How would you use $3M to fight homelessness? Seminole County is looking for public’s input

Amid skyrocketing rental rates and soaring food prices, homeless advocates in Central Florida say it is becoming increasingly difficult for many individuals and families to afford to stay in their homes.

“We’re seeing many elderly individuals become homeless for the first time in their lives because they can no longer pay rent,” said Chris Ham, executive director of the Rescue Outreach Mission in Sanford, Seminole County’s only homeless shelter.

To help address the problem, Seminole County will receive $3 million in federal assistance through the American Rescue Plan Act to help fund homelessness prevention programs.

Before receiving the money, Seminole officials are asking the public for their ideas on how the funds should be used in the area. Residents and members of local organizations can visit www.fhcconnect.org/connect-seminole-county before Friday to provide their comments and input.

The survey results will then be part of a “community-driven plan” Seminole will send to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, in the coming weeks, county officials said.

“It’s definitely huge for helping the homeless population,” said Stacey Smithwick, a community development manager with Seminole County, regarding the federal funding. “The public input is important to HUD. … So we’re trying to get as much input as possible.”

The federal money can be used for the building or preserving of affordable housing, rental assistance for eligible tenants, homeless prevention services, and for the purchase and development of temporary shelters.

Margaux Pagán, a senior director at The Sharing Center, which helps low-income and homeless residents in Seminole County, said the funds should be used to help those in danger of becoming homeless or who are currently looking for a permanent place to live, by providing financial assistance or counseling.

“It is our goal and our position that the funding be earmarked for homelessness diversion,” she said. “It’s getting help to people who have been recently evicted or cannot afford where they are living, that they are immediately rehoused or that they are able to prevent from becoming homeless.”

Pagán noted that being homeless could mean someone sleeping in their car, living in a motel room week-to-week, residing in camps in the woods, or “couch surfing” at a friend’s or relative’s home.

“When families have to double up or triple up, that’s obviously not a permanent solution,” she said. “It’s about having families living independently.”

Her center’s intake office, off U.S. Highway 17-92 in Longwood, is regularly so full on weekday mornings that the waiting area spills over to the sidewalk outside. The Sharing Center’s Oasis, which provides showers and laundry services for the homeless, would see about 45 people a day a year ago. This month, it has averaged about 65 people daily, she said.

“We’re significantly seeing an increase in the number of people visiting us,” Pagán said.

Ham agreed that the funds should be used for producing more affordable housing, and also in helping struggling residents stay in their current homes.

“If we can keep them in their housing, that’s a huge win for all of us,” he said.

Seminole officials will offer an online presentation from 2:30-3 p.m. on Wednesday to explain how Seminole will receive the funding and how the funding can be used toward fighting homelessness.

To register to attend the virtual presentation, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/seminole-county-home-american-rescue-plan-funding-presentation-tickets-520519336347

The American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021, will provide up to $5 billion to more than 650 communities and states around the country — including Seminole — to combat homelessness.

The funds are administered through HUD’s HOME Investment Partnership Program.

mcomas@orlandosentinel.com