Southwest district tackles root causes of homelessness



Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a series about churches ministering to the homeless in the Florida Conference. Click here to read the first story, here for the second and here for the third.

Homelessness is pervasive in the Florida United Methodist Church Conference’s Southwest District, and churches are using diverse methods to help.

It might mean continuous goodwill journeys to a traditionally impoverished agricultural area hit by a hurricane.

It might mean treating the despair that exists on the next block.

It might mean tough love, teaching life skills and self-improvement to the people who believe hope is just a rumor.

In each case, the church’s leadership and congregation have rallied around some bitter real-world problems. They are finding solutions.

North Naples UMC

When Hurricane Irma’s 115 mph winds ravaged through Southwest Florida on Sept. 10, 2017, the tiny low-income agricultural town of Immokalee was ill-equipped to take such a roundhouse punch.

In an area already facing considerable homelessness—and some of it poorly disguised by families doubling or tripling up in whatever was available—most dwellings were destroyed. Uninsurable trailers were heavily damaged or gone altogether. Meanwhile, the fields—the livelihood of migrant workers—were flooded or rumpled by the wind.

It seemed like a hopeless situation.

But as Doug Durrenberger discovered, hope can always be found, even in a place like Immokalee.

North Naples UMC volunteers organize food drives for poverty-stricken residents of Immokalee.

Durrenberger, a volunteer from the North Naples United Methodist Church, has been organizing food drives in Immokalee for a dozen years. He has always been taken by the area’s tight-knit, hardscrabble nature.

Especially now, when Immokalee continues to make its comeback.

“It’s funny how people react to circumstances in life,’’ Durrenberger said. “The people of Immokalee are not only survivors, but they are so much more.

“It reminds me of the Book of Acts. When they get an extra surplus of anything, they share it. They make sure all the areas of their community get fortified. No one is hoarding anything. They disperse the supplies and take care of everyone.’’

Durrenberger said he finds it refreshing. In his career, he “serves the needs of millionaires,’’ working for a local real-estate developer to sell the lifestyle of gated golf-course communities.

“There’s quite a difference there between what they have and what the people of Immokalee have,’’ Durrenberger said. “But I think there’s a lot more joy in Immokalee. There’s less between them and God.

“They are very grateful for anything you do for them. They look you in the eye. Even if they don’t speak the same language, they have a warm heart.’’

Durrenberger said there’s the constant slap of reality, pointing out the “abject poverty’’ and “pockets of despair’’ that exist throughout the community. Even the First United Methodist Church of Immokalee was damaged and compromised in its ability to provide services. But there has also been an unmistakable spirit of people wanting a “hand up, not a handout,’’ so they can create a better Immokalee.

Durrenberger remembers a young lady involved with the Guadalupe Center, which has a mission of breaking the poverty cycle through education. She became a standout student and earned a scholarship to Florida State University. She became an educator and could have gone anywhere to teach.

She returned to Immokalee.

He also knows of Yanira Lopez, who was just 2 when her family moved from Guatemala to Immokalee. Every day, Lopez got her meals from the soup kitchen while her parents worked in the