Orlando, Fla. — Rainbow flags, memorials and messages of OrlandoStrong lined the streets of this city in the days following a shooting that killed 49 and injured dozens of others at Pulse, a bar frequented by the city’s LGBTQ community.
Scattered throughout the community, supporting law enforcement, providing counseling and raising funds have been the city’s nonprofits and social organizations. Leaders at local organizations are cognizant that there are immediate needs to address with continued support potentially necessary for years to come.
The Salvation Army – Orlando Area Command have deployed staff and volunteers to a mobile feeding unit located just a block and a half away from Pulse and up the road at the family assistance center (FAC) located at Camping World Stadium, according to Major Ted Morris. Morris, fresh off a Friday lunch service, explained that volunteers have been stationed outside Pulse since the afternoon following the attack, serving three meals per day to first responders.
The number of professionals working the scene has diminished and shifted from city and county personnel to federal law enforcement, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Morris said. Still, The Salvation Army continued providing between 150 and 200 meals per session and had reached somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 total as of Friday.
The FAC was established as a one-stop resource for victims and families. On Sunday, the city announced that 600 individuals had received assistance from the 35 agencies on site. Local nonprofits and businesses gathered to provide visitors everything from gas cards to free flights, Morris said. Some individuals in need are too afraid to leave their homes and so FAC workers have also traveled out into the community to provide personalized assistance.
One of the primary ways the Heart of Florida United Way has responded to the shooting has been through its 2-1-1 system. The first reports of the shooting to the United Way were through texts to 2-1-1, according to Caree Jewell, director of Heart of Florida United Way’s 2-1-1 system. Once the scope of the incident became apparent, additional staffing was brought on to respond to calls, texts and emails.
The equivalent of four additional staffers were brought on daily at 2-1-1 headquarters with an additional three stationed at the FAC, according to Jewell. Typical staffing ranges from 30 on Mondays to about 20 later in the week. A special crisis specialist is also available, primarily to offer staff support.
Call volume increased modestly, by 50 to 100 calls from the typical 600-to-700 calls per day. Those additional calls have been far longer and more complex than usual, however, lasting between 20 and 30 minutes as a opposed to the typical call which lasts between five and seven minutes, Jewell said.
She predicted that the emotional toll of the shooting might reverberate for years, triggered by similar events that might happen elsewhere around the world. United Way’s 2-1-1’s role in the community moving forward will be to give individuals in need of support an outlet, she said.
“2-1-1 is here 24/7. We’re always going to be here. We’re going to be here forever,” Jewell said. “That’s going to be an important message because as other services fade away, or as time goes by and people find that they still have feelings about [the shooting], we want them to know that it’s OK to still have feelings about it and reach out.”
City officials have run the FAC, which was initially scheduled to close on Sunday, but will now operate afternoons and evenings through Wednesday. In addition to fielding 1,600 calls the day following the shooting, city officials understand the importance of community messaging, according to Julie Tindall, Orlando’s community outreach coordinator.
Social media messaging of cities such as New York and Boston have been analyzed to see how those communities were kept informed following crises. Officials in Boston were also consulted on how best to distribute funds.
Attempts on Thursday and Friday morning to visit The Center, Orlando’s primary LGBTQ center, were halted by security personnel who were denying entrance. Other LGBTQ organizations in the city have sought additional security in the wake of the Pulse shooting. Tindall attributed the presence of security and law enforcement to the shaken community and concerns of a copycat attack.
“The entire community feels attacked and I think that’s just to give more feeling of security – so individuals can feel as though they can feel safe,” Tindall said.
Off-duty police officers have been present at all Orlando Youth Alliance (OYA) support meetings since the attack, according to Michael Slaymaker, volunteer board president for the organization that serves as a community gay-straight alliance. “There could be a copycat person out there and if our job is to keep these children safe at all costs, then we have to do it.”
Police were similarly asked to oversee the pride festivities scheduled this past weekend by OYA’s Lakeland, Fla., chapter, a municipality located halfway between Orlando and Tampa.
OYA volunteers spent Sunday texting, emailing and tracking those in the program to make sure that they were safe. Some, he said, had left the bar just 30 minutes before shots rang out. The LGBTQ youth of the region have been uniquely impacted by the shooting, Slaymaker said. Many of the victims are close in age to alliance members, who range in age from 13 through 24, and Pulse has been a go-to for local youth.
