NOVEMBER 6, 2015 

The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness' recent hard work in shifting perceptions among the public and politicians appears to have put the long-aspirational goal of curbing regional homelessness on a glide path to success.

The commission's laudable labor of love largely targets a vulnerable population whose rescue from the streets may spare their lives and spare taxpayers steep hospital and incarceration costs: the chronically homeless.

Yet ... suffer the little children.

Indeed, the plight of the region's homeless children is bitterly ironic when you think about it. Remember, it was a 2011 "60 Minutes" report that chronicled the struggles of kids in Osceola and Seminole counties, haunting cheap hotels and sleeping in cars amid a 21 percent child-poverty rate, that focused attention on homelessness in Central Florida.

Four years later, little has changed save the calendar year.

One in 17 Central Florida kids — a rate that dwarfs the national median of one in 45 — endured at least part of last year bunking in a motel, shelter, the family jalopy or a home not their own. In raw numbers, the commission's own recent report numbered homeless parents and children in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties as high as 44,000.

As Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs understated during a recent presser, "The current situation is not acceptable."

She's right, of course. That circumstances haven't significantly improved for Central Florida's homeless kids after the probing eye of TV cameras went dark is unconscionable.

Though gains are long overdue, it is encouraging that Jacobs, in sounding the clarion call, has moved to help mobilize regional leaders to make amends.

First up, Jacobs and 72 local government, business and nonprofit leaders last week jetted to Salt Lake City, which could be the nation's capital for successful homeless-reduction strategies.

It's smart to absorb tips on tackling Great Recession fallout, rising rents and dwindling affordable housing and other issues that complicate child/family homelessness from a city that is "several years ahead" of Central Florida, noted national adviser Barbara Poppe. She's the former chief of the federal government's Interagency Council on Homelessness and now a paid consultant to the regional commission.

"You've got to be very aggressive because you have children — newborn infants who don't have a stable place to stay, elementary-school kids who are falling behind because they don't have stable housing," she counseled. "These children are the future of your region."

That's why Utah's lessons in unity may be even more valuable. Because of the teamwork of county, city and state leaders, Utah officials say the state has slashed shelter stays from 56 to about 33 days and reduced homeless recidivism to 10 percent.

It's going to take that kind of kumbaya concurrence to build partnerships between faith, business, community and business leaders that achieve that level of success.

More likely, though, it's going to take some old-fashioned shaming to inspire lawmakers in the state that Uncle Sam ranked highest in the nation for the rate of families who live on the streets or whose cars double as living quarters to, as Jacobs suggested, "incentivize or mandate" affordable housing for working families brutalized by the Great Recession.

Collaboration or shame: Whatever works.

Here's one idea for lawmakers: Don't even think about raiding the state affordable housing fund to pay for something else.

Meanwhile, to her credit, Jacobs has her staffers brainstorming tactics to boost affordable housing inventory. Also, she plans to corral regional leaders to foster Utah-like buy-in.

For too long, Central Florida's homeless children have stood invisible in plain sight. This latest push mustn't fade when front-page headlines disappear. It's time that these kids are seen — and herded gently into stable, brighter futures.

Copyright © 2015, Orlando Sentinel

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