(This editorial that appeared in the Key West Citizen on July 7, 2017 originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.)

Central Florida has made remarkable progress over the past few years in the battle against homelessness. But it’ll take sustained leadership, cooperation and investment across the region to maintain the momentum and avoid letting those hard-fought gains erode.

Just four years ago, Metro Orlando ranked No. 1 among the nation’s midsized cities in its number of chronically homeless people, defined as individuals who have been without permanent shelter for at least a year. Since then — with government, business and the faith communities engaging, coordinating their approach and kicking in resources — housing has been provided for more than 700 of the chronically homeless. This past week leaders in the battle celebrated their success over the past couple of years in housing 168 of the most vulnerable individuals, who suffer from serious physical or mental illnesses; the effort easily surpassed its goal of 100.

The number of homeless in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties identified in the annual “Point in Time Count” has fallen by more than half in the past four years, another metric by which progress in the battle is measured. The 2017 total actually moved in the wrong direction, rising 29 percent. But the count, conducted on a single day in January, can be easily skewed. In 2016, it rained heavily on the day of the survey, which almost certainly reduced the number of people on the street. This year, the weather was good, and better-connected outreach workers and volunteers had an easier time tallying the area’s homeless.

A more troubling sign came recently when the Osceola County Commission passed a local ordinance criminalizing homelessness along U.S. Highway 192, the county’s main tourism corridor. The measure threatens anyone who sets up a “temporary habitation,” such as a tent or cardboard shanty, with a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to 60 days. While supporters of the new ordinance argued it was just a tool to prod the homeless to find a program providing shelter and services or relocate, there is no emergency shelter for homeless men in Osceola County, and other housing options in the county are few and far between.

Indeed, the battle against homelessness is more challenging throughout Central Florida because of a shortage of affordable housing. Metro Orlando ranked third in the nation in 2016 for its lack of housing for extremely low-income residents, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition study. There’s much more work to be done on expanding the supply of affordable housing in the region.

While we understand the frustration of business owners on Osceola’s tourism corridor who say tourists are turned off by homeless people, slapping them with fines they can’t pay or throwing them in jail for a couple of months is not a viable solution. In fact, incarceration is the most expensive and least effective way for a community to deal with its homeless. When they are released, they’ll have a criminal record that presents an additional obstacle for them to land a job and pay for permanent housing.

Incarceration is also the least compassionate solution. In the latest Point in Time Count, 22 percent of the homeless were children, 12 percent were families and 11 percent were veterans.

Supporters of Osceola’s ordinance said arrest would be a last resort. Sheriff Russ Gibson told the Sentinel that he would urge his deputies to use “the greatest amount of discretion possible” in enforcing the ordinance. Two weeks after it passed, no homeless person had been arrested under the new measure. 

Yet Osceola’s measure represents a crack in the consensus adopted by leaders across the region to fight homelessness with a strategy of providing housing first before addressing other needs. This strategy was buttressed by a 2014 study that found that chronically homeless individuals on average ran up costs for their communities of $31,000 a year, including hospitalization and incarceration, while they could be provided with housing for about $10,000 a year.

The other two counties covered in the Point in Time Count, Orange and Seminole, have continued to focus their efforts on providing housing for the chronically homeless. Osceola leaders would be smarter to stick with that strategy. Their taxpayers would be better off, too.

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