“Pulse was mainly for kids in their 20s. It was kind of a right of passage,” Slaymaker said. “Many of our Orlando Youth Alliance members, on your 18th birthday, you could finally go to a gay bar. You couldn’t drink, but you could finally go to a gay bar. And so Pulse was the bar that they’d go to.”
Speaking in his office in nearby Winter Park, Fla., the Wednesday following the shooting, Slaymaker said that the alliance had held two meetings since the attack, but that some youth who probably needed to be there for counseling and support did not attend. OYA’s next course of action will be to reach out to those individuals one-on-one and encourage them to come in, Slaymaker said.
“I look to the future when my organization doesn’t have to have police presence, that our licensed mental health counselors don’t feel the need to be at each meeting and I know that’s months from now,” he said. ”The kids still need to live their lives and be bold and be proud of who they are. It’s up to as, the adults, often times to keep them safe, but they have to be bold and proud of who they are and not retreat.”
An organization predominantly focused on civic advocacy and education, Equality Florida does not have the direct services other nonprofits might have, explained Michael Farmer, statewide deputy director of development. When leaders gathered on Sunday to gauge how best to help in the aftermath of Sunday morning’s shooting, establishing a GoFundMe page emerged as the best way to leverage its 76,000 Facebook followers and email database of 250,000. The fund has raised over $5.6 million as of Monday afternoon.
Equality Florida is using the money to make emergency payments, Farmer said, with the National Center for Victims of Crime assisting with vetting need. Examples of expenditures include victim family members in Cuba who need a charter flight because there are no commercial flights to Orlando, assisting a victim’s father with the renting of a car and helping a victim’s mother ship remains to New York.
“Our strategy is to get it into the hands of who need it immediately,” Farmer said. “It’s obviously very complicated and our staff has spent many sleepless nights to put us in position to do that.”
The city also launched the OneOrlando Fund that, at last tally, had raised nearly $7.5 million. Municipal staff have been driving those inquiring how to help to the fund to give financially, according to Tindall, as donations of clothing and food would take significant staffing to sort and distribute.
Grants from the fund were originally to be administered by the Central Florida Foundation. On Friday, both the foundation and city announced that they would separate on the project. The OneOrlando Board, chaired by Alex Martins, president of the Orlando Magic professional basketball team, will now oversee the fund.
Kenneth R. Feinberg, who has served as special master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 and claims administrator for the One Fund Boston, Aurora Victim Relief Fund and Virginia Tech Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund will be a consultant to the city.
A city spokesperson explained that administrators wanted to provide funds directly to victims and that the foundation is not set up to allow for that activity. A foundation representative deferred to a press release announcing that it has started a Better Together Fund focused on helping nonprofits supporting victims and families, the LGBTQ, Hispanic and faith communities and other unanticipated needs.
Speaking at foundation offices on Thursday morning, Mark Brewer, president and CEO, explained his philosophy for the OneOrlando Fund that will now reportedly be carried to the Better Together Fund. Brewer said that it was important to push public sector money up front, saving fund dollars for the second wave of gaps, likely presenting themselves in the coming weeks, and to long-term needs.
Brewer predicted that funds would stay open for about 90 days, after which donors will turn elsewhere. Grant-making could continue for years depending on community issues and mental health needs. From the back end, the response looks a lot like a disaster fund, Brewer said, with the community currently in a crisis phase to be followed by a normalization and rebuilding.
“A hurricane creates damage and inspires people to get back to normal,” Brewer said. “This is a much more lingering disaster. This has hit at the heart and soul of the community. There’s a positive here, it’s created some really strong and important social capital that wasn’t here last week.”
Continuing the hurricane comparison, Brewer said that the same neighborly gathering of resources that might occur on a residential block following a storm is now occurring between social communities in the city that have never really interacted. Long-term projections toward a rebuild are harder to pinpoint, he said.
“In some cases we don’t know what to expect,” Brewer said. “I have to tell you, we don’t know yet what the middle of this is going to look like and we want to make sure that there is capital available for the things we can see right now.”