A woman's story reflects the rise of homelessness in Central Florida
After 10 years of being homeless, Angelique Miller is grateful for — though not yet comfortable with — her small apartment.
Her new home is in west Orlando, about five minutes east of Pine Hills, and every corner is clean and tidy. Were it not an air mattress in her bedroom, a rug in the living room, a chest in the kitchen, and a few boxes, the 513-square-foot unit is mostly empty.
The 55-year-old military widow said her life didn’t always look like this. She used to live “a very charmed life,” she said. In better years, she was happily married, living in Europe, and earning her master’s in ancient history.
But life took some unexpected turns.
“If you would have told me at some point in my life, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you,’ I would have laughed in your face. Telling you, ‘Not me, I know better. I’m too prepared. I’m too highly educated for this to happen to me,’” she said laughing and crying at the same time.
Before moving into this unit in late May, Angelique Miller said she would stay wherever she could. For 10 years, she bounced between her 2000 Chevy Suburban, the kindness of community, and hotel rooms when she could afford them.
Miller still drives that SUV. As she talked about the car, she tapped it lovingly, said it had been like a good friend who endured with her some of the worst times.
She said living in her car presented unique challenges. To avoid the judgment and risks of being noticed as a homeless woman, Miller moved around Orlando.
“When I was homeless, I would spend close to $500 to $700 just on gas because my car takes $87 to fill up, and it was every week I had to fill up, maybe twice a week depending on where I was driving. You're driving from one place to another thinking, ‘Where can I park? Where can I sleep tonight? Where can I go so that I don't raise a flag, where I can still keep a low profile?’ Eventually, you exhaust your places,” she said.
During that time, Miller said she was ostracized by her social circles and humiliated by strangers. She suffered physical and mental harm exposed to the elements, such as extreme heat, freezing colds, and severe weather. She recalls staying in her van during Hurricane Ian, watching horrified as strong winds violently launched splattering frogs at her vehicle, while flood water seeped inside.
As a woman out and alone in the city at night, Miller said she often feared for her safety, feeling too vulnerable to take shelter at co-ed centers. Because she doesn’t have any children, history of domestic violence, or substance abuse problems, she didn’t qualify for a number of local programs. She spent most of her days driving, looking for a place to park and exist without being trespassed, looking for restrooms, for privacy.
“I don’t want to get too complacent that I have a roof over my head, but the feeling that I can close my eyes and be safe, that I have a toilet I can use at any hour I want, that I can drink water at any hour of the night and go to the bathroom freely. You take so much for granted,” she said.
Miller is thankful she is now finally able to call her new apartment “home.” The new affordable housing complex opened its doors in late May, and Miller was one of hundreds who interviewed for the spot. She said that, for months, she parked near the building while it was still under construction to ensure she would be the first person to walk inside once it was finished.
However relieved, Miller said, she feels far from comfortable. Even though her rent is only $761 a month, it's nearly half of her $1600 disability income.
“I’m making it to the penny,” she said. “I know every month the first thing I have to come up with is my rent money, even if I’m unable to eat. (Homelessness) is a tough situation you never want to go back to.”
How it happened
Miller speaks six languages. Born in Puerto Rico, she was sent to boarding school in Europe, where she said she finished her education. She said she lived in Spain, France, finished college in Germany, worked in Italy, and traveled the world as a flight attendant.
She met her husband in Tennessee, a combat pilot for the U.S. Army. A proud and accomplished man, she said, who was also a troubled alcoholic. After he took his own life in 2002, an incident for which his family blamed her, Miller said she was left to fend for herself.
“I lived a very privileged life, very blessed. I had it all. And I lost it all. And when you lose it all it’s very hard to start from zero, but that’s what I did,” Miller said.
A distraught and depressed Miller then moved to Florida to be near the place where she and her husband had always found magic and comfort — Disney. However, living alone in Orlando was a financial struggle. Even on a survival spouse pension from the V.A., she needed a job to make ends meet.
According to Miller, the military suspended her pension when she unwittingly earned more than needed to qualify. Without that income, Miller spent years working harder than ever before, juggling as many as three simultaneous jobs at one point to afford her housing and bills.
