The news program, 60 Minutes, decided to report the show from Central Florida, in Osceola and Seminole counties. It was, noted Darhlene Zeanwick, a news broadcast that cast a shining light on just how badly this region has been devastated by the collapse of the housing market.
“We did get major coverage last summer when 60 Minutes reported on the homeless living on U.S. 192,” said Zeanwick.
But those homeless are not limited to the motels along U.S. 192, also known as W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, which runs from Four Corners to Celebration, Kissimmee and St. Cloud on to Melbourne. Take a turn off U.S. 192 onto Poinciana Boulevard, and follow it down to Pleasant Hill Road. While the homeless may not be entirely visible within the villages that make up the community of Poinciana – they are there.
“We do have a homeless population here, which I wasn’t aware of for a long time,” said Lisa Concepcion D’Cato, a Poinciana resident and columnist for The Osceola News Gazette.
D’Cato noted that one of the gas stations at Poinciana’s shopping plaza recently had to put locks on its bathroom doors, because too many homeless people have been going in there.
“They actually have to lock their rest rooms at that gas station because they have a huge homeless population using the facilities there,” she said.
In the past decades, Osceola County was one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, and experienced a rapid building boom. A county with just two cities, Kissimmee and St. Cloud, suddenly experienced enormous growth in unincorporated areas, from Celebration to Poinciana to new residential and commercial mixed use developments like Reunion and Harmony. Poinciana, likewise, saw its population soar past 80,000 as so many new homes got built there.
But the crash of the housing market in 2008 – which had been the source of not only so many new homes but also most of the new jobs as well, in fields like construction, home building supplies and real estate – devastated the county’s economy, leaving far too many families without jobs and unable to keep their homes or apartments. According to Workforce Central Florida, Osceola County’s unemployment rate in August was 11.2 percent, well above the national average of 9.1 percent. In Polk County, it was even higher last month, at 12.1 percent.
As the 60 Minutes report was able to highlight, many of the displaced workers unable to stay in their homes have ended up in motel rooms, where entire families cram together because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.
Zeanwick is a resident of Poinciana, and a former Realtor herself. She’s a member of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community of 84,000 people that cuts across Osceola and Polk counties, and a member of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, which is trying to bring more jobs to the community.
One of PEDA’s goals has been to attract more social service agencies to the community, and they now have an agreement with the Salvation Army to open a service center there by Christmas, assuming the members of PEDA can successfully raise the funds to help the non-profit agency pay the rent on a local building.
As Zeanwick noted, it’s time to admit that Poinciana has families badly in need of social service agencies, most of which are available either in Kissimmee for Osceola County residents, or in Winter Haven for Polk County’s residents – a long drive either way.
And homelessness, she said, is a problem that can’t be ignored.
“It is not only here in Poinciana,” she said. “We’re losing our family values now.”
Wendy Farrell, a member of both PEDA and Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, said families are not just ending up in motel rooms – some of them can’t even afford that.
“On the first day back at school, you can tell which families have been living in the back of their cars,” she said. “They have never been in a situation like this before.”
Nick Murdock, the chairman of PEDA, said if they can raise the money to bring the Salvation Army to Poinciana, that’s going to be a very good start to their long term mission.
“We will be able to meet the needs – the food needs, the homeless needs,” he said.
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