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To be old, female and homeless

Women 55 and up are the fastest growing segment of the tri-county area's homeless population. Once solidly middle-class, they're out on the streets now for the first time in their lives. And there's nowhere to go. 

Photo: ZD

It is no secret that Orange County has a homeless problem. 

At a press conference earlier this month, Homeless Services Network CEO Martha Are described the traffic into her nonprofit as “not like a steady stream of people; it’s a raging river of people asking for help.” 

Earlier this month, Are put some numbers to that “raging river” with the results of the 2024 Point-In-Time Count (PIT), a federally mandated annual census of homeless individuals in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.  

The count certainly is not perfect as it just reflects those counted on a single day — Jan. 22. But with 400 volunteers, Are said this year’s count was the “most thorough” they’ve ever done. The volunteers, who fanned out across the tri-county area, found 2,883 homeless individuals; 1,201 were unsheltered — living in their cars, under overpasses, in woods. 

That is a 28 percent jump in homelessness since 2023, Are said. The number of unsheltered people more than doubled.  

“Out on the streets”

Tucked into that data are more sobering statistics: About 25 percent of the homeless people identified in the PIT Count are over 55 and 6.7 percent are over 64. More than half of this group is unsheltered. And most of them are women who have never experienced homelessness in their lives but whose fixed incomes could not keep pace with the area’s skyrocketing rent increases. 

“It is devastating,” Are said during the press conference. “If you can imagine a 72-year-old, 77-year-old woman who has never been homeless in her life, doesn't know anything about the system, hadn't planned for this at all … could never have planned on her rent going up $500 in a year, who suddenly finds herself out on the streets and having to figure out where to go and how to ask for help. Half of those folks are not even in shelter. They are out on the streets, extremely vulnerable, very scared, and a little bit angry.”

Scott Billue, founder of Matthew’s Hope, a faith-based homeless outreach organization, told VoxPopuli he’s seen the same trend developing for the last couple of years in Winter Garden, Ocoee, Oakland, Apopka and Clermont. 

“We've always had seniors, always,” Billue said in a phone interview. But recently, he said, he’s seen “a huge jump in homelessness among women over 65.”

Thirty-four percent of Matthew’s Hope’s clientele are women, he said, with 5 percent between the ages of 65 and 85. And that number is growing. Now the organization is trying to assess how many of its female clients are homeless for the first time. 

“We just know by, visually. We walk in and we go, Jesus! God, what's going on here?” he said. “It's big enough to notice. But now we're going back and breaking out the numbers to say How many of those females are over the age of 65, and then how many of those is it first time homelessness? That's the thing that's really striking me. I'm seeing it, and I'm visiting with these people. I don't know how big that number is yet, but it's big enough that it's gotten our attention really quick.”

“A perfect storm” 

Several factors aligned to create “a perfect storm,” as Billue described it, pushing older and elderly women into homelessness: Women outliving their husbands, benefits lost with a husband's death, skyrocketing property insurance rates and unaffordable area rents. (Central Florida has consistently ranked among the top three worst housing markets in the country, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The state also ranks third in the nation for number of homeless individuals, according to the Annual Assessment Report to Congress.)

“We're talking about women who have been the middle class, folks that, quite honestly, did everything right according to their time frame of life,” said Billue.

Are laid the blame squarely on a shortage of affordable housing with all of the downstream problems — high rent, homelessness — stemming from that. The region is short more than 94,000 very low income housing units and almost 57,000 units of extremely low income housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition

“Our housing infrastructure and our transportation infrastructure has not kept pace [with Central Florida’s growth], she said. “As a result — a very predictable result — we are seeing more people experiencing homelessness. … It is not for any other reason. It is because of our housing market. It is not because we had a sudden increase in numbers of people with mental illness. It is not because we had a sudden increase in the numbers of people who had catastrophic health crisis. It is not because we had a sudden increase in people who lost their jobs. It is because we had a sudden increase in rent.”

