Joanne Ranucci, now a 60-year-old woman who says she came from a good, middle-class family in Long Island, NY, spent approximately 15 years homeless in Central Florida before finally getting the help she needed and a home.
“It’s nothing I expected to happen to me. My ex-husband, who was also my best friend and roommate, unexpectedly died when I was in jail, so once I got I had nowhere to live. I was suddenly homeless,” Ranucci says.
It can happen to anyone. With the pandemic, inflation, or a job loss, many Orlando area residents could be just one increase in rent away from being homeless.
A part of the problem is a lack of affordable housing. According to Martha Are, the executive director of Homeless Services of Network of Central Florida (HSNCFL), the Sunshine State is one of the most challenging places for extremely low-income renters to find affordable housing. In 2021, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that for every 100 people in Florida that needed affordable homes, there were only 28 affordable homes available.
HSNCFL is Orange County’s lead agency that coordinates the region’s response to homelessness through service grants, funding programs, and administrative support for organizations that help area homeless. Are says using a “housing first rather than housing readiness” model of support may have helped contribute to a slightly reduced number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in central Florida. From 2019 to 2023, Central Florida’s point-in-time count (a federally mandated count of all people experiencing homelessness in an area on one night in January) dropped from 478 to 454.
The housing-first strategy for addressing homelessness prioritizes rapidly placing individuals into housing without mandating mental stability, employment, or sobriety from drugs and alcohol.
“If you solve the housing issue, with the help of a caseworker, people can start addressing other problems. The stress of not having a stable roof over their heads can make getting sober or taking their medication regularly difficult for some people,” Are says.
Ranucci’s experience was different. She went to rehab for five months before getting permanent housing.
“I saw people going into temporary housing, not dealing with their addictions or alcoholism, and going out in body bags,” Ranucci says. “For me, I had to get clean and sober so I could appreciate my new home and do everything in my power to keep it.”
Living for years in the woods near East Colonial and Forsyth, under the bridge by the Lynx bus terminal, and at other well-known and well-populated homeless camps in the area, Ranucci says she did everything she could to numb the pain of losing her home, her best friend, and her children. Then one day, the HOPE (Homeless Outreach Partnership Effort) Team, a program supported by many different state, county, federal, private, and faith-based organizations, helped her get into rehab.
“All glory goes to God,” Ranucci says. “After going through what I went through, I believe I have a purpose, and that purpose is to get other homeless people the help they need,” Ranucci says. In 2021 Ranucci started her own non-profit—Angel Blessings Homeless Ministry.
While housing-first and rehab-to-housing approaches each have their pros and cons, both Are and Ranucci agree that homelessness is an issue that needs more attention and support from the community.
“We need additional affordable housing developed, landlords willing to take section 8, and units renovated to be permanent housing,” Are says. “Most of all, we need the public’s willingness to address the issue of homelessness in our community.”
For more information on Ranucci’s non-profit visit Angelblessingshomeless.com
For more information on the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida visit hsncfl.org