ORLANDO, Fla. - The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness and their outreach team are taking steps to help the chronically homeless get back on their feet, permanently, through a new housing initiative, called the "Welcome Home Project."
Brad Sefter is one of the members of the outreach group, known as the Hope Team. They all wear bright red polo shirts, making it easy to spot them as they canvass the counties they serve which include Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
Sefter focuses on the downtown Orlando area where it is known to many of the homeless men and women.
"He's a busy guy," Andre Gooden said about his encounters with Sefter. "But every time I ask him for some help, he helps me."
Gooden said he ended up homeless here after leaving Cleveland months ago.
"Just give me a room with four walls and a window," Gooden said. "That's what I want to live. I want to be normal again."
Only a few years ago Sefter was homeless too. He said after turning his life over to God everything changed.
The Hope Team member is paying it forward through his work at the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness where he makes sure people like Gooden get their medication, have access to food and shelter and transportation.
"I see young people, young kids, women," Sefter said. "It's an emotional job."
The ultimate goal of the Hope Team is to find permanent housing for people living on the streets.
Andrew Williams is one of the 129 homeless men and women the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness has identified as being chronically homeless, which means they have a disability preventing them from finding a home or have been without a permanent address for more than a year. The agency has been able to place around 50 people into homes.
Williams now has a one-bedroom apartment in Orlando to call his own thanks to the commission. He said it saved his life.
"I lived on the streets, slept under a bridge, and it was scary," Williams said of his time on the streets. "It was cold, it was rainy, it was lonely."
To reach its goal of housing the homeless, Central Florida Commission on Homelessness CEO Shelley Lauten said the organization is offering guaranteed rent and even bonuses to apartments and property owners willing to house people.
"Osceola County and Orange County, you get a bonus of $250 or $500 up front," Lauten said. "It's a win win."
Each new tenant also comes with a caseworker that will help them stay on track.
Lauten said you can't solve homelessness without homes, and that is why the mission of their "Welcome Home Project" is to find more property owners and apartment managers willing to partner with them.
"The chronically homeless are funded very well by the federal government," Lauten said. "And we will have a dedicated case manager for each one of these tenants. You don't get that from someone just walking off the street."
The initiative has already housed nearly 200 chronically homeless people across Central Florida, Lauten said. Almost 100 percent of them have maintained housing for more than a year, costing the city and taxpayers less in resources for things like police calls, court and incarceration costs, and unpaid hospitals visits. Research also shows a 57 percent decrease in emergency visits by their home worthy tenants who were first placed in the program.
Statistics show it costs about $35,000 in resources to keep a person homeless on the streets, said Lauten, but if you can find them a home, it costs $10,000-$12,000.
The success of the program is thanks to generous individuals and businesses in the community, Lauten said. They raised $109,000 to help with moving expenses and to buy furniture for the men, women and children they are helping.
The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness is seeking more donations to keep the “Welcome Home Project” going. Donors can visit http://rethinkhomelessness.org/ to learn how to help.
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