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Not a homeless shelter – a village

Not a homeless shelter – a village

Resident Fred West working at his new job. Photo by Open Arms Village.

OCALA – Open Arms Village, which is housed at St. Mark’s UMC in Ocala, first opened its doors in May of 2015 with the goal of guiding homeless men toward self-sufficiency and a better life. The program is designed to equip residents with a place to live while learning life skills and independence. Two residents recently graduated and they have gladly shared their testimonials on the Open Arms website.

Gary Janis expresses his appreciation during his exit interview. Screenshot from Open Arms Village.

“It started out to be the toughest year of my life and ended up being the best,” explained former resident Gary Janis. Janis was the first person to check into OAV. He graduated from the program in January this year, but before taking off to establish a new life he recorded a video exit interview.

In his video, Janis described what the OAV program meant in terms of turning his life around. “You can save money for starters. All the people supplied us with food. You get spiritual guidance. It’s just a bunch of great people,” he said.

Through the program, Janis experienced radical hospitality in the form of opportunity. OAV provided him with essentials: shelter, laundry, bathroom facilities and a place to sleep. The program was more than a homeless shelter where Janis could catch up; it was a chance to get ahead.

Every resident who comes into the program works with a case manager to develop a written plan for overcoming homelessness. There are rules, expectations and goals that residents set out to achieve. The dorm room accommodations for 20 men require patience and cooperation. The result is access to privileges that can help them succeed as well as a sense of empowerment.

Executive Director Laurie Whitaker explains that one of the elements of the program is that the men must gain employment, so that during the day they are either at work, or looking for work. They have the ability to come and go but the 10 p.m. curfew is enforced unless their job shift would keep them later. The men are provided with bikes by First UMC’s Bicycle Ministry so they can get around town and to jobs.

Pastor Susan Gray (left) sees off Gary Janis (right) before he heads out to Seattle. Photo by Open Arms Village.

Would be residents must all fill out an extensive application form, which includes answering a question about what the reasons are for their state of homelessness. Whitaker said so far, the most prevalent reason is drug and/or alcohol abuse, but lost jobs, lost homes and lost loved ones also figure in.
With the tools and skills they learn at Open Arms, the graduates have hope.

“I’m scared but I’m not going to worry about it,” said Janis as he prepared to leave. “I feel as prepared as I can be. This place makes you feel very safe, but you could become complacent here if you’re not focused. It was just the right time.”

Another man, Dustin Ott, was the first graduate from the program, in December 2015. When asked about taking the next step towards independence he said, “With me only being here six months, I feel like I’ve been here for a long, long time. It’s almost like this is the only thing I know … It’s going to be a different journey because I’m actually going to be on my own. It’s like going off for college.”

Whitaker reported that there is a third graduate ready to move out once he finds an apartment that he can afford on his salary.

Open Arms Village currently has a capacity for 20 male residents with hopes to expand their program for female residents by 2017.