Horizon West community members are asking for help addressing a new controversial issue in the Hamlin area — homelessness.
The discussion was prompted by a Facebook post in the Hamlin/Horizon West — Rants, Raves and Reviews page by resident Pat Ilardi at the beginning of January.
“Lately, we have had an influx of homeless people/families hanging out by Walmart, Publix and other locations in our area including construction sites,” Ilardi wrote. “After police called several times to our apartment complex (Overture Hamlin) due to the homeless being on property, we have been advised to let as many people in our area (know) to please not give the homeless money, food, etc. The word is out in ‘their’ community circle letting each of them know to come this way. Some may appear harmless but we do not know their history and if they truly are or not. There are several resources to give those on the streets help. Please keep our neighborhood safe for our families.”
In a few days, the post had more than 160 comments from locals sharing stories and thoughts and engaging in discussion.
While some believe the issue needs to be addressed or the people are not homeless, others argue the issue is being blown out of proportion and the discussion is insensitive.
According to information from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, received Sunday, Jan. 15, the department has “not seen an uptick in any such reports in the Hamlin area of people being in places they aren’t supposed to be.”
“We encourage any resident or business owner with a concern of this kind to reach out to us,” OCSO officials said. “If someone is posing a threat, call 911 right away. If the person or people of concern are on private property, they can be reported as trespassers. When we encounter anyone in our community who appears to be homeless, our deputies offer them resources, providing information about the services available to assist them. It is then up to the individual to decide whether to take those steps to seek help.”
District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said she has not received any reports through her social services staff or her office staff regarding people experiencing homelessness in the area.
Wilson shared that Orange County has a devoted Children and Family Services Department as well as a Housing and Community Development Division.
Heather Easterling, events and public relations coordinator at Boyd Development, which owns the Hamlin area, said she talked to the developer’s maintenance team, who said they have not seen any homeless people living in the area.
Although the issue may not yet be prominent, some community members said they have noticed the people who may be experiencing homelessness as early as November.
“After (Hurricane) Nicole, we noticed them at the Publix Shopping/Hamlin Town Center area and Walmart,” Ilardi said. “Then they got brave right before the holidays and made their way into our community.”
Ilardi said she has reported sightings to the police department and to her apartment complex.
She referenced a recent incident where a woman in her late 30s assumed to be experiencing homelessness entered the Overture Hamlin complex where Ilardi lives. She said she has observed the woman sitting on a chair outside the building, and the woman has also been found inside common areas, as well as outside people’s apartments sleeping.
However, Ilardi shared management at the complex has taken several steps to stop non-residents from entering the buildings.
“Each time we had someone on property that did not belong, it was in the evening,” Ilardi said. “We were directed by management to call 911, which we did. We spoke with management the next day after each occurrence. Management is working with the police department to have extra patrols and lockbox access, so they can come into the complex to sit and do paperwork having police presence. They have implemented certain doors to be locked after office hours while still keeping everyone safe to have access to enter/exit without risk.
“Complex management has also had security update meetings with the community which included tips on how to be sure doors are locked, not to let anyone in and to use call boxes to contact who they want to visit to gain access,” she said. “Management is in communication with police to set up meetings to come in to discuss security as well as implementing parking passes to residents and visitors. … The property manager … is doing a great job implementing steps we know about and some behind the scenes to ensure it is a safe living environment for all.”
Outside of the complex, Ilardi said she has noticed a woman with two children around Publix and Walmart in Hamlin, as well as a man in a wheelchair. She said some others have seen other people begging for money.
Resident Meredith Everett said she started to notice the people about three weeks ago but does not think they are homeless. She said she saw a woman recently sitting with a young girl on folding chairs at the Publix exit.
“These people roam around from town to town, camping out for the day collecting money,” she said. “They get dropped off there in the morning and get picked up later in the day. They are not homeless people; they are professional beggars. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, not a cold-hearted Karen. This is a problem of opportunity. Wealthy community with easy access to highways.”
Everett also lives at Overture Hamlin and said awareness is the biggest thing the community can focus on to help.
“If people continue to think the beggars are homeless, they will keep giving them money,” she said. “We need to keep educating the community on how to help the real homeless such as good charities. Law enforcement needs to be strict about loitering laws. The large retailers such as Publix and Walmart need to be more active about keeping the properties clear and working with law enforcement.”
Resident David Terry said he has only seen the homeless discussions on Facebook, although he has seen people outside Publix and Walmart.
“I believe it’s not as bad as Facebook is making it out to be,” he said. “But I will keep my eyes open more. Maybe I’m missing something.”
Scott Billue, founder of Matthew’s Hope, a fully independent, faith-based, 501(c)3 non-profit homeless outreach ministry organization based in Winter Garden, said it is important to remind people that being homeless is not a crime or against the law.
Billue said about 99% of the homeless population in the local community have experienced some type of trauma such as loss of a child, ending of a career or mental-health issues.
“I can assure everyone that most panhandlers are not homeless, and if they are, please do not give them money but rather ask if they have a specific need and feel free to share us with them,” he said. “Quit handing stuff out your window. Anytime you build a new community, homeless people are going to be there. Chances are, they were actually there first. A majority of these people have lived here their whole lives. Though they may not have a house, this is their home.”
Billue said the organization recently has fielded more calls from the Horizon West area. Although there is currently no funding to expand, he said the nonprofit has considered including the area in the Matthew’s Hope bus route.