Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the recent film, “The Florida Project,” and the story behind its development. Part two takes a closer look at Rev. Mary Downey and the organization—that, in many ways, inspired the film—the Community Hope Center. Click here to read part one.
The Rev. Mary Downey says she is “Wesleyan to the core,” so in 2011 when a Presbyterian church approached her about becoming its missions director, she at first resisted. But the Presbyterians at Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration persisted. They wanted someone with a passion for the homeless, even if she happened to be Methodist.
|Opening night for "The Florida Project" was well represented by members of the Community Hope Center (CHC). Shown left to right: Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry; Rev. Mary Downey, CHC founder and executive director; Rose Flores, CHC media coordinator; Angie Etman, CHC development director, and staff member Christian Duffield.|
Her mission was to establish a multifaceted ministry for the homeless. Downey said it took 18 months to write the business plan and find the funding. Community Hope Center in Kissimmee opened its doors in 2013. It has since helped 21,000 people.
Downey and the center played an important role in helping to develop the script for the new movie, “The Florida Project,” which shows the complex reality of homeless families through the eyes of a 6-year-old, her single mom and the manager of the motel where they live.
“She is the number one agency providing social services to those needy,” said Sean Baker, director of “The Florida Project.” Downey helped him understand the world of the homeless and the complicated interplay of politics, attitudes and issues.
“She sees her ministry as being defined as building bridges within the community and empowering the families to start new lives. I saw them as the hub. That’s why I kept going back. She was the authority.”
Hope 192, as it’s commonly known, provides social services for the homeless population that mostly live in a cluster of tourist motels along U.S. 192, which runs right through Disney World.
“It’s not just crisis services,” Downey said. “It’s long-term care and advocacy to help them move forward. We’re a poverty-alleviation organization. We empower them to become successful in their journey as children of God.”
Homelessness is a problem throughout Florida, but the problem is exacerbated in Osceola County because of low wages and a lack of affordable housing, Downey said. And there’s no homeless shelter, so people needing temporary housing move into the hotels along U.S. 192 that can cost $1,300 a month.
Many of the homeless are families. The school district has identified about 3,300 students who fit the federal definition for homeless. They include 96 who live in cars, parks, campgrounds and other temporary sites, 67 in shelters, 888 in motels and more than 2,200 living with someone else.
And that’s just the kids.
Most of the people who seek help at Hope 192 are in survival mode, Downey said.
“The first thing we have to do is build enough trust that we can help them shift out of survival mode. It is very difficult to move forward, to make it to the next step,” Downey said.
“They don’t make the best choices from a middle-class perspective. We put the onus on them, but if we had higher wages, affordable housing, support for single moms, maybe they wouldn’t be in the situation.”
Hope 192 works with a staff of 14—including a Methodist chaplain—and partners with more than a dozen nonprofits and social service agencies that help people apply for government assistance, get identification documents, find training and work and receive counseling.
Financial and other support comes from numerous community groups and churches, including the Florida Conference, Community of Faith and First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee, as well as Baptist and Episcopal congregations. It also counts Disney, Gatorland and Gaylord Palms Resort as its partners.
|Child actress Valeria Cotto, playing the part of Jancey in the film "The Florida Project," receives direction for a scene on location in the Orlando area. Director Sean Baker stated that he hopes the film helps bring change to the plight of homeless families.|
Osceola County’s homeless problem is particularly jarring because it is in the Magic Kingdom’s backyard—an irony that Baker uses in the film. Disney has been a generous supporter of homeless initiatives.
In 2015, Disney gave $500,000 to the Homeless Impact Fund, established by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, to help families in Orange and Osceola counties. The same year, Disney gave $40,000 to Hope 192.
The following year, Bank of America named the center the 2016 Neighborhood Builder and awarded it a $200,000 grant.
Sizable donations like that “change the dynamic of the agency,” Downey said.
The Florida Conference recently offered Hope 192 use of the old Shingle Creek church property, which closed in June after 152 years of service.
“It was the oldest church in Osceola,” Downey said. “I’ve always felt very called to that church. I used to substitute preach there; and every time I walked in the door, I felt like that church was part of my ministry. It didn’t make sense to me at the time. But if we can use it to expand our ministry and continue the vision of the congregation who started that church, that would be so humbling and amazing.”
“The Florida Project” is introducing the work of Hope 192 to an even larger audience. Downey said they have already received $3,000 from people who saw early screenings of the film.
Baker said he hopes the film motivates people to act. “It doesn’t have to be donating money, but I hope they get involved, become an advocate for the people in their community,” he said.
“God is being so good to us,” Downey said. “God has already used this movie. It’s not easy work that God puts in front of me. Every time I’m overwhelmed and exhausted, God reminds me that this is His work.”
The Florida Conference is sponsoring a screening of the film at the Polk Theatre in Lakeland on Friday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. To purchase tickets, click here.
--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.
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