EXCLUSIVE: Homeless at the gates of Disney: Thousands are living in motels, encampments and even their cars – in the shadow of the ‘Most Magical Place on Earth’ amid soaring rent prices and post-pandemic unemployment
- Thousands of homeless people are estimated to be living in the shadow of Disney World near Kissimmee, Florida after falling on hard times during the pandemic
- Among them are locals as well as newcomers that moved to the Sunshine State believing their lives would improve in an area dominated by Disney’s wealth, only to find rocketing rent prices beyond their reach
- Many have moved into one of the run-down motels lining the busy US Route 192 that runs past the direction of the theme park, while others are living in encampments in the woods or even in their cars
- Forklift truck operator Demarco Jones, 40, moved into a room at the Paradise Inn with his five young children and girlfriend after being forced into debt and losing his Winter Park apartment when his work hours were cut
- Steve Rumph, 50, told DailyMail.com he had also lived in the motel before deciding to move into his beat-up 2006 Lincoln Towncar – which he finds more comfortable – stationed at the parking lot of a Wawa
- Rumph lives off disability benefits but said he has also resorted to a drastic way to make ends meet: ‘I’m starting to sell my plasma. I get $800 a month for four donations. I hope I can keep going with that’
- Barbie Austria, who runs the Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach, estimates ‘thousands’ live in temporary motel accommodation, on the streets and in encampments within a few miles of Disney’s gates
It’s the ‘Most Magical Place on Earth’, where millions of families flock every year to have their dreams spun from fantasy to reality.
But for thousands living in the shadow of Disney World near Kissimmee, Florida, life is far from a fairytale, and more like a nightmare of homelessness and uncertainty.
Along the busy US Route 192 that runs past the direction of the theme park, dozens of brightly-painted motels line the highway and desperate families and single residents who are falling through the cracks.
Tented encampments are springing up nearby, while in historic downtown Kissimmee people are living in their cars or in bus shelters.
Among them are the newly homeless locals, hit by the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic that saw them lose their modest apartments when their finances couldn’t recover from job losses.
Others are newcomers that moved to the Sunshine State believing their lives would improve in an area dominated by Disney’s wealthy economy, only to find rocketing rent prices beyond their reach.
They are young, old, white, black, Latino. Some have worked hard all their long lives and are stunned to find themselves facing life on the street. There is little discrimination in this dilemma.
Thousands of homeless Florida residents are estimated to be living in run-down motels or even encampments just a few miles from ‘The Most Magical Place on Earth’, Disney World Resort in Orlando
Family-of-four Derrick Spencer and Breanna Major, and their two children Kayson and Ke’ayla, have also been living in their car outside Hart Memorial Central Library, just a few miles from the gates of Walt Disney World Resort, under a tree for about a month
Derrick Spencer and Breanna Major,who has mo ved around from Arizona to Georgia in recent months after struggling financially and losing their apartment, said they came to Kissimmee in April for ‘a fresh start’
Steve Rumph, 50, who was staying at the Paradise Inn after falling on hard times, is now living in his beat-up 2006 Lincoln Towncar which he says is more comfortable the the motel rooms
The car, stationed at a parking lot of a Wawa convenience store, is crammed with Steve’s belongings; shirts on hangers, pillows, other assorted clothes, bags
Within eight miles of the gates to the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s corporate stamp begins to make its mark on US Route 192.
The motels all have their signs encased in identical purple and gold supports, while bus stops feature extravagant shelters with the same Disney color scheme.
They offer basic sanctuary, but for the majority of people it is only temporary. Most motels enforce a two-week maximum stay to avoid any claim of residency. And they are no longer particularly cheap – charging between $1,200 and $1,400 a month.
However, they are still below median asking rents in the Ofrlando-metro area which have risen 57 per cent to an average $2,295, according to apartment listing website Dwellsy.
Opposite Medieval Times – a castle-themed venue featuring dining and displays of jousting on horses – sits Paradise Inn. It’s unlikely to receive many tourists; its major clientele are the desperate or disadvantaged.
Windows are broken, exterior hallways need a coat of paint, laundry appliances are in the open public areas.
