Laud the homeless heroes, but don’t forget the bigger problem


There’s a story all over social media right now about a man named Tim. Good Day Sacramento reports that Tim is a homeless man who saved four young women by shielding them in an alcove after gunfire erupted on the street. The father of one of the girls has been on a mission to find and thank him; the family is committed to helping him, providing food and support and maybe housing.

Tim should absolutely be lauded for his bravery and the family is right to be grateful. And as the leader of a homeless services organization, I am on the one hand appreciative of news that puts a spotlight on the homeless crisis in our country, but I am also extremely uncomfortable with the idea that it requires an act of heroism before we recognize the essential humanity of our neighbors.

Men, women and children experiencing homelessness deserve respect, support and access to resources whether or not they intervene in another’s crisis.

More than half a million individuals in the United States do not have a place to call home. In Central Florida, more than 7,000 individuals experienced homelessness over the past year. Each of those people have a story. Each of them matter.

Take Christina. Christina (not her real name) struggled with drug addiction and sought support from one of our provider agencies, SALT. After eight months of services, Christina decided she wanted to make a change in her life. She entered a detox facility and worked with a case manager and an outreach pastor. She is now in a sober house with a job.

Or the Boone family who fell behind on their rent and were unexpectedly evicted. Lacking even the funds for a hotel room, they desperately called around for assistance and the Elevation Scholars program that had helped their daughter obtain an academic scholarship connected them with another provider agency, the Christian Service Center (CSC). CSC found a hotel and connected them with a case manager. CSC was able to identify scarce affordable housing, cover the security deposit and move-in costs required to get the Boones into a new home. Mr. Boone continues to work so the family can pay their new rent going forward.

Or Rachel (not her real name), who was struggling with many issues; depression led to unemployment, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. She was forced to sleep in her car. Her health began deteriorating. Provider agency Samaritan Resource Center referred her for medical care and she was diagnosed with severe back injury, high blood pressure and arthritis. As a result, she was referred for Social Security Disability. Rachel entered the Rapid Rehousing Program and was provided temporary housing. She began receiving unemployment and was able to pay her bills. Eventually, she was referred to an apartment complex in Altamonte Springs and has continued receiving support in her employment.

Despite having limited resources across our continuum of care, our provider agencies work day and night to support our community and individuals experiencing homeless. We have housed nearly 1,800 people in the past year and provided shelter for 4,300. But the reality is that Central Florida has one of the tightest housing markets in the nation. The Orlando region, specifically, has been ranked first and seventh for the worst affordable housing market over the last three years.

Unfortunately, the collective failure to truly have empathy for, and acceptance of, our homeless community members results in policy decisions that will make everyone’s lives harder. During this most recent legislative session, the Legislature earmarked $100 million from the Sadowski affordable housing fund specifically for a “Hometown Heroes” program that would help support homeownership for frontline emergency workers, and law-enforcement workers, and healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, in doing so, they reduced the funds available to support the affordable rental housing that our most vulnerable populations rely upon — the very support needed to help prevent and move individuals out of homelessness.

Our culture has a preoccupation with heroism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But it doesn’t mean we can’t also value and support the men and women who haven’t yet had the opportunity to step in front of a bullet.

Martha Are is the CEO of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida and the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.