Winter Haven homeless initiative

Pastor Jeanette Lewis comforts “Billie,” a homeless mother of three, during a Winter Haven City Commission meeting July 22.

WINTER HAVEN — The Winter Haven City Commission unanimously voted to approve a three-year pilot homeless initiative July 22.

The initiative is based on a proposal by supporters of Heart for Winter Haven Executive Director Brad Beatty.

Beatty was commissioned to write a proposal to the city a few months ago. A draft report was recently completed and Beatty gave a presentation to a standing room only crowd at city hall July 22.

The first resident to speak after the presentation appeared to inspire many of those in attendance. Billie, whose last name is not being published in respect of her privacy, took a deep breath at the podium and, in tears, announced that she and her three children were homeless and in need of help.

She said she was recently evicted because she could not come up with rent deposits

and ended up moving into the Banyan Motel, near the intersection of Third Street and Havendale, which is being torn down starting Friday to make way for a retirement facility. She did not have the money to move again so quickly. Billie said she works, often seven days per week at night at a gas station, but only earns around $250 per week and most of that goes toward rent. The father abandoned her and the children, she said.

“When it rains, it pours,” she said.

Around a dozen members of a group called PEACE — the Polk Ecumenical Action Council of Empowerment — rallied in support of the homelessness initiative at the meeting. Pastor Jeanette Lewis joined Billie at the podium for emotional support.

“That’s what it’s all about right there,” Mayor Brad Dantzler said.

After that, the mayor, Beatty and members of PEACE helped to make sure that Billie spoke to the right people for help. Lewis additionally encouraged city leaders to promote more affordable housing.

“We need affordable housing and I think the plan that we have here is wonderful,” Lewis said.

Beatty said the initiative would be a three-to-five year city investment, in partnership with local donors, with the primary goal of preventing homelessness through rapid re-housing assistance. Another goal would be making it easier for area homeowners to transform extra space — like a garage, for instance — into an affordable rental space. It would also aim to encourage developers to invest in other forms of affordable housing.

Typically, city commission meetings are relatively quiet. The vote to approve this initiative — which was unanimous — was followed by applause and some in attendance stood as they did so.

After a three-year period, the city commission would assess the program and determine whether to extend it forward.

Dantzler said that may translate into an annual investment of around $200,000 per year for the first three years. In approving the initiative, the commission essentially instructed city staff to find a way of getting this money into next year’s budget, which is set in September.

The initiative will be discussed in more detail during a budget workshop at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 21.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.

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