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In Disney's shadow, homeless families struggle

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 24, 2014 at 2:48 pm •  Published: April 24, 2014
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KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — When they moved from Georgia to the theme park playground of central Florida four years ago, Anthony and Candice Johnson found work at a barbecue restaurant and a 7-Eleven. Their combined salaries nevertheless fell short of what they needed to rent an apartment, so the couple and their two children have instead been hopping among cheap motel rooms along U.S. 192.

"What's hard for us isn't paying the bills," Candice Johnson, 24, said. "It's just trying to get our feet in the door" with the combined expense of application fees, security deposits and first month's rent needed for a place of their own.

The Johnsons are among a growing number of families living in hotels in this Florida tourist corridor because they can't afford anything else and because their county has no shelters for the estimated 1,216 homeless households with children.

The problem has created a backlash among the mostly mom-and-pop businesses, with some owners suing the county sheriff to force his deputies to evict guests who haven't paid or who have turned their rooms into semipermanent residences. It also shines a light on the gap among those who work and live in this county that sits in the shadow of Walt Disney World, and the big-spending tourists who flock here.

On any given day, tourists pay nearly $100 per person to get into Orlando's theme parks. There, they may be waited on by homeless parents. From their hotels, they jog past bus stops where homeless children wait to head to school. They buy coffee at Starbucks next to the motels that have become families' homes.

Starting minimum pay at Walt Disney World — the area's largest employer, just a few miles from the motels — is $8.03 an hour, though that could increase to $10 under a contract being negotiated with the resort's largest union group.

"Tourists that come here ... I don't think they have a clue," said James Ortiz, 31, a fast-food worker who recently moved out of a motel room and into an RV park with his parents and 5-year-old son.

Homeless advocates blame the housing problem on the low-paying wages of the service economy and the rents in Osceola County, with 300,000 people. While inexpensive compared with larger cities, Osceola rents often exceed what a worker earning near minimum wage can afford, said Catherine Jackson, a consultant who recently wrote a report for the county about the homeless.

Median earnings for workers in Osceola County are $24,128 a year, according to U.S. Census figures, and median rent is $800 a month. Motel rooms can go for just $39 a night.

"The fact that we're the happiest place on Earth and No. 1 travel destination is good news, but this service-based economy is actually creating a dynamic of homelessness," Jackson said.

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