Many times, when people think of Orlando, the pictures that typically come to mind are of theme parks, sunshine, shopping, entertainment and fun. However, for a growing number of local families, that’s far from the reality they face every single day.
According to the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, there are an estimated 30,000 homeless people in the Orlando area; up to 10,000 of these are children. Included in these numbers, 20 percent are what is called “chronically” homeless, and 80 percent are “incidentally” homeless.
Although this sounds pretty bleak, there are many ways to find hope, healing and a means to move forward into a better life, and one local company has opted to do something about it. Westgate Resorts and their Westgate Foundation are striving to make a difference throughout the community on a number of different levels.
“Homelessness is one of the issues that is detrimental to the core values of Central Florida,” says David Siegel, president and CEO Westgate Resorts, headquartered near Celebration. “And, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, the one thing we can’t do is ignore it and hope that it solves itself.”
Working to meet that need is exactly what Westgate set out to do, and they’re making great strides in the process. With various partners coming on board, like Disney, SeaWorld and Marriott, it’s encouraging to see the difference that’s already taking place.
According to Westgate Resorts COO Mark Waltrip, the program, Hospitality Helps, has a unique story behind it. He says Congresswoman Corrine Brown asked Siegel to look into the situation of a homeless family that she knew. “We interviewed the family and discovered that they were a good family that had fallen on hard times and simply couldn’t get back on their feet,” Waltrip says. “They were not looking for a hand out. They just wanted a job and a decent place to live.”
Through this experience the company also found out that many other families were surviving day to day in local motels looking for a way out. Hospitality Helps was founded to help these families transition out of homelessness.
“Central Florida has a unique homelessness challenge that is much more severe than many other communities,” Waltrip says. “We estimate that 80 percent of the homeless population in Central Florida are what we call the invisible homeless that survive day to day in cheap motels and staying with friends and family when they have the chance.”
Through a series of steps including housing placement, employment aide and transportation partnership, Hospitality Helps has already assisted 237 families transition out of homelessness and into sustainable living situations.
One of these families, the Staton-Queen family, found themselves living in a motel after a series of unfortunate events left them jobless and without a home. After becoming involved with Hospitality Helps and their partners, parents Hannon and Christina now have sustainable jobs, the family lives in a townhome, and the kids are excelling in school.