A panel discussion following Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s annual State of Downtown Address brought the issue of homelessness and substance use disorders to the forefront of the downtown Orlando community on Tuesday.
The panel featured top Orlando entrepreneurs, university leaders and local nonprofit heads deemed by the Office of the Mayor to be making an impact on the downtown Orlando community. The discussion was moderated by Dyer and Fred Kittinger, associate vice president for university relations and director of state and local government affairs at the University of Central Florida.
Bakari Burns, president and CEO of Orange Blossom Family Health, was a panelist at the event. Orange Blossom Family Health provides high-quality health care services to Orlando area residents regardless of their financial status or insurance coverage. Many homeless individuals without insurance receive care from Orange Blossom Family Health through the Health Care Center for the Homeless in Orlando.
Burns spoke about the progress the Orlando community has made combating homelessness in the past year and explained that the homeless often struggle with substance use disorders
He also discussed the prevalence of mental health problems and co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders among the homeless in Orlando. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population struggles with mental illness. To put that in perspective, six percent of Americans are affected by mental illness.
The panel discussion followed Dyer’s 90-minute speech about current downtown Orlando business conditions, social programs and city successes since October 2015.
Dyer’s administration has made it a priority to provide stable housing to the homeless. The City of Orlando and numerous organizations, such as the Coalition for the Homeless, have secured permanent supportive housing for hundreds of homeless veterans and chronically homeless individuals.
“We’ve helped more than 300 chronically homeless individuals and veterans into permanent housing, surrounding them with a network of supportive services that can help keep them from returning to the streets,” Dyer said during the address.
Veterans are one of the most vulnerable groups to substance use and mental health disorders. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 76 percent of veterans who reported two or more years of homelessness struggle with substance abuse.
Dyer says that one of his greatest achievements as mayor has been the work the city has done to help homeless veterans.
“We’re very proud that we have worked as a community and have now been recognized by the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for effectively ending chronic homelessness among our veterans,” Dyer told DrugRehab.com.
In association with the city of Orlando and a number of other local and government organizations, the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida performs an annual point-in-time count of the homeless in the Orlando area. The census helps the organization assess the number of homeless veterans and chronically homeless people on the streets.
Once the organization has entered an individual into its tracking system, it gives top priority for subsidized permanent housing to homeless veterans and those who are most vulnerable to dying on the streets. After they have settled into their housing, these people are given access to employment assistance programs, health care and substance abuse treatment services.
Christina Stone, an advocate for housing the homeless in Central Florida, says providing housing for Orlando’s homeless is step one, but making sure they have continued support is the key to keeping them off the street.
“Giving someone a home solves homelessness, but the key to the success of this program is the case management,” Stone told DrugRehab.com. “The Health Care Center for the Homeless and their case managers put the support in ‘Permanent Supportive Housing,’ and that makes all the difference.”