You can find opulence in Volusia and Flagler counties. The picture-postcard communities along the Atlantic Ocean hint at Florida’s magnetic Chamber of Commerce qualities.
In the midst of all that seeming perfection though, you can also find homelessness, whether it’s someone begging on a beach-way street corner or curling up for the night along the boardwalk.
|Volunteers for Halifax Urban Ministries serve meals with joy.|
But in the greater Daytona Beach area, there’s a success story to be told. According to the Volusia/Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit agency, the area’s homelessness has decreased by 70 percent since 2012.
Buck James, executive director of Halifax Urban Ministries, said a tireless coalition of six United Methodist churches has been at the forefront of improved conditions.
“The collaboration has been amazing,’’ James said.
The bywords? Teamwork and prevention.
Under the Halifax umbrella, Coronado United Methodist Church, Covenant United Methodist Church, Daytona Beach Community United Methodist Church, First United Methodist Church of Ormond Beach, Riverview United Methodist Church and Tomoka United Methodist Church have partnered to provide food services and shelters.
But there's more.
The churches are actively involved in homeless prevention. That could mean working to reduce a family's grocery bills or helping with other necessities, so there are more resources for housing costs. That could mean assistance with past due rent or utilities, along with financial education programs.
“Of course, all of our churches have food pantries because we believe if we reduce the grocery bill for a family living on the edge financially, it’s going to help them stay in their housing,’’ James said.
“What we do is very similar to health care. It’s always less expensive—with better outcomes—to do prevention and keep people out of the emergency room. Our first line of defense to prevent homelessness is to get those grocery bills down. Prevention is a critical piece of the puzzle.”
That can sometimes require creativity to find solutions.
“We had a single mother of two teenage children with a good job, a home health nurse, but it required her to drive around various locations and serve her patients. Well, her transmission went out. That’s a couple thousand (dollars in repairs). She didn’t have that money,” James said.
“So, our (churches) got together. When she paid for the transmission, we picked up her rent for a couple of months. That got her over the hump, and she's fine. That's why this is such a battle. A hard-working, well-meaning person can come to the brink of homelessness with one event.''
Daytona Beach Community UMC supports a wide-ranging program called “Family Renew Community’’—bringing together churches, businesses, civic and charitable organizations.
It has hit home.
There was a teenage mother, once homeless, unemployed and without a high-school diploma. She has since become a certified nursing assistant while moving into a two-bedroom home with her toddler.
There was a kindergartner who was living in a minivan with his father, mother and five siblings. Focusing on school was difficult. Since being mentored, though, the child now talks excitedly about becoming a scientist.
There was a stay-at-home mother, whose breadwinning spouse abruptly departed and put the family at risk. With some help during the transition period, she found a job and kept a roof over her children’s heads.
A recent report from Family Renew Community’s program showed 96 percent of its families were stably housed.
Overall, Community UMC has a vibrant outreach to the homeless, including a food pantry and clothing ministry. In recent times, its homeless population was surging. But before some difficult decisions needed to be made, its fellow churches stepped in for assistance.
"We held a combined conference, and the Community pastor (Ken Zimmerman) expressed that his church was being inundated by (an increase in) homeless,'' James said. "They were struggling financially to keep up.
"As an end result, each of the churches upped their food (donations) to provide there. And we came up with a financial contribution to Community so it could finish in the black.”
Community UMC is aptly named for what it means to the area it serves. When people combine forces for good, amazing things happen.
“We're all in this together. I think we've helped the issue of homelessness through creativity and teamwork,” James said. “It's like they always say, you're always stronger when you do something together instead of separately.''
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer in Tampa.