Pitching in for the home(less) team: North East District

A ministry in Tampa, a gift of church property in Jacksonville and plenty of prayer all played roles in a new campaign to deliver food, clothing and shelter to the homeless population in the North East District of the Florida Conference.

The United Methodist Homeless Campaign of Northeast Florida began last summer with a vision for an 18-month effort to get churches and nonprofits in the eight-county district involved in programs to aid the homeless.

Jim Young, right, with Wesley Foundation students holding manna bags

North East District community outreach director James Young, right, joins Campus to City Wesley Foundation students who packed 800 "manna bags" with supplies for the homeless. Photo from James Young.

On a broad scale, the campaign includes educational awareness and distribution of supplies for the homeless. In addition, Wesley Fellowship UMC is partnering with the nonprofit Sulzbacher Center to build a new $18 million shelter for homeless women and children in Jacksonville. 

Methodists at every level are involved, including Lenny Curry, the mayor of Jacksonville and a member of Southside UMC, Jacksonville, and Cindy Funkhouser, president of the Sulzbacher Center and member of Beach UMC, Jacksonville Beach.

Homelessness in the district, especially in Jacksonville, is a chronic problem. Data reveal women, children and families as the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Duval County officials reported more than 2,100 homeless children enrolled in schools in the past year.

"It just seemed like the right time. We had God. We had a good team," said James Young, the district's community outreach director.

As a start, all 73 churches in the eight-county district received 20 to 30 “manna bags” – an idea borrowed from Hyde Park UMC, Tampa -- to hand out to homeless men, women and children in their communities. The gallon-size plastic bags contain 15 items, including toiletries, food, socks, the Bible’s New Testament and a flier listing local social service providers.

A single donor paid $1,700 for about 1,500 bags and items. In July, college students with the Campus to City Wesley Foundation packaged 800 of the manna bags.

"Once a church gets going, then the church reproduces the bags themselves," Young said. "They become programs for youth groups, Sunday schools or United Methodist Women."

So far about 25 churches are embracing the campaign, and Young said about five or six are "red hot. It's starting to happen and people will get excited."

Among early supporters were Southside and Swaim Memorial UMC in Jacksonville and Franklintown UMC, Fernandina Beach. 

Artist's rendering of planned Sulzbacher homeless shelter from aerial view
An artist's rendering shows the planned Sulzbacher Village, a shelter for the homeless and service center for low-income families expected to break ground this spring on property owned by Wesley Fellowship UMC. Illustration courtesy of Sulzbacher Center.

More churches are being urged to join, as word spreads through newsletters, church visits and YouTube videos. The next step is to collect stories from volunteers and build a larger video library for educational awareness.

"When we're doing humanitarian aid, let's tell them about Jesus while we're doing it," Young said.

He got the idea for manna bags from Susan Gentry, a member of Wesley Fellowship, who saw them at Hyde Park UMC when she visited her daughter in Tampa.

Soon after, Young pulled a small focus group together to look at the district's homelessness issues. He brought his own knowledge to the table from more than 20 years of ministering to homeless and prison populations and posed this question: "What is God calling us to do?"

The data on homelessness among families, women and children struck home.

"That shocked us," Young said.

Manna bag distribution seemed like a starting point to encourage greater church involvement and promote partnerships with nonprofits

Around the same time, Wesley Fellowship and the Sulzbacher Center began discussions about building a new homeless shelter for women and children on about 4 acres of church property.

The nonprofit currently operates a shelter in downtown Jacksonville behind the jail. It is not considered an ideal location for women and children. Five shelters in the area tend to stay full and have waiting lists, Young said.

Wesley Fellowship, with approval from the North East District and the Florida Conference, plans to lease property to Sulzbacher Center for $1 a year for 65 years, allowing the existing downtown shelter to transition into one for men only.

The $18 million Sulzbacher Village is expected to break ground this spring. It will provide not only housing but support services to adults, including job training, mentoring and GED classes, as well as transportation to and from school for children. Low-income residents in the community who are not homeless will also receive services.

Young estimated that the new facility will allow up to 100 families to get off the waiting lists and into a shelter.

Meanwhile, a new initiative at Swaim Memorial to feed and clothe the homeless also is making a difference. It started with prayer.

Steve Painter left the business world behind to become pastor of the struggling Jacksonville church more than a year ago. Membership was declining, and he determined the church had no connection to its community.

He met with Young to search for answers.

"We rode through the neighborhood for two hours and prayed," Painter said. 

Two days later, an evening Bible study that normally drew only a handful of people, including two homeless men, suddenly had an attendance of 20.

Most were homeless individuals that lived in the woods. Over time, attendance grew until now about 40 to 50 people show up on a regular basis.

Soon after that, the church began offering a hot meal prepared by Wesley Foundation students instead of the snacks previously laid out for Bible study. Many who come for the meal also stay for worship.

The church also packs and stores manna bags that go to other churches and provides free clothing to the homeless through a ministry called Eve's Closet. Faith UMC, Jacksonville, provides laundry services.

Ray Dewitt is among those who sought help at Swaim Memorial. At first he was hesitant to come into the building.

But, in a video put together by the church, he explains why he changed his mind.

"This is like a blessing to find this little church," Dewitt said. "It was always about Jesus. I love Jesus and carry him in my heart every day."

Dave Miller, also in the video, began coming several months ago. "The church is very supportive. For me, this is my home. The church helped me get back on my feet, gave me a job and got me going in the right direction."

Collaborative ministries and other partnerships among churches, nonprofits and social services offer a multitrack approach to tackle the homeless problem, Young said. They also bring together advocates with a variety of gifts that homeless individuals and families need.

"They need the kind of people who are strong in mercy, strong in justice and strong in witness,” Young said. “It's a balanced approach when everybody gets to do what they are gifted in."

– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. Home page feature photo courtesy of St. Philip's UMC, Houston, Texas.

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