Homeless commission unveils campaign to keep spotlight on need in Central Florida

This LYNX bus wrap is part of a new awareness campaign by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. (Matt Good / MattShootsforGood.com)

As Central Florida leaders celebrate what they see as “incredible success” in housing homeless people with mental and physical disabilities, they worry the issue has slipped from the public’s radar — threatening future progress.

“There’s a concern that people feel like, ‘Oh, we already took care of that,’” said the Rev. David Swanson, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando and chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which launched a marketing campaign on Wednesday to correct that notion. “That’s why we want to alert people that we need them to invest with us in this effort.”

He and community leaders unveiled part of their new campaign at the LYNX Central Station in downtown Orlando: a full-sized bus wrap showing a park bench transitioning into a living room sofa. The mobile message was donated by the transit company at a value of $60,000 in advertising for the coming year.

The bus immediately caught the eye of one believer — 44-year-old Chris Sweeney, a formerly homeless man who happened to be at the transit depot Wednesday during the campaign kickoff. Sweeney, who is on disability for a back injury, spent four years on the streets with his wife, Tiffany Anderson. The two were among the first 129 homeless people housed. They moved into a small apartment last October.

“Being homeless, you can get robbed, raped, murdered,” Sweeney said. “It brings out the bad in everybody. Now we take showers. We can actually fix meals — hot meals. We can lock the door.”

A report last week on the region’s progress in combating homelessness over the past four years noted the commission will need to raise $30 million in the next three years, including $6 million from community donors, to continue the progress.

“It really is an investment,” Swanson said. “Housing [chronically homeless individuals] has led to a 60 percent reduction in emergency room visits, 85 percent reduction in visits to the jail, and 97 percent are still housed [at least a year later]. So you’re seeing incredible success there, and the cost went from $31,000 to have them on the street down to $18,000 to house them and give them the services they need.”

The reduction is calculated from hospital and criminal-justice costs.

Shelley Lauten, the homeless commission’s CEO, said the new campaign will run up to $45,000 for the first four months and will include billboards, paid social media, print advertising and possibly radio. An additional $100,000 of in-kind contributions — including the bus wrap — already has been pledged.

“When we looked at the first 100 most severe cases of the chronically homeless, the average time on our streets in our community was seven to eight years,” Lauten said. “So the people we’re talking about really are our neighbors.”

ksantich@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5503, @katesantich. Please consider supporting local journalism by purchasing a digital subscription to the Orlando Sentinel.

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