Get off the sidelines

Local media mentioned a statistic today that has me riled. Instead of getting the help they need, those asking for a handout are being tossed in jail. At last count, more than 230 panhandlers were arrested in just one Central Florida community during the past six months. It’s a vicious cycle of jailing people in need instead of helping them get back on their feet.

It’s also a matter of compassion and community.

Many panhandlers (though admittedly not all) are homeless or on the brink of living on the streets and are simply trying to come up with a few dollars to provide for their families and put shelter over their heads for the night. Homelessness is at epidemic levels in Central Florida. In Seminole County alone, the most affluent county in Central Florida, nearly 1,800 students are homeless, forced to live in cars, hotels or worse while trying to stay focused on their studies. That’s unacceptable, and the number continues to grow. Supporting our fellow citizens vs. simply tossing them behind bars is not only the right thing to do toward encouraging self sufficiency, it also costs taxpayers substantially less.

According to the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, it costs $925 per homeless arrest for processing, $90 per night and $250-$300 for court cost/fines. And that’s just the beginning. According to Seminole Behavioral Healthcare (client), a local mental-health organization, caring for an individual with a potentially life-threatening mental illness costs as much as $150,000 a year in a state hospital and $50,000 in a jail. In contrast, providing care through a crisis stabilization unit like the one run by Seminole Behavioral and others costs $28,000 a year.

Want to help? Get involved. Volunteer at a local shelter or organization, or through your place of worship. Collect canned goods for local food pantries (check out SCPS’ Families in Transition’s website for sites in Seminole). Write a check or donate a gift card for groceries and clothing. DON’T simply pass by the woman or man holding a sign asking for help. Central Florida organizations are working hard to find a permanent solution to homelessness, through communitywide efforts such as the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness and Seminole County’s new Community Conversation on Homelessness.

Get involved.

John Babinchak II is vice president at CBR.

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