like to take a look at social issues that affect us all. Homelessness in larger American cities is a real plague and oddly one that is often swept under the rug by the social network of cities and counties, especially in this economy of constraint.

Below is a great article on an initative by a public private partnership of our city Orlando to come to grips with homelessness on a person-to-person one-at-a-time basis which is really the only way to solve the problem over time.


It's just past 9 a.m. on a weekday when Joel Miller leaves his closet-sized office in downtown Orlando and hurries down the street, late for a meeting with a homeless woman in Lake Eola Park.

At 6-foot-4 and wearing a bright red polo shirt, Miller is hard to miss, and at least half a dozen people — all homeless — call out to him as he strides along.

"Hey, man, we got a couple of days of work!" says a gaunt man, opening his wallet to reveal cash from a temporary construction job.

It's a rare bit of progress in Miller's ongoing battle against homelessness — a fight he wages on behalf of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, a public-private partnership that covers his $40,000-a-year salary.

The mission for Miller is clear: get people off Orlando's streets and into housing, and help identify any obstacles along the way.


"Being an urban core in a major metropolitan area, homelessness is part of our reality," says Thomas Chatmon Jr., executive director of Orlando's Downtown Development Board. "But I think we are realistic in our expectations that homelessness is an incredibly complex issue and that there are no easy, quick solutions. Joel's work can only help."

In the three and a half months since Miller began work as the region's first homeless outreach specialist — a sort of mobile social worker — the 43-year-old former youth pastor has encountered a litany of frustrations.

One middle-aged man needs his birth certificate from his home state of New York. Without it, he can't get Florida identification, a job, a bank account or even placement in a rehabilitation program. The wait, Miller warns him, may be three or four months.

A 35-year-old Army veteran with schizophrenia wants housing, but doesn't want the sobriety required to get it. He needs the alcohol, he says, along with his psychiatric medication, to quiet the voices and allow him to sleep. The street is a noisy place to try to rest.

And the woman he is meeting, 60-year-old Susan Schellinger, a recent cancer patient, has been approved for disability, but has to wait six months for her first check. In the meantime, no program will help her unless she gives up her 12-year-old dog, Charly, the one thing that she feels has made life worth living lately.

Miller pulls up a chair next to her. Schellinger has a new patch of skin grafted onto the end of her nose, which was eaten up by skin cancer. A deep scar on her forehead is a reminder of where doctors harvested some of the flesh.

"I worked for 34 years," she says. "I was a bookkeeper, and I also did security work on the side. And towards the end I did some web design. But when trouble hit me, it hit me all at once."

It wasn't just the cancer. Degeneration in her spinal column has left her stooped and unsteady on her feet. High blood pressure requires daily medication. And the cancer surgery wiped out what was left of her savings. In December, she moved into her van. Then it was towed, and she didn't have the money to get it back.

She shows Miller all the documentation of her story — the medical records, the letters from attorneys, the notice that she will begin receiving disability payments in June.

Miller listens at length, compassionate but not pitying. He is a veteran of the business. A decade ago, he ran the first Compassion Corner in downtown Orlando, a small homeless drop-in center started by First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. There he served up coffee and pastries and daily doses of scripture and advice, trying to help the homeless in whatever way they would let him.

Most people who know him say Miller is ideally suited to the job. He is big enough not to be intimidated, smart enough not to be suckered, and caring and persistent enough not to be discouraged.

"Joel's a very good judge of character," says Warren Foster, a senior case manager at the Wayne Densch Center, an Orlando nonprofit that provides transitional housing and rehabilitation for the homeless. "He's got a pretty big task cut out for him. If he didn't have the experience he does, he would be a sitting duck."

Miller still sees some of the same faces he first encountered 10 years ago.

But these days there are so many more homeless people, and the clash with the city and business owners downtown has become increasingly problematic. The city's legal tussle over group feedings at Lake Eola, for instance, was spurred in part by local restaurateurs and merchants who said the homeless were driving away potential customers.

Many of the businessmen don't yet know Miller. But within the homeless community, word gets around: Look for the tall guy wearing a red shirt and carrying a notebook. Miller has five such shirts, each with a little logo and always red.

And he always has his cell phone.

For Schellinger, he starts making calls to social-service agencies, trying to find her a place to stay. With a case worker on the line, he relays questions.

"Addictions?" he asks her.

"Just cigarettes and coffee," she says.

"Mental illness?"

She laughs. "Honey, I'm just as crazy as everybody else."

But the dog turns out to be a deal breaker.

The agency can't help. But it will try to get her a walker to make navigating the streets easier.

As Miller works on Schellinger's case, a series of homeless men approach him to ask for help. One man has clearly enjoyed beer for breakfast. Another, who says he has been sent to a mental hospital more than once, begs him for housing. A third — a well-groomed, 41-year-old forklift driver and his wife — tells Miller they have been sleeping in their car for three weeks now. What they want are jobs.

"I definitely get overwhelmed at times," Miller says. "But I see how God has been patient with me in my life."

In his high school and college years, he says, he abused alcohol and drugs. "It never caused me to be homeless, but it caused me to make some very poor decisions."

Now he recognizes the self-delusion and fear of addiction. He knows progress can be maddeningly slow.

Since late January, he has helped more than 100 people get food stamps, bus passes, identification, jobs, counseling and other services. But he has been able to get only four of them off the street and into housing.

"It takes time to build trust," says Carole Mason, president of the Wayne Densch Center. "There was one man we met at Lake Eola when we were doing our own outreach who took a year and a half to decide to come in. It's a long, tedious road."

Especially when you're still a one-man show. Soon, perhaps within a month, a second such worker will also hit the streets — their turf a few square miles flanking Interstate 4 in the downtown core. In contrast, Miami has about 50 people who do such work.

But Miller's biggest challenge may be letting go. He can work his hardest to find help for people, but ultimately it is up to them to grab hold.

"I can't really help you with the dog issue," he says to Schellinger, handing her a slip of paper. "But here is a place you can live once you start getting your disability checks. They have a $299 move-in special, and after that it's $499 a month. Try to go by there and see if it's something you'd like."

She smiles and thanks him. "It's all right," she says. "It's only six more weeks."

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503 4/30/11 Orlando Sentinel

Conservastore believes that part of being green is taking care of your own personal human footprint on the Earth. We believe that before you have a large family you should make very sure you are prepared to take care of this family and raise your children successfully. 

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