Forklift truck operator Demarco Jones, 40, moved into a room there with his five young children and girlfriend Monica Garcia, 32, after losing his two-bedroom apartment in Winter Park, 25 miles away.
Among the dozens of motels lining the highway leading to the famous resort complex, is the Paradise Inn motel whose major clientele are the desperate or disadvantaged
Forklift truck operator Demarco Jones, 40, his five children and his girlfriend are among the homeless guests living at the Paradise Inn after the pandemic forced the father into debt and he was no longer able to afford his Winter Park apartment
As rent prices skyrocket in Orlando, motels in the area are also no longer particularly cheap – charging between $1,200 and $1,400 a month
Conditions at the motel – where some units have broken windows, exterior hallways need a coat of paint, and laundry appliances are in the open public areas – are not ideal for a father and his young kids
‘My hours were cut in Covid and that forced me into debt,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘I got badly behind with my bills and when my hours returned I had so much to catch up on it was almost impossible.
‘I had to take responsibility. I had a nice apartment, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and I paid $1,300 a month. But I had to leave, no choice. That was two months ago.
‘It was hard to leave but I just had to pack up and go with the five kids,’ Jones added. ‘My youngest is three and my oldest is 12.
‘We caught an Uber and went to one place, but it turned out they didn’t have rooms for us. So we tried some place and got in for a while.
‘But we did a lot of hopping around, most places only let you stay two weeks. But when the manager here saw I had five children he agreed to let us remain longer.
‘This is obviously not how I want to live. It’s not what I want for my kids. My plan is to get out. I’ve got some momentum, I’m going to try for an apartment.’
Along the freeway at a Wawa gas station, 50-year-old Steve Rumph sits sweltering in his beat-up 2006 Lincoln Towncar on a 96F degree day in May.
The car, crammed with Steve’s belongings; shirts on hangers, pillows, other assorted clothes, bags, is now his home.
Rumph told us he is a former marathon runner, has a degree in criminal justice and did a year at law school before leaving for personal reasons. He also suffered from a serious leg injury which makes mobility difficult.
He said he moved back down to Florida from New Hampshire last year with his girlfriend and stayed in the Paradise Inn, paying $1,200 a month.
However, he said a coat containing all his identity documents and $1,600 was stolen from the vehicle when he went to pay for gas at the Wawa where we found him parked around the back.
‘I had no choice. It was live in the car or nothing. I’d lost everything,’ he said, talking with resignation and a sense of acceptance. ‘My girlfriend didn’t want to live in the Lincoln so she ended up going to a homeless camp.
‘I had stayed at the Paradise Inn but I was disgusted with my room. There were cockroaches everywhere, mold on the bed and large stains on the mattress. There were even large gaps under the door where lizards or spiders or anything could come in during the night.
‘They gave me what they called the cheap rate of $1,200. But it was a waste of money. I feel comfortable in my car. It’s a nicer place to be than a motel like that.’
Rumph lives off disability benefits but has also resorted to a drastic way to make ends meet.
‘I’m starting to sell my plasma,’ he said. ‘I get $800 a month for four donations. I hope I can keep going with that.’
In the parking lot of Hart Memorial Central Library in downtown Kissimmee, a battered blue Chevrolet Impala sits under the shade of a tree. One of the wheels is a donut spare. The Chevvy is home to a family of four.
In historic downtown Kissimmee, homeless people are living in their cars or in bus shelters
While the Kissimmee-Orlando area is known for its Disney World resorts and wealthy tourist economy, homeless encampments have been popping up not too far away from the region as rising rent prices and economic downturn has seen an increase in homelessness
Battling the afternoon heat inside the car is Breanna Major, 23, husband Derrick Spencer and their children Kryson, four and Ke-Aula, three.
The couple moved to the area in April from living with family in Albany, Georgia. They previously had apartment in Surprise, Arizona, which they lost in their struggle to keep on top of their finances.
‘We came to Kissimmee to have a fresh start. To see what it had to offer,’ said Breanna. ‘Trying to spot different places that would be suitable for a family. Trying to find great schools to put the kids in, find great jobs.
‘We’ve been trying to find an apartment, but not having a stable income has put that on the back burner.
‘We’ve had to live for today and wait for what happens tomorrow. Our priority is trying to make sure we have food and be able to clean ourselves, to be able to function like a normal person. The little money we do make is already gone.’
Spencer works as a landscaper and Major said she is due to graduate her online course in healthcare management from Ultimate Medical Academy in Tampa within weeks.
‘We’ve been in this parking lot for about a month now, under the same tree for shade. Although our car is now really working right now,’ she said.
‘Our radiator is leaking, so it’s running hot and overheating and then the battery is consistently dying. It has AC but we don’t use it because that means using gas.
‘So we are going to sit here in the parking lot and try to figure out a game plan to help save money a little bit faster.’
Navy veteran Clifford Morley, 64, and wife Genny, 53, almost resorted to living at Orlando International Airport when they found themselves facing life on the streets after owning a two-bedroom house
Clifford eventually sought help at Osceola Christian Ministry Center which introduced him to Barbie Austria who runs her own support group, Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach
‘You can think to yourself, what am I going to be today, am I going to be depressed? OK, I’m living in a car but am I going to say OK, today is another opportunity? You never know what opportunity you’re going to get that will help little by little.’
The family uses the facilities in the library to keep clean and when that closes for the night there is a bathroom in the nearby Lakefront Park.
‘Other than that, we use what we can, wipes, bottles of water – however you can keep yourself in a healthy state,’ said Major.
Barbie Austria, 61, has dedicated the past 18 years to helping the area’s homeless and estimates ‘thousands’ live in temporary motel accommodation, on the streets and in tented encampments within a few miles of Disney’s gates
‘Because we have no AC, we keep the windows open a few inches. At night sometimes we sleep with the doors open and then wake up in the middle of the night to check the surroundings to make sure no one is coming to mess with us. It is a risk we are taking, it is a safety thing. It’s that or be super-hot.’
Asked how they feed the family, Major said: ‘Pretty much we get everything from the gas station, pre-cooked or sandwiches. It’s been a while since we had a decent home cooked meal. You get used to gas station food. And water – you have hydrate a lot out here because of the sun.
‘Honestly, the kids don’t understand the situation.’
Spencer said: ‘It’s really tough living in the car, really tough, especially as a man. You have kids looking up to you. It’s a struggle every day but I manage to keep my head up high because every day is another day.
‘It kills me when the kids look at me and say, are we going in a house yet? I have to tell them that we have to wait until we manage to get enough money.
‘We’re pretty much in the shadow of Disney World and the kids want to go there. I have to keep telling them, we’ll go there one day, we’ll go there one day. And I want to make that vision possible for them because they have got a huge imagination.’
Shortly after DailyMail.com interviewed the couple, they moved to a different location.
Navy veteran Clifford Morley, 64, and wife Genny, 53, tried to live in Orlando International Airport when they found themselves facing life on the streets after owning a two-bedroom house.
But unlike Tom Hanks’s 2004 comedy film The Terminal – in which his character is stuck living at New York’s JFK airport – there were no amusing moments for the couple.
They moved from Toledo, Ohio, to the Orlando area in April for Genny’s health after she suffered a stroke and wanted to be in warmer weather.
The couple said they booked accommodation for the first few weeks in the area but lost the room and $700 deposit after their Amtrak journey hit severe delays and they arrived days late.
A homeless encampment just a few miles from the gates of Walt Disney World Resort in Kissimmee
Austria told DailyMail.com many homeless people have decided stay in the woods or streets after being unable to afford rooms at motels
‘So we went into a hotel for a week and that cost $600,’ said Clifford. ‘Then we had very little money and we went to the airport thinking we could hang out there.
‘We went to the first floor, by the car rental counters. We had to make it look like we were taking a trip somewhere, but after two days we got thrown out.
‘That left us trying somewhere, without much luck and a few days later we returned to the airport. We were kicked out a few times, yet managed to get at least 10 days there.’
The couple headed to downtown Kissimmee and began sleeping at bus stops. It was a terrifying shock to their system.
Clifford was stationed in Hawaii for four years with the Navy and spent 13 years in the reserves as a boatswain’s mate helping drive ships. He worked at General Mills in Buffalo, New York and Toledo before 16 years at the Jeep plant in Ohio.
‘We were terrified, really frightened for our safety,’ he said. ‘We cried. Because living on the street, it’s not fun. We were devastated to be homeless and living in a bus stop. It’s frightening, we felt like we were never going to make it. But we couldn’t give up.’
Genny said: ‘It was terrible sleeping on a bench, I was so sore.’
The couple said they had given their small house to their family before leaving for Florida. ‘We thought about going home and our kids would take us in, but how long could you stay there?,’ said Clifford.
Pictured: Lonnie, a resident in one of Barbara Austria’s shelters, sit in his efficiency room. Lonnie says his life has improved greatly since meeting Barbara Austria and he even has a thriving savings account
One of the many places Barbara Austria places homeless folks in Osceola County in downtown Kissimmee
Eventually, Clifford sought help at Osceola Christian Ministry Center which introduced him to Barbie Austria who runs her own support group, Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach.
‘No one his age should die on the street, especially veterans,’ said told DailyMail.com. ‘Clifford is a perfect example of the forgotten Americans who are facing homelessness here right now.’
Austria, 61, has dedicated the past 18 years to helping the area’s homeless and estimates ‘thousands’ live in temporary motel accommodation, on the streets and in tented encampments within a few miles of Disney’s gates.
‘Really, there are thousands. I’m not exaggerating,’ she told DailyMail.com. ‘We have some that just stay in the woods, and people in the streets and then people – so many of them families – in motels.
Albert Parramore, 64, who helps run Austria’s housing facility in downtown Kissimmee has been homeless most of his life
‘But the motels are now expensive, so they will probably stay a week and then they are back out in their car or on the road.’
She continued: ‘During the pandemic, when there was the rent freeze, people just stopped paying their rents and it ruined their credit.
‘So their credit rating dropped dramatically and that is something that counts against them because you must have a credit score of 640 or higher to rent.
‘The criteria to get into housing is so difficult. You have to make three times the income of your rent. You have to go through criminal background. No bankruptcies allowed. If you are in debt collection you are not allowed. Often they can find no way back.
‘All the motels requires is an ID card and money.’
Disney employees are among battling to get by in temporary motel rooms, Austria revealed. ‘But they will not talk to the media, they are too afraid of losing their jobs,’ she added.
‘I know one man, who is one of the characters on stage, who has no permanent home.’
Austria is a 9/11 survivor who was on the 5th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower when lead hijacker Mohamed Atta crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into it.
She was working as a law compliance officer but by 2003 was defined as ‘suicidal’ by her doctor. The following year she left for Florida and her mission to help the homeless.
Austria helps feed people at the Osceola center and on the streets. Additionally, for the past three years she has taken on a building in downtown Kissimmee providing 13 rooms for homeless people. They are fully furnished and the building has cooking facilities.
It is there that Clifford and Genny are now living, rescued from the streets.
A fellow resident is Albert Parramore, 64, who helps run the facility. ‘I’ve been homeless most of my life,’ he said. ‘But I’ve been here since Barbie opened it and it’s a new beginning for me and everyone else who comes here.’
Austria is blunt about the dangers facing people on the streets amid the touristy areas surrounding Disney.
Paramore, 63, of Orlando, sweeps a hallways in one of Barbara Austria’s homeless shelters. Paramore has been in the residence for three years and now runs the property
Electrical lines are joined by a Mickey Mouse shaped structure near the Walt Disney World Resort complex in Florida
‘Taking women off the streets is crucial, because they are raped, they are beaten,’ she said. ‘Most of them are too afraid to press charges because the guy will just retaliate.
‘I’m currently helping out a woman in her 30s she was stabbed six times in the back and left for dead. The guy almost gouged an eye out.’
In contrast to that horrific story, Austria points out a less dramatic but no less significant illustration of the homelessness gripping the area.
Walking with her along Kissimmee’s elegant Broadway, visited by a steady stream of visitors enjoying the coffee shops and businesses housed in historic buildings, she reveals: ‘This area is very popular for those without home.
‘Many people won’t immediately notice it, but there are a lot of homeless here trying to look like tourists, so they can just hang out, pass the time, stay out of the sun. Or just feel normal.’
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