One big step toward a home for the homeless

East Orlando group wins grant for a homeless drop-in center.

One big step toward a home for the homeless 

East Orlando group wins grant for a homeless drop-in center. 


Nelson Kull considers a house in Holden Heights off of South Orange Blossom Trail a gem among the topless bars, check-cashing stores, cheap motels and the heavy street violence and prostitution. 


Pathways Drop-In Center is a safe haven for the homeless where they can get a meal, play pool, use the Internet and get much needed rest in a room filled with couches and newspaper-covered windows. 


Fifteen years ago Pathways served the homeless only coffee and donuts from a small rental house off of Michigan Avenue. 


Funding from the community allowed them to serve hot meals and eventually move to the current Holden Heights location in 1995. 


“I never envisioned this,” Kull said, standing in a newly renovated courtyard surrounded by flowers and paved walkways. “I was just taking it one day at a time then.” This is the same journey a faith-based group in East Orlando is about to embark upon. After two years of meetings, networking and prayers, the East Orange County Homeless Task Force secured an $800,000 federal grant to build a drop-in center for the hundreds of homeless that camp in the woods, mostly along East Colonial Drive between Alafaya Trail and Dean Road. Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez, who asked for a comprehensive study on the east side’s homeless which led to the formation of the task force, said they are eyeing an abandoned restaurant on 1754 S. Econlockhatchee Trail for the center. 


The study, called “Living Rough”, directed by University of Central Florida Sociology Professor Jim Wright, found that one-third of East Orlando’s homeless are military veterans and about three quarters admitted to alcoholism, drug addiction mental illness or a physical disability. 


It also found that they survive mainly by dumpster diving, panhandling or day laboring and that their biggest fear is being hit by a car on East Colonial Drive. Meanwhile their only resources are several local faith-based organizations, the Hope Team — a two person outreach effort for the entire tri-county area — and the Health Care Center for the Homeless, whose van travels to areas densely populated by the homeless to provide medical treatment. 


“They need a lot more than just a place to drop in but if there is no place to drop in then there is no way to reach out to them, assess them and give them more of what they need,” Wright said. “It is a means of outreach, a means of access, a point of entry into a much larger service system.” 


The drop-in center will offer counseling, social services, medical treatment (through a partnership with Florida Hospital), identification services, legal, daily meals, a food pantry, a clothes closet, hygiene services, ministry opportunities, a computer laboratory and occupational assistance. In addition to finding a home for the center, the task force is also raising funds to cover the estimated $250,000 annual operational costs. They predict the center will open in about one year. 


“This is where the rubber meets the road, where things move from theory to reality, where vision becomes concrete,” taskforce member Chris Akers said. “This is a huge step.” Of course it won’t be the last step for the group. After the center takes off, they envision offering 24-hour, seven-days-aweek service and shelter space for temporary housing. 


Pathways houses eight people at a time. Don Abreu, aka “Bear”, 48, spent 13 years on the streets, his severe depression forbidding him from keeping a job. “I had enough (of the streets). 


It’s really hard on your body so I have a lot of health problems now,” he said from his fully furnished apartment across the street from the main Pathways building. “It made me feel so good to clean up. I am very happy here.” To qualify for Pathways housing a person must be mentally ill, attend the Pathways day program, fill out an application and stay clean of drugs and alcohol during their stay. More than a decade ago, moving a drop-in center for the homeless into Holden Heights was a breeze. 


“The neighborhood likes us considering this is a crack and prostitution neighborhood,” Kull said. But in 2001 when they proposed a satellite office in Pine Hills, the neighborhood revolted. “They wanted nothing to do with us. They said they didn’t want their children having to walk past a bunch of mental patients on their way to school,” Kull said. The East Orange taskforce also fears the NIMBY (not-inmy-back-yard) crowd. 


“I understand them but on the other hand these homeless people are already out there. We are trying to break that cycle, and I think they (the community) will favor that approach in the end,” Akers said. “Our goal is not to gather them there, nurture them and grow more homeless.” 


Union Park Baptist Church Pastor Coleman Pratt said many of church’s food and clothes pantry clients are visibly losing hope as the recession weighs them down. Building this center will hopefully give them a sign that they are not alone in their struggles, he said. “I hope that as they become aware of this project that they see there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. 


East Orlando Sun 
by Megan Stokes