8:01 PM EST, November 29, 2011
Once again, "60 Minutes" has shone a harsh spotlight on Central Florida's ugly secret: that Orlando isn't the place where every child's dream comes true.
It's hard to dream, after all, when you're sleeping in your car.
Or in a shelter.
Or in a cheap motel room that your parents might not be able to afford another night.
Yes, in the shadows of Cinderella Castle lurks the ugly reality of an economy built on low-paying jobs and now-stalled growth: widespread poverty.
The world may gasp at the growing number of homeless children in America's playground. But this is not new.
This newspaper and this column have highlighted these issues for years.
I have taken you to the Coalition for the Homeless, where the number of little girls staying at the shelter is so large, a Girl Scout troop is actually based there.
We have been to food pantries where working parents who can't make ends meet are so ashamed they avoid eye contact with others.
And we have visited a faith-based charity in Casselberry that provided food to a family whose grocery money was diverted to pay for mommy's cancer treatment.
The stories are everywhere. They always have been.
This is Orlando's reality. And it's far more complicated — and widespread — than the downtown panhandlers who get the most attention.
On Sunday night — when "60 Minutes" aired its second segment on the plight of homeless children in our own backyard — 295 children slept at the coalition's shelter.
The average age was 8.
The number of kids is nearly 20 percent higher than the year before.
It is what the coalition's director, Brent Trotter, defines as Central Florida's "new normal."
"It's like a tsunami," Trotter said of the lengthy recession. "It just keeps coming."
The good news is that this community is full of passionate people.
They toil in low-paid jobs in the nonprofit sector. They gather in church circles and prayer groups to adopt families. Many are volunteers who donate the precious commodity of time.
We have seen grand gestures, such as First Baptist Church of Orlando responding to the first "60 Minutes" segment by pledging millions to help those in need.
And I have met individual readers in the lobby of the Sentinel who were so moved by a story that they wanted to donate everything they could: $20 and a bag full of gently used clothes.
The problem is that, as a community, Central Florida is better at reacting compassionately than planning proactively.
This is particularly true for our leaders.
They are quick to pass new laws meant to punish the beggar or imprison the Samaritan who hands out too many meals in a public park. But they have been slow to embrace the kind of big-picture thinking that might address these problems in the first place.
Leaders in other communities have done better, developing comprehensive solutions that involve job training, mental-health counseling, child welfare and a dedicated stream of money to make it all happen.
Central Florida, however, has struggled.
Poverty simply hasn't been as much of a priority as new NBA arenas and rail systems.
So for now, I'll continue to put more faith in the individuals and grass-roots groups already making a difference.
Make no mistake: It won't be enough.
It hasn't been so far. And children will remain hungry and homeless in our midst … until the next time a national news crew steps in and spurs a call to action.
But at least it comes from the heart.
If you're looking for more ways to help, check out my blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/takingnames.
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