Aid for homeless families expands to Orange, Osceola

July 26, 2017 – When Emerald Henderson was found sleeping on a park bench in Sanford last fall, the 25-year-old was working two jobs, including an overnight shift, and riding a bus to pick up her son each morning at his classmate’s home so she could take him to kindergarten.

She was homeless, three months pregnant and — though she didn’t know it yet — battling stomach cancer.

“I was very sick,” she said. “I wasn’t even able to hold down water so I got dehydrated.”

Henderson, who had no place to go when she and her longtime boyfriend split up, might have remained a grim statistic in a region where public schools enroll about 10,000 homeless students each year. Instead, a woman from Henderson’s church referred her to Pathways to Home — one of the few programs helping homeless families get into housing and change their lives.

Since its launch in Seminole County in 2009, Pathways has helped rescue 426 families — with more than 1,100 children — from homelessness. This year, with grants from the Homeless Services Network and PNC Bank, it has expanded to Orange and Osceola counties as well, targeting families living in shelters, their cars or — like Henderson — on the streets.

About 80 percent of them are led by single moms escaping domestic violence.

The progress, some contend, is overdue.

Families are still getting left behind — with devastating effects on children. — Glen Casel, CEO, Community Based Care of Central Florida

“In the past few years, we’ve seen an incredible outpouring of public and private support to end individual and veteran homelessness, but families are still getting left behind — with devastating effects on children,” said Glen Casel, CEO of the nonprofit Community Based Care of Central Florida, which manages the Pathways initiative. “Ensuring the safety and stability of kids must be a top priority.”

Shelley Lauten, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, said of the problem: “This is our tsunami. Those 10,000 school-aged [homeless] kids in Orange, Osceola and Seminole? That doesn’t even include children too young to attend school. And each of their families has a unique set of issues, many of them economic, that are not easy to solve in a region with [practically] no affordable housing and a lot of low-wage jobs. It’s very complicated.”

The commission considers Pathways a model, Lauten said. When families are enrolled, a caseworker first tries to get them into immediate housing, which usually means a motel room since the region’s family homeless shelters are nearly always full. Within a month or two, the families are then moved into an apartment or house where they can stay long-term.

“A lot of our families are under-employed. They’re working part-time hours at minimum or low wage,” said Jen Bero, Pathways’ program director. “It’s not enough to sustain them.”

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Parents must enroll in a financial literacy course and work with their case managers to figure out how to increase their income, either through a second part-time job, a better full-time job, collecting child support or, if they’re eligible, applying for disability. If they need GEDs or professional certifications, their caseworker guides them through the process.

Initially, the program helps them cover the rent on a place to live — then gradually cuts back the subsidy over the next six to nine months until the family is financially independent.

In its eight-year history, Pathways boasts a 90 percent success rate, meaning the family is still financially stable and self-supporting six months after leaving the program.

“We’ve never had any problems with the Pathways families — ever,” said landlord Patti Hartwig, whose family has nine rental properties and has worked with the program for five years. “There is a property right across the street from me that we rent, and when it becomes available, I will gladly move in a Pathways family. I have met the most incredible people in the program. If you think about it, a lot of us are only one step away from where they are.”

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Pathways doesn’t sign the lease — that’s left to the tenant — but caseworkers do intervene if there are problems.

Finding affordable housing is a challenge, said Maureen Brockman, a Community Based Care communications officer, but the most critical need is for money to cover the hotel and motel rooms where families are housed as they wait.

“We know everything keeps going up — including hotel rates,” she said. “And we never have a shortage of families looking for help.”

For Henderson, that help may have saved her life. Her caseworkers found her a one-bedroom home and furnished it with donations. When she moved in Dec. 9, she wept in gratitude.

The caseworkers also helped her arrange transportation to a doctor who diagnosed her with stage 2 stomach cancer, though treatment was suspended until after she gave birth to a healthy baby girl in late May.

This week, Henderson started chemotherapy — while awaiting word on whether she’ll be hired as a home health aide. The job would pay enough that she could cover her own bills. Her prospective employer already knows she is fighting cancer.

“My doctor says some people are able to work throughout their treatment,” she said. “I’m hoping I’ll be one of them.”

Credit for this story goes to Kate Santich and the Orlando Sentinel.: Click here to view the story on the Orlando Sentinel website

ksantich@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5503. Follow @katesantich on Twitter.