Home-in-a-box event signals birth of a ministry

BRANDON – From the road, it might have looked like a grassy field dotted with abandoned refrigerator boxes. But founders of a new ministry saw it as the promise of a dream home for families who scramble for shelter night after night.

Spencer Wilson planning to sleep in a box to help homeless
Spencer Wilson, 9,  prepares to sleep in a cardboard box to help families without homes in the Brandon area. Photos by Susan Green.
Lanie Pinson, Elizabeth Temple, Abby Wells of Limona UMC at Box Car City
From left, Lanie Pinson, 13, Elizabeth Temple, 11, and Abby Wells, 11, from Limona Village Chapel UMC say they're happy to spend a warm Saturday night sleeping in boxes to draw attention to the plight of the homeless.

“This is a God-led ministry,” said Skip Wilson, a member of First UMC, Brandon, who has been pushing to start a faith-based Family Promise affiliate in the area for nearly four years. “We wouldn’t be where we are now without Him.”

Wilson, now Family Promise of Greater Brandon vice president, was among board members who turned out for Box Car City, a fundraiser and awareness event staged Saturday, April 5, at Nativity Catholic Church.

The Family Promise program, part of a national effort, provides temporary housing for homeless families in church buildings on a rotation basis and will begin accepting parents and children in May. The ultimate goal is to get families back on their feet and into apartments or houses. Organizers say the ministry is sorely needed in Hillsborough County, where the school district has reported more than 3,000 homeless children in recent years.

About 100 people of all ages from multiple Christian denominations paid money to spend the night Saturday in a car or cardboard box. Approximately 60 more showed up for fellowship and entertainment.

Besides raising money, the event was designed to help supporters get a firsthand look at what it’s like to sleep in a box or vehicle, said Deborah Humphrey, member of St. Andrew’s UMC, Brandon, and president of the Brandon affiliate.

Participants also followed a schedule like that of homeless people staying in shelters, with mandatory “lights out” at 10 p.m. and off the property by 6 a.m. They received a sandwich and snacks in a paper sack from I Am Hope Café, which feeds homeless and needy people in the area.

Youth groups from several churches turned out for the event, including Lanie Pinson, 13, and her friends Elizabeth Temple and Abby Wells, both 11. All attend Limona Village Chapel UMC, Brandon.

“All my friends thought I was crazy,” Lanie said. “They said, ‘So what are you doing for the weekend?’ I said, ‘Sleeping in a box.’” 

The changing face of homelessness

Homeless mom with child and babyThe growing problem of homelessness is nothing new, but the mental image of an unkempt man in faded clothing huddling under a bridge or holding up a sign may be passé.

“Our most common demographic is women with kids,” said Mark Landschoot, executive director at Family Promise of Jacksonville, a faith-based organization that taps local churches to provide temporary shelter to homeless families. Eighty percent of those helped are infants and children.

“It’s Mom and little kids. … The average age is 8.”

This past year, the program served three two-parent families with no roof over their heads, Landschoot said.
But usually he sees women who have lost jobs or been abruptly thrown into the labor pool without the skills they need to support themselves and their offspring.

“Most of our families are in situational homelessness,” said Landschoot, explaining that  adverse life circumstances -- not irresponsible behavior – led to their need for help.

As in other Family Promise affiliates, participating churches open their doors on a rotation basis to provide food and shelter for a week at a time. Family Promise helps  homeless parents look for work or beef up their skills while they save enough money for security and utility deposits needed to get into an apartment.

In six years since the Jacksonville program’s startup, nearly 90 percent of families served have gotten back on their feet, Landschoot said.

“This is not your traditional shelter from the standpoint of a hot (meal) and a cot,” Landschoot said. Among the perks of having churches step into the void is that families make lasting connections; Landschoot estimated that a third of the families join one of the host congregations.

Participating United Methodist congregations in the Jacksonville area are First UMC, CrossRoad, Ortega, St. Paul, Southside and Avondale.

Family Promise has more than 180 affiliates across the nation. In Florida, there are additional affiliates in Sarasota, Gainesville, Orlando and the counties of Flagler, Santa Rosa and Palm Beach. New affiliates are gearing up in Brandon, near Tampa, and Pinellas County.
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Few of the volunteer campers interviewed knew any homeless people personally, but several young people said they were outraged that job loss is escalating the problem.

“I think it’s messed up that some people are homeless because they don’t have enough money for rent,” Abby said.

Elizabeth said she knew a family who came close to becoming a statistic.

There was someone in our neighborhood that was almost kicked out of their house because they didn’t have enough money,” she said.

Another student, Mabel Kerker, 14, and her friend, Kyra Denington, both of St. Andrew’s UMC, decided to spend Kyra’s 14th birthday sleeping in a cardboard box. Their mothers elected to sleep on an air mattress in the back of an SUV.

Mabel said she knew a student at her school who kept mum about his homeless situation while it was going on but later talked about the difficulties of trying to study, get to class, take care of a younger sibling and deal with all the requests for extracurricular fees his family couldn’t afford.

“He talked about how it was really hard, and his mom was working four jobs,” Mabel recalled.

With temperatures nearing 90 degrees, several participants said they knew they were in for an uncomfortable night. Mabel said she was excited to do it.

“It’s cool to be able to put yourself in other people’s place and see how other people live their lives for months on end,” the teenager said.

“It’s fun to get with people who want to do what you’re doing.”

As participants settled in for the evening, Kathy Brogli, the Brandon organization’s newly hired executive director, welcomed the crowd and acknowledged that they were getting only a taste of the conditions for families who sleep in makeshift shelters or their vehicles.

“They have to deal with going to bed and getting all hot and sweaty and going to work all hot and sweaty,” Brogli said. “They have to deal with not knowing their family is safe.”

Humphrey said money raised at the event will go toward computers needed to aid in job searches for homeless breadwinners and items like food or diapers for children served by the program.

Seven of the 13 churches signed up to participate are United Methodist, and across the state, Methodists provide much of the muscle behind the initiative, which is nine affiliates strong. 

Campout volunteers receive sack lunches from I Am Hope Cafe
Diana Pollard, right, of First Presbyterian Church, Brandon, and I Am Hope Café in Seffner serves Box Car City volunteers sack lunches similar to those homeless families will receive through Family Promise. Participating churches also will provide hot meals and sleeping quarters when the ministry starts next month.

In Brandon, First Presbyterian Church provides a building on its campus to serve as a daytime hub for homeless families. The church also will launch the rotation ministry, hosting up to 14 people in campus buildings overnight for the first week of May before turning hosting duties over to First UMC.

Many of the 11 host churches will turn classrooms into bedrooms, but others had plans to partition their sanctuaries.

Sue Benitez of Brandon Christian Church, who has been active in Family Promise for two years, said volunteers who stay overnight with the families will sleep in the church kitchen if necessary.

“We’re a small church, so we’re going to use every square inch,” she said. “It’s all in your mindset.”

Volunteers were invited to decorate their cardboard abodes for a friendly competition. Brogli said she shingled hers with papers bearing the single word “hope.”

“Because of Family Promise, they (homeless families) are going to have a safe place to sleep,” she told the crowd. “They’re going to have food to eat every single day … and they’re going to be surrounded by unconditional love.

“God is going to use you in mighty ways, just as He has already.”

Additional churches participating in the Brandon ministry, including those offering volunteers and other support, are BayLife Church; Westminster Presbyterian; Holy Innocents Episcopal; South Shore UMC, Riverview; First UMC, Seffner; Grace Community UMC, Lithia; and First UMC, Plant City.

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.

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