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Homeless children, refugees in tents behind Orlando church seek help as they prepare for Hurricane Dorian

For the past two years, Kaleo Ministries Orlando has provided shelter for homeless people in Orlando, including Puerto Rican refugees displaced by Hurricane María.
ORLANDO, FLORIDA- María Rivera poses in front of the tent where she stayed with her son in the back of the Kaleo Ministries Orlando church after being homeless. [Ingrid Cotto / El Sentinel]
Published Sep. 3
Updated Sep. 3

By INGRID COTTO and JENNIFER A. MARCIAL OCASIO, Orlando Sentinel

As Hurricane Dorian approaches Central Florida, about 90 homeless adults and children living in a makeshift campsite outside an Orlando church were moved to temporary shelters, but local organizations are asking for the community and the city to help once the storm is gone.

“We have to help because right now they are in a flood zone, and with all the rain projected to fall [in Orange County] we had to look for shelter,” said Orange County commissioner Maribel Gómez Cordero.

The storm is far from over for this homeless community living in dozens of tents behind pastor’s Marcos Díaz’s home at Kaleo Ministries Orlando, which has 8 acres of land on Semoran Boulevard, 15 miles from the Orlando International Airport.

They have closed the tent city and have relocated their members to safe areas and shelters. But they will eventually be back after Hurricane Dorian leaves Orlando.

"What happens after the hurricane? Where are they going to go?” asked Gómez Cordero.

RELATED: New apartments part of St. Petersburg’s strategy for tackling affordable housing crisis

For the past two years, Kaleo Ministries Orlando has provided shelter for homeless people in Orlando, including Puerto Rican refugees displaced by Hurricane María.

Among them is María Rivera, who said she arrived in Florida shortly before the Category 4 storm hit the island, seeking medical treatment for her 11-year-old son.

The 37-year-old Puerto Rican said she initially lived with a relative, but became homeless and slept “behind a dumpster on the Alafaya Trail” with her son.

A tent behind Kaleo Ministries Orlando became their “home,” said Rivera who fears losing the stability she has achieved in the past year and a half. “[That tent]. It is the only thing that one has and it has value because one has documents, personal family photos. There is the feeling because it’s where we live... And sometimes it hurts, but I say it’s material. God provides you and I know that God is in control,”, said Rivera.

Housing ‘the real crisis’

“The real crisis is not Dorian, but the lack of affordable housing in Orlando and we know that,” admitted Gómez Cordero. “Some of the [camp] residents work. They work. Its not like they are in there doing nothing. Some work, but they cannot pay for an apartment.”

Transitioning to an apartment of their own is an expense that González Cordero says could reach $3,000 “to pay the deposit, first month’s rent,” and electric service, among other costs.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA- Pastor Marcos Díaz of Kaleo Ministries Orlando set up dozens of tents around his home and church near Semoran Boulevard to help homeless people. [(Ingrid Cotto / El Sentinel)]

Kaleo Ministries Orlando plans to establish a permanent “community center” to help homeless people transition into permanent affordable housing. The mission that will continue long after the storm leaves Central Florida is in its very early stages.

The story, first reported by El Sentinel Orlando, caught the eye of local entities including the Episcopal Church of Jesus of Nazareth in Orlando. On Monday morning, pastor José Rodríguez brought breakfast to those affected and met with Pastor Marcos Diaz, leader of the congregation.

“The pastor is doing the best he can," stated Rodríguez. “He is taking good care of the homeless, but he needs help," added Rodríguez, who offered his resources to Kaleo Ministries Orlando.

Most significantly, a partnership with IKEA could bring housing donations for the 8-acre land through a program called Better Shelter, a social enterprise based in Stockholm, Sweden, with a mission to “improve the lives of forcibly displaced persons," according to their website.

The project began in 2010 in partnership between Better Shelter, the IKEA Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and rolled out on a large scale in 2015, according to the website.

The organization said it has provided more than 40,000 shelters to refugee camps, transit sites and emergency response programs in 40 countries in Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia.

However, Rodríguez said the process will take time. Not only because that type of temporary home has not been used in the United States, but because “obtaining [property] insurance does not happen overnight,” said Rodríguez. "We have to work with the county, commissioners and we have to get funds.”

Urbander, a local organization led by Sami Haiman-Marrero “has already started the conversation with United Way” to achieve this, said Rodríguez.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA- A homeless camp in Kaleo Ministries Orlando is home for over 40 homeless people in east Orlando. [(Ingrid Cotto / El Sentinel)]

Although Orange County Government has not received a formal request for help in the three years that Kaleo Ministries Orlando has been operating, Gómez Cordero stated she has been working with pastor Díaz on the situation.

The church is located in Orange County district 4, led by commissioner Mayra Uribe, who according to Gómez Cordero has been involved in the process.

Meanwhile, Harry Pecunia, a volunteer who has been helping the ministry for almost two years, said the solution will take time and the help will be needed well after Dorian has left the state. “Most people live paycheck to paycheck. This could happen to anyone”, said Pecunia.

For information on how to help this community you can call Pecunia at 321-299-2390.

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