Eventually, Miller’s knack for languages landed her an exciting full-time position she loved, hosting customers on a cruise line. She remembered this stint as one of the best times of her life, but it was short lived. She slipped and fell at work breaking both her knees, and leaving her permanently disabled.
Miller wants to keep working, but she’s older now and in pain. A long time living unsheltered left her with a number of health conditions. Miller said she suffers from skin cancer, some mental health problems, and other illnesses.
Her disability income is not enough to live on, she said, but she's scared to work and end up making “too much money" and losing her benefits again. Her “eternal Catch 22," she called it.
“Anyone can fall in hard times, but the hard reality is that once you find yourself in this situation it’s harder to get out of it,” she said. “I am not asking for an easy way out or handouts of any sort (...) I want my voice heard because I seem to keep falling through the cracks.”
The Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, an organization designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the region’s lead agency on homelessness, reported in May that the number of people found to be living without shelter has “increased by 38% in the past year and by a sobering 75% since before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This is unsheltered cases, not counting people couch surfing, staying in hotels, or sleeping in their cars.
CEO Martha Are said this spike in homelessness is due to a lack of attainable and affordable housing, forcing the most vulnerable to become unhoused or housing insecure.
“Most of the time, people feel like mental illness and substance use are the main causes of homelessness — or larger families with fewer housing options, or people with a criminal background, or maybe people who’ve had some kind of a life crisis — but what we’re able to identify now, the thing that determines how many people in your community will experience homelessness is the housing market,” Are said. “Those other things suggest whether a person is more vulnerable to becoming homeless, but those vulnerabilities do not cause the homelessness.”
The problem is national, with higher rents outpacing wages and homelessness climbing, but Are said that rents increased faster in Orlando than anywhere else in the country last year.
According to HUD, rents in Orlando have skyrocketed by nearly 40% since 2019, yet wages have remained virtually stagnant. Coupled with the highest inflation in the nation, people who were already living on low and poverty wages faced real financial emergencies.
An Orange County public records request showed, 2022 saw record-high eviction filings, more than it had seen in the last 10 years. Are said Central Florida is going through a housing crisis.
“Whenever the rent (median) goes up by $100, you’ll see a 9% increase in your homeless population,” she said.
Are said, for some, a rent median increase might mean making sacrifices like cutting back on other expenses to make ends meet. But, according to the Florida Housing Coalition, for nearly half of renters in several Central Florida counties it could mean displacement.
Are said her organization found an alarming increase in mothers with children facing homelessness this year, as well as older adults in their senior years, and women aged 55 or older. People who, up until now, had managed to hold on.
“We found that 75% of the people we’re seeing this year are experiencing homelessness for the first time,” Are said.
Miller was fortunate to get into affordable housing, one of the most consistently long term solutions to homelessness. Shawn Wilson, CEO of Blue Sky Communities, the affordable housing development company that built Miller’s new home, said the units fill up fast.
“When we’re starting construction we put up a sign, and then we literally will have hundreds and hundreds of people sign up on our website before we even start accepting applications,” Wilson said.
Are and Wilson both said consistent funding is a solution to homelessness. Mitchell Glasser, housing manager for Orange County Government, said it hasn’t been easy keeping up with rising costs amid Central Florida’s population boom.
“Florida wins a prize for being the state that everybody wants to move to,” Glasser said. “And so, it’s hard to catch up to something when 1,000 people a week are moving into your county.”
Glasser said county leaders created the Orange County Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which would collect $160 million in the next 10 years. They’ve also removed several regulatory barriers that impeded building.
Yet back at Miller’s “little place,” as she called it, her rent has already increased, even though she’s only been there four months. The apartments’ office manager said rent prices vary contingent on utility estimates and Florida Housing Finance Corporation guidelines.
It all makes Miller nervous. She said she feels like nothing is certain and has yet to feel completely at ease.
“And whether I wake up every day grateful, I’m still afraid that I would lose it. I’m afraid that I’m going to wake up from this and find myself in the same nightmare again,” she said.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.