“We're talking about women who have been the middle class, folks that, quite honestly, did everything right according to their time frame of life." shows that in 2019, a two-bedroom apartment in Orlando could be had for $1,190. But in 2024, that same Orlando two-bedroom now rents for $1,857, a $667 increase. In Winter Garden, according to Zillow, two-bedroom apartments are currently renting for $2,066. They are even more expensive in Ocoee, where two-bedroom apartments are renting for $2,139.

These rent increases “disproportionately affect women,” Are said because they are the ones left to shoulder the rent after a husband dies. With death goes the second income stream, the inability to renew the lease, and if there is no extended family or children to lean on, suddenly, there is no place to go. 

Recently, Billue said, an 85-year-old woman came into Matthew’s Hope on a walker, looking for housing assistance after she’d been turned out of her assisted living facility. “She got an Uber to Matthew’s Hope only to find out I don’t have shelter. I don’t have a place for her to live. The resource for her particular level of physical need, we just don't have it. We're fighting for our lives as it is. This brings a whole other segment in here that, quite honestly, may just shut us down.”

“There’s not a place like an old folks home for homeless people. There is just nothing out there addressing this, and it’s crushing at best.” 

Criminalizing homelessness 

Cities soon will have no choice but to address this because a new state law prohibiting Unauthorized Public Camping and Public Sleeping, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, goes into effect Oct. 1. The law mandates that if shelters are full, cities and counties are obligated to sweep up the homeless they find in public parks, on sidewalks, benches, overpasses, and remove them to homeless internment camps, that cities must construct with services for mental health and substance abuse, but that will be monitored by law enforcement. Municipalities that allow homeless individuals to continue to camp in public areas, can be sued by residents, businesses and the State Attorney General. 

“That legislation did not really come with additional funding, certainly not adequate for the need,” Are said. “Communities are definitely trying to figure out what they're going to be able to do and not do and how quickly can they get it done in response to that legislation.” 

"They are out on the streets, extremely vulnerable, very scared, and a little bit angry.”

Winter Garden hired a consultant “to develop a code that would allow the City (sic) to approve smaller housing types that would help with the affordability issue,” City Manager Jon Williams told VoxPopuli in an email. He added that city staff is “working on design concepts and costing of these smaller single family homes to address the affordability issue.” 

Ocoee, too, is re-examining its land development and zoning codes along with the city’s comprehensive plan with an eye toward mixing high-quality low-income housing with other housing, Craig Shadrix, assistant city manager, told VoxPopuli in a phone interview. 

“Stand-alone low-income housing doesn't typically hold its value for very long before it starts to look like low-income housing, so our land development code update is really an opportunity to try to integrate a mixture of housing types into some of our urban planning areas,” he said. “You mix in some small units with some of the bigger units and that actually that helps them hold their value.”

Oakland is also beginning to have conversations “to explore options and see what we can come up with,” Mayor Shane Taylor told VoxPopuli in a phone interview. Building tiny homes or container homes is one possibility, he said. The town got a bit of an eye-opener, he said, when land was recently cleared for The Grove, the new residential development between Oakland Avenue and Hwy. 50. 

“It was a shock to see how many homeless were in the wooded areas, especially when they cleared off The Grove,” Taylor said. “The next thing you know, you drive down Hwy. 50 and there’s shopping carts full of belongings out on 50. I think that shocked a lot of people in town to see that.” 

Are said that every type of home is needed and needed throughout the tri-county area. 

“We're past the point where we can say we can do a little bit over here and a little bit over there,” she said. “We have to do a lot everywhere. Ninety-four thousand units is a lot of units. We need to be creative about it. But we need to make it happen.

Most importantly, she said, communities need to set aside the NIMBY (not in my backyard) perspective.  

“We need neighbors who are willing to welcome affordable housing and temporary accommodations into their neighborhoods so that their former neighbors who used to live near them, who can no longer afford the housing here, can come back home," Are said. "We have to have the political and the community will to do the right thing. We need to be bold. We need to act quickly. We need to act very quickly. Or a year from now, we'll be back here, and these numbers will be even higher.”



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