FOUR CORNERS – In a sign of the continuing hard times facing voters in Osceola County, two candidates for county commissioner are debating how they would handle a problem that’s only gotten worse since the housing market collapsed: the rising number of homeless families living in motel rooms along U.S. 192.
While U.S. 192 is often known as a tourism corridor, complete with gift shops, miniature golf courses, resorts and shopping plazas, not all of the hotels and motels on this highway still cater to tourists. Some of them have fallen on rough times and now offer long-term rentals, mainly to families who do not have enough money to get into an apartment or rented house.
In some instances, the families – a single mother with several children – also work at the motels.
This issue was even a segment on “60 Minutes” broadcast in 2011, after crews came to Osceola and Seminole counties to interview families hurt so badly by the recession that they were either living in those extended stay motels – or in vans.
Now the two candidates for the Osceola County Commission’s District 1 seat, incumbent Democrat Michael Harford and Republican challenger Paul Owen, say they’re ready to address and tackle this problem – although they disagree on the best way of doing that.
Harford said the county is now working to revitalize the entire U.S. 192 corridor, from Four Corners and Celebration to Kissimmee and St. Cloud, and the plans include addressing vacant, abandoned businesses that have become eyesores for the highway’s remaining companies.
“We are looking at properties in distress that we need to either tear down or rehabilitate,” Harford said. “The old Viking Hotel just got torn down.”
In addition to cleaning up those properties, the county is also looking for ways to assist families living in extended stay motels, by matching them with social service providers that can help relocate them into permanent housing. Harford supports the idea of having Osceola County open a special station on U.S. 192 that could be the first stop for families looking for assistance finding a home. The station would enable them, he said, to get the information and help they need to get out of extended stay hotels.
“We want to get those people out and back into homes,” Harford said. “It’s been difficult in the past four years, but we are making progress.”
Owen said he, too, hopes to address this issue if he wins the Nov. 6 election.
“We talk about homelessness and we’ve seen a lot of that increase,” he said. “It breaks my heart to drive down (U.S.) 192. They say there’s over 3,000 kids who are homeless in Osceola County, and we’ve got the highest unemployment rate in the state.”
Owen, though, said he opposes the idea of establishing a station for these families, which he said would likely backfire by encouraging more homeless families – including those not living in Osceola County – to go there looking for assistance. That would bring an even larger presence of displaced families to the county, he said.
“That will bring more homeless people to 192,” Owen said.
A better solution, he added, would be a continued focus on cleaning up U.S. 192, while finding an alternative location in the county for a service center for displaced families.
“I think we need to clean up that corridor, and there are better locations for that kind of primary care station,” he said.
Owen said rather than looking for new service offices that will cost taxpayers money, the commissioners would focus on keeping taxes low to help businesses along U.S. 192 create more jobs.
“My focus is to keep the taxes where they are, and job creation,” he said.
But Harford countered that Osceola commissioners also have an obligation to provide services to local residents, which is one of the reasons commissioners increased property taxes when the recession was setting in.
“We had to do something to try to stabilize the revenue coming in,” he said. “There are still services you have to provide. What I have done is try to look at the efficiencies of government, and see what works.”
The 60 Minutes segment was filmed in Kissimmee and Seminole County, and put a spotlight on a painful reality for both counties.
In the summer of 2011, the Green Bag Project – a program based in ChampionsGate, which helps raise funds to provide food to local families and school children — opened four summer feeding locations on U.S. 192 as special locations where kids could stop by to get a free lunch in the summer. The walk-in feeding stations included one at Home Suites Home, an extended stay motel on U.S. 192 that had a growing number of homeless kids living there.
Local schools like Westside Elemetary in Four Corners have had so many homeless students attending there – as many as 300 in 2011 – that many of them eventually had to be transferred to schools in Celebration.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.