With joy in their hearts and enthusiasm in their voices, some 300 people from various churches and denominations across Hillsborough County gathered recently in the name of social justice.
St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Brandon joined in, celebrating the 30th anniversary of HOPE—Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality—by voting to continue the fight for housing for the downtrodden, help for the elderly and second chances for young people who make bad choices.
|St. Andrews United Methodist Church filled two church pews recently for the HOPE (Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality) Convention. -Photo by Yvette C. Hammett|
This year the group hopes to also tackle the issues of mental health and addiction.
HOPE will convene its Nehemiah Action on April 1 at Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrollwood. They meet with local politicians and leaders about the issues of housing, civil citations, rather than arrests for first-time youth offenders, and the need for more elder services.
More than 1,000 people are expected to attend.
St. Andrews’ Justice Ministry calls United Methodists to listen in their communities for issues that need attention, issues that could change lives.
Each member of the group is asked to bring three others with them to the Nehemiah Action, so members of St. Andrews are busy now recruiting new social justice warriors to join them.
“Hundreds of leaders of diverse backgrounds from across our county are gathered tonight,” said Rev. Anthony White of Bible-Based Fellowship Church. “We are here to renew our commitment to powerfully tackling injustice in our county.
“No one congregation can do justice alone. Working together to redeem criminal justice and education systems will take all of our congregations.”
For 30 years congregations have united to do justice, proclaiming God’s love.
“We have challenged the narrative of scarcity, fear and despair,” White said.
He and Father John Tapp of Nativity Catholic Church talked about the need to improve safety and dignity for families in the county.
They spoke to how HOPE has improved the bus system for late workers, obtained healthcare services for the needy, persuaded the county to agree to millions for low-cost housing and convinced the sheriff to issue civil citations to children charged with misdemeanors instead of arresting them.
Rev. Dr. Glenn Dames of Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church spoke of the good the civil citation program does.
|Everard Smith looks at a board containing social justice issues in Hillsborough County. He was one of 300 or so attending the HOPE Convention, which focuses on housing, senior services and civil penalties as an alternative to arrest for children. The group will meet with local officials in April to work toward social justice solutions in their community. -Photo by Yvette C. Hammett|
“We know once a child is arrested, their lives are drastically changed. They are branded as criminals. We have worked to reduce arrests. Seventy percent of youth arrests were for misdemeanor marijuana. We asked local stakeholders to change the policy and give civil citations.
“We started with a one-year pilot, and today we have all but 13 first-time offenses included in our civil citations policy. It is being used 57 percent of the time.”
That means 702 children avoided an arrest.
The local policy can go further, he said, including for family disputes and second misdemeanors, something HOPE is working on.
There is still plenty to accomplish in housing, as well.
“Families struggle day to day to make ends meet. There are not enough affordable apartments and homes,” St. Andrews Justice Ministry Team member Gretchen Delsavio said.
Dozens of HOPE leaders regularly attended County Commission meetings to beseech the county to act, she said. After several motions and dozens of HOPE leaders regularly attending county commission meetings, the board approved $5.1 million of the $10 million HOPE asked for to fund affordable housing and rehabilitated housing.
It agreed to an additional $1.6 million for 2020.
“We celebrate this as a great down payment, but still need a housing fund of at least $10 million annually,” she said.
Nine out of 10 seniors prefer to live at home, but 2,000 sit on a waiting list for nutritious meals, house cleaning and help with bathing and dressing.
Over the past 10 years services have decreased in Hillsborough while the population of seniors has continued to rise. This is a big problem for 30,000 seniors who live in poverty and often alone.
More than 1,000 additional seniors are now receiving services, due to HOPE’s persistence.
HOPE leaders called for even more movement from the group, asking each to bring others to the Nehemiah Action in April.
“We are called to create the community God intended,” Tapp told the crowd at Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tampa.
A cultural shift requires consistent engagement, White said, and added. “Our community calls for us to be engaged.”
--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.