9 Investigates unused grants to help homeless in Osceola County

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OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - 9 Investigates learned Osceola County has sat on a pile of federal grant dollars meant to help the homeless instead of using the money to help the population desperately in need of services.

The county received nearly $1 million during the last three years to help address its homeless problem, but it only managed to help nine people with the federal funds during that period.

Officials said part of the problem is finding the homeless, but Channel 9's Nancy Alvarez had no trouble locating homeless people camped out off U.S. 192.

Under a canopy of oak trees, Michael Pinto and Scott Robinson welcomed Alvarez into their version of home. They spoke to her as their neighbors slept nearby.

“I just got out a week ago for petty theft,” Pinto told Alvarez. “Trying to survive. Trying to get into a hotel to take showers. Eat a hot meal.”

The two men have been homeless for years. 

Scott Robinson has a disability.

“Don’t think for one minute it can't happen to you. Cause it can,” Robinson said.

It's possible that both men and many others in their situation could qualify for a program designed to house and rehabilitate them. 

The problem is: They've never heard of it.

“It's baby steps,” said Niki Whisler, Osceola’s homeless advocate coordinator. “We just don't have the funding to help everyone at once.”

Whisler gave 9 Investigates the details of the program, funded by two federal grants totaling almost $1 million.  

During the last six months, the money was used to house just six people.  But before that, only three homeless people were helped with money that has been sitting around specifically for the homeless since 2011.

“Three people in two and a half years is not a lot of people,” Alvarez told Whisler.

“Well, we would hope it would be more,” Whisler responded. “Um, you know, we're very concerned about our homeless.”

Whisler told 9 Investigates the process is complicated and delays were caused trying to schedule outreach teams to hit the ground and find eligible candidates.

“They're usually not on street corners like people think they are,” Whisler said. “You have to go out in the woods and the camps and find them, build relationships with them, and that takes time.”

The people living in the wooded area where Alvarez found them asked her not to give away exactly where they are located. But Alvarez explained that they’re in the heart of the tourist corridor.

She and her cameraman parked their car at the end of a dirt path and simply walked a few steps. They saw the homeless folks’ tents right away.

“We're all over,” Pinto said. “It's not like we hide.”

He told Alvarez that there are hundreds of people who could use the help.

County officials, meanwhile, told Alvarez they are now working aggressively to track them down.

“There's people living in a chicken coop over behind Walmart,” Pinto said. “There's homeless people up and down 192. You won't have a problem finding them.”