ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35) - Often homelessness and mental illness go hand in hand. At an event Wednesday morning hosted by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness law enforcement officers and judges told a room full of community leaders that the court systems could help break the cycle of homelessness by treating mental illness.
Deputy Chief Eric Smith of the Orlando Police Department told attendees that when officers arrest someone who is homeless or mentally ill, “We only have one option: take them to jail.” He added, “There's not another receiving facility that they can go to that we can take them to [for] the help that they need.”
Frederick Lauten, Chief Judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties, and John Galluzzo, Chief Judge of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, which includes Seminole and Brevard counties, told the community that the courts and the jails are spending millions of dollars a year either housing or prosecuting homeless people for minor offenses.
"We have people who come through the court system repeatedly because they're homeless and they're arrested for things such as panhandling, sleeping in the park or sleeping under a bridge," Lauten said. He suggested taxpayer money might be better spent if the courts steer the mentally ill into treatment facilities rather than jails.
“They go to the jail, the spend either a night or a few nights there, they're released back into the community and it repeats over and over and over again and the cost of this to the community is in the millions of dollars. Maybe as much as 30 million dollars a year,” Lauten said.
The focus on possible reforms to the court system is part of a larger effort to end homelessness in Central Florida. Over the past year, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness has taken steps towards moving homeless people from the streets to permanent housing.
The commission uses a “housing first” method. The first step in the method is to find a person a permanent place to live, then treat the underlying issues that led to homelessness, which is often mental illness. “As a region we’ve made great strides for homelessness but we also have miles to go before we end chronic homelessness,” Lauten said.