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Central Florida Commission on Homelessness

The Central Florida criminal justice system sits at the epicenter of a troubling cycle. Throughout the region, men and women experiencing homelessness move from jail to the streets and back again for a host of crimes ranging from mental health-related incidents to panhandling and illegally sleeping in public places.

The region’s Housing First program provides homes to members of the chronically homeless population, or people who have been homeless for one or more years while suffering from a mental or physical disability. To date, the initiative has provided homes, services and social support to an initial group of 339 formerly homeless individuals. Service providers have tracked their use of the criminal justice system pre- and post-housing. “The data is still coming in,” Frederick Lauten said. “However, court and adjudication costs one year posthousing decreased 84 percent — a reduction of $31,000 in Orange and Osceola counties. Across the region, days spent in jail have gone down by 85 percent, saving approximately $42,000 in jail costs.” By all accounts, Housing First seems to be working. “The home itself isn’t going to keep someone from committing a crime,” said Kristy Lukaszewski, policy and programs director at the commission. “Of course, it’ll help with certain issues, but it’s the supportive services the folks are provided that help them reintegrate into a world off the streets.” He Got Up, a community-driven effort that works closely with the court system and the Housing First program, reduces or often eradicates monetary debts by translating them into service hours. The court works with individuals to replace monetary obligations with community service so they can apply for license reinstatement. Removing offenders from the collections program, which often charges exorbitant interest penalties, diminishes financial deficit, replacing it with community-focused efforts.

For the homeless who cannot afford to pay citations and court costs, even a short jail sentence can be tantamount to a life sentence on the streets, given that a criminal record and collections issues can disqualify an individual from both housing and employment opportunities. However, Central Florida is taking steps to stop this cycle — with Housing First. Our region’s Housing First pilot has placed 339 of our most vulnerable neighbors into housing with intensive case management services. These individuals are using our criminal justice system 85% less. While a home will not deter criminal behavior, it does protect these individuals from being criminalized for living on the streets. Not only is supportive housing helping individuals stay out of jail, but community initiatives such as “He Got Up” help ease the burden of court costs through fee mediation and even service hour replacements. This helps individuals clear their records and provides them with a fresh start. The only way to truly end homelessness is with homes … and our region is working to house and support our neighbors currently living on our streets.

The combination of programs in the Housing First initiative is designed to have lasting effects for the individuals it helps, Lukaszewski said. “The stability of housing, the catered services and the Housing First program itself keep these individuals connected to a community that truly cares and wants to see them succeed.” P | MAY 2019 | 35

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