Following is a guest column written by Mark Waltrip, Chief Operating Officer of Westgate Resorts in Orlando. The column, which appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, on April 20, 2012, highlights the plight of homeless families in central Florida and how Westgate is leading an industry effort to ease the problem.
Hospitality Helps: Industry opening doors for homeless
By Mark Waltrip
Recent columns on the Central Florida homeless problem highlight the need for a more effective and coordinated approach to this challenge. For the past several months, Westgate Resorts has been working on potential solutions to this problem.
Several months ago, our company was approached about helping several families who were fighting homelessness. They were cramped into one-room motel units and struggling to get on their feet.
Since then we have interviewed four families, all of whom are good and decent people who were caught up in a downward spiral of financial ruin that they could not control. Their children were well-mannered and, in spite of the many obstacles, were doing quite well in school.
We adopted these families, found suitable jobs that matched their abilities and located safe, affordable housing. Our team members got involved and raised money to seed their new lives, and we engaged our vendors and business partners to provide everything from bedding to kitchenware.
While we are pleased with these victories, we thought if one company such as Westgate could help change the lives of 22 people, imagine what could be done if the entire community came together.
Based on this notion, we started meeting and aligning with other corporations, government agencies, faith-based organizations, nonprofits and individuals to coordinate the many resources that already exist. This effort has evolved into a private-public partnership called Hospitality Helps that is being spearheaded by the hospitality industry to help Central Florida families transition out of homelessness.
The objective of Hospitality Helps is to create sustainable solutions for families caught in this desperate situation through a six-step action plan: Identifying and locating families that can be helped; locating affordable housing; matching families with available jobs; providing clothing, furniture and other necessities; securing reliable transportation; and implementing follow-up support services.
From our experiences thus far, we have learned the following:
Homelessness is a significant issue that is detrimental to the core values of the Central Florida community and the hospitality industry. Central Florida is the No. 1 vacation destination in the world, and we need our industry leaders to invest in our community and send a message to the world that we don't just sell hospitality - we live it.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. There are segments of the homeless population that require resources beyond what a public-private partnership can support. This includes drug, alcohol, criminal and mental-health issues that require specialized services, and unfortunately, many of these people are blended into the same living environment as families with children.
We need to better quantify the different categories of homelessness, and design programs that are tailored to the specific needs of these categories. Hospitality Helps is targeting families who are ready to be integrated into the work force of local companies, but this is only one segment of the problem.
There are numerous wonderful individuals and organizations that are providing support and services to the various elements of this problem, including government agencies, local companies, and charitable and faith-based organizations.
What we are not seeing is an effective coordination of these resources directed at the different segments of the homeless population. Our next step is to establish a community workshop to identify and coordinate any person or groups that can provide services and support for Central Florida's homeless population.
The Central Florida homeless problem is really a national problem that demands nationwide resources. Because of our unique blend of moderate weather, abundance of unskilled labor jobs and lax zoning enforcement on motels in the Orange Blossom Trail and U.S. Highway 192 corridors, we have become the landing zone for homeless people across the country.
While imposing a sales tax on the local community might help, we need to share the financial burden at the federal level. This is a state of emergency that should be treated like a national disaster.
We welcome involvement, on any level, from anyone who wants to work with us to bring solutions to this challenge.
Read the full article on www.orlandosentinel.com.