Last week the Orlando Sentinel reported on a conference hosted by business leaders, local government, and advocacy groups to raise awareness about homelessness in Osceola County — of which Disney World partially resides within. The group ‘summit’ included the results of a joint public-private funded report* on “The State of Homelessness in Osceola County.” According to the study the “number of homeless school-age children and parents rose by 54 percent to more than 5,000 in the past year alone.”
Businesses and government leaders have been particularly worried about the prolificacy of homelessness there because, like many urban areas in the past thirty years or so, one of the solutions (for families especially) in the absence of adequate services is to save up just enough money to stay in motels that rent by the week. Nationally the portion of homeless staying in motels is comparatively small, but according to the new report in Osceola that number 25 percent — five times the national average. Yet staying in those places are seen as somewhat of a dead-end solution, though, in that while the cost is just enough to afford it’s likewise too much to save for more permanent housing. This is especially true in Osceola (emphasis mine):
That leads directly to the next point of emphasis: what these families earn against the cost of Osceola County housing. One adult working full time at $9.07 per hour earns $1,556 monthly before taxes. According to the “affordability principle” – no more than 30 percent of a household’s income should go toward housing — the household should be paying $467 monthly to maintain stability.
But, the fair market rate for a one ($825) or two-bedroom ($983) rental leaves them “precariously housed” — paying more than half of their income for housing, which is not sustainable long-term.
So what makes this a particular problem in Osceola?
As Andrae Bailey, executive director of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, told the Sentinel on Thursday:
[…] the “shockingly high” number of homeless families in Osceola stem from a unique intersection of low-wage jobs, high mobility, cheap and plentiful motel rooms, a lack of homeless shelters and, some say, a lack of code enforcement that allows families to stay in motels for months — sometimes years — at a time.
When families miss those weekly payments motel owners are upset because they cannot be evicted without a court order — a costly endeavor when these establishments are home to some 800 homeless school-aged children. With all of this happening in an area that heavily relies on tourism (including the tax revenues from such), and “in the shadow of” the carefully-curated magical image of Disney, it’s easy to see a broad coalition of community groups coming together to solve such a pressing issue.
It’s just too bad that the solutions are rather underwhelming. In the Sentinel piece there’s talk of appealing to federal funding programs that exclude assistance to those living in hotels. From the private side of things there is a suggestion for using tax dollars to fund more ‘bridging’ programs to help families save up for deposits on more permanent housing. Yet those ideas doen’t begin to approach the type of concentrated, and so far successful, action found in Utah’s initiative to address homelessness by spending money to get folks…into homes.
It’s also difficult to imagine how such piecemeal efforts would address the structural market barriers for these families. Osceola is a bifurcated economy. The Census estimates that forty percent of households in the county make less than $35,000 annually (with roughly eleven percent under $15,000), while around while nearly half earn greater than $50,000. Twenty percent of families with dependent children live below the federal poverty line, including almost 40 percent (!) of single-mothers with very young children.
From that same Census data, it’s clear why those income statistics exist; the three largest industries in the county are primarily low-wage (leisure and hospitality, food services, health and social services). Yet the land, and housing, is quite valuable with enough greater-than-median income to afford prices that are out of reach for people at the bottom of the income scale. This strikes me as one consequence of a (localized) hourglass economy. High-end employment and spending creates demand for low-end jobs that don’t pay enough to live on — at least not without significant post-market public support.
Notice, however, the things that are missing from both private and public leaders: a livable wage and/or affordable housing. You could raise the former to afford the market as it exists or create the latter to change the market as it exists. If you’re feeling particularly feisty you could devote resources to ensuring both, and include additional social services support as well. Of course that type of effort requires more money and a strong public commitment. So instead we have private interests wanting public dollars to solve a narrow problem (motel occupancy), and a county commissioner who, while emphasizing a non-judgmental assessment of homelessness, nevertheless insists on approaching such structural defects with a personal narrative of “people are just looking for pathways to hand-ups, not hand-outs.”
This isn’t to deny that the solution here is simple, or easy — it isn’t. Yet the lack of either quality is an unspoken choice to limit the moral and practical imagination; in the sense of choosing not to see homelessness as an inherently humanitarian issue rather than an inconvenient consequence of the natural environment; and defining ‘practical solutions’ in such a way as to assume the economic circumstances that produce it are preordained.
Of course then people also want it to go away with a minimal amount of effort, and as it turns out if you focus only the smallest part of that problem it’s easier to propose minimal solutions. When you subsequently forget, or never acknowledge it in the first place, that everyone’s agreed to such a small scope and combine it with everyone wanting someone else to pay for it, well, it really does begin to look like an intractable issue.
*As of now the report itself is, frustratingly, unavailable.