How Orlando’s Bold Efforts on Youth Homelessness Generated New Approaches
March 19, 2024
How Orlando’s Bold Efforts on Youth Homelessness Generated New Approaches
March 19, 2024

By Colin Murphy, Senior Writer

Innovative work from leaders in Orlando, Florida is helping to address one of the toughest issues facing many cities across the world: youth homelessness.

A 2022 participant in the Innovation Training Program, led by the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University and supported by the Centre for Public Impact, the City of Orlando convened one of its most diverse groups of city officials and community members to take on the challenge of youth homelessness, which impacts hundreds of people in the state of Florida every day.

Their work to employ innovation across the city has resulted in $8.3 million in new federal support, a robust set of data points to help guide decisions, and a new approach that includes inviting impacted youth to meet with the mayor and leaders to design solutions.

How did Orlando grow support for its efforts to provide help for the city’s youth? Here are four opportunities Orlando was able to seize through its new commitment to innovation:

1. Community-based partnerships helped unlock new opportunities for listening 

Orlando’s team built support for its approach as it went. They partnered with service providers from the local to the regional level, such as the Homeless Services Network, which addresses homelessness in the three counties surrounding the city, for connection to known youths experiencing homelessness.

Before long, they brought young city residents with lived experience directly onto the project team, and later into a meeting with Mayor Buddy Dyer and his senior staff. Because young residents were providing their time and input to co-create solutions, they were paid as subject-matter experts – a tangible manifestation of the equity lens Orlando’s leaders were striving to use in their practice.

With support from the Mayor’s office and stakeholders throughout the community, the team was able to take its knowledge from research and scoping into the ideation and piloting phase, and again residents were at the center of this process.

2. Stakeholder voices helped create an addressable focus through co-creation

Through hours of interviews with dozens of community members, the team learned what young people experiencing homelessness feel they need most.

“We had some really profound moments because of [our research and interviews],” said Michael Hess, a member of the team as Orlando’s Director of Sustainability, Resilience, and the Future-Ready City Initiative. “We had a gentleman who talked about growing up homeless with his mother and not wanting to feel like a burden and at one point had a suicide letter written…I’ve got these stories of young people who talked about that day when they turned 18, got kicked out of their house and weren’t ready for the world. They talked about how that felt and what that was like. Those stories really stuck with me and our team.”

From these stories, the team knew they’d have to address the specific needs of people transitioning into adulthood. At age 18, residents are not eligible for youth services, but they often are not fully able to manage all of life’s demands, especially when they have experienced trauma, have no parental presence, and/or have no trusted home; a shelter for adults can be a vulnerable situation for very young adults.

3. Innovation approaches helped build a multi-level partner network 

Once the team clearly identified the population they aimed to assist, they were able to pilot solutions through partnerships and leverage their research and testing into broader successes.

First, the city’s team partnered with Valencia Community College to allocate residences to a dedicated dormitory-style living situation that provides not only a place to live, but wraparound case-management services in the form of a resident advisor/mentor, mental health care, and a peer community.

Another idea generated through the co-design process was using food as a vehicle for mentorship. Through cooking classes, youth experiencing homelessness were joined with mentors and cooks and provided a kitchen co-op space as a way to connect while learning everyday food preparation skills.

As the team continued to engage the community and generate ideas and solutions together, they informed a larger process – and a multimillion-dollar success – for the Homeless Services Network (HSN). The HSN, a regional organization that combats homelessness in the three counties surrounding Orlando, had tried unsuccessfully for five years to secure a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would help fund their ongoing efforts to alleviate homelessness in and around Orlando. 

With its connection to the City of Orlando’s team, and the equity co-design work both entities performed jointly throughout the year, HSN’s 2022 application was more robust in its planning and detail than ever before. In October of 2022, a HUD grant of $8.3 million was awarded to the tri-county area surrounding Orlando.

Lisa Portelli, Advisor to the Mayor of Orlando on Homelessness and Social Services, said the grant will continue to support efforts to combat youth homelessness, and securing the grant was a sign of how well the city and HSN came together to design solutions through an equity-based, community-engagement lens.

“Great things are going to happen from [the grant], for sure,” said Portelli.

4. City departments breaking down silos and activating collaboration

Portelli has worked in social services for 35 years and was part of the Innovation Training Program as a subject-matter expert. She said one notable outcome of the program was the creativity and cross-departmental collaboration it sparked for so many city workers.

“It was such a unique and innovative way to engage city staff on an issue,” Portelli said. “That was a wonderful thing, to have more of my city colleagues who really understand the issue and care and are concerned. It was a really great opportunity to do that and diversify our perspective.”

Janel Jacobs, a member of the team as the city’s Digital Innovation and Services Manager, agreed, saying the human-centered design approach has transformed the perception of city government for residents.

“It has a big impact, because in the end I think people just want to be heard,” Jacobs said. “The stakeholders in the community saw that, and they were very eager to be part of this project with us and excited that the government was really listening to them. I think that’s something you don’t hear, usually. [The view of] traditional government is, ‘They’re out to get me and out to get my money.’ But it was a complete turnaround. We weren’t de-listening. We were going to take what they said and take action on that.”

While the city’s work to address youth homelessness will continue, its capacity to tackle separate challenges and ideate possible opportunities has been enhanced by the community-engagement methods and human-centered design techniques they honed through the Innovation Training Program this year. The team intends to use the same approach on issues ranging from the digital divide to energy sustainability to digital services to infrastructure resilience.

Said Hess, “We are replicating [the approach] already around some of our other projects around digital divide and resilience, and we’re going to use what we’ve learned to build upon that internal training. [We’ll] re-launch it so that we have this deep bench of city staff that can really leverage this approach…so we can continue to replicate.”

“The beauty of the Innovation Training Program is that it builds the capacity of local governments to take on any challenge or opportunity,” said Justin Entzminger, Innovation Director at the Center at Johns Hopkins. “For complex issues or reimagining service delivery, the city teams receive training and tools to break issues down to their roots and collaborate to find solutions. We focus on problem definition and doing research with rigor and integrity. From there, it’s amazing to witness what cities create.”

About Innovation Training

Innovation Training, a program led by the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins and supported by the Centre for Public Impact, has helped more than 25 cities tackle pressing problems like expanding access to public transit and reducing youth violence through new approaches.

For more information on the Innovation Training Program, visit


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