DeSoto County is reflective of the “Old Florida” consisting of orange groves and cattle ranches. The county has a population of approximately 35,000 including the only city, Arcadia, with a population of about 6600. The 2010 Federal Census identified DeSoto County as the second poorest county in the state. 30% of the population qualifies under Federal poverty guidelines; the unemployment rate runs 25% above the state average. DeSoto County Schools identify close to 400 homeless students each year. The uninsured rate for health care insurance is about 30%.
Arcadia has a successful downtown district primarily consisting of antique shops that attract many visitors. In 2013 a number of homeless individuals began loitering in a downtown park that caused concern.
A series of community meetings to address homelessness began in November 2013 and continued into the early part of 2014. These community meetings involving more than sixty participants discussed homelessness in DeSoto County, the lack of services, and possible community responses. A core group of volunteers, consisting of community organizations, church members, and other interested individuals, continued exploring options with monthly meetings throughout 2014. Eventually a plan developed to provide basic services to chronic on-the-street homeless people. A volunteer Board of Directors was formed.
DeSoto Cares Homeless Services began operating under the initial auspices of the Arcadia Housing Authority Foundation. Volunteers formed a team to go into the homeless encampments located around the county. They assessed need and responded as possible with assistance from local charitable organizations and churches. In 2015, DeSoto Cares Homeless Services began the process of attaining a service center for showers, laundry, mailboxes, phone and internet access, and referral services. In December 2015, the service center opened in rented space at 159 South Orange Avenue in Arcadia. DeSoto Cares Homeless Services became incorporated in April 2016, and became a 501c3 organization in July 2016.
The service center, staffed by volunteers and currently open three days weekly, is a day program for homeless people to access basic services: showers, laundry, personal care items, clothing, individual mailboxes, phone and internet availability. Volunteer case workers are available to assist individuals to attain identification cards and access community services and benefits.
Continuation and expansion of services is contingent on adequate funding. DeSoto Cares Homeless Services benefits from generous but limited financial support from individuals, churches, and community organizations. The core group of volunteers provides the services and keep the operations functioning. The organization collaborates with regional and state homeless services providers and advocates.
The mission of DeSoto Cares Homeless Services is “to seek solutions and coordinate services for the homeless and to transition individuals out of homelessness when they seek it.” Future goals are to provide for shelter and housing needs as well as adequately address systemic causes of homelessness.
Any financial funding that is available and offered will be greatly appreciated and consciously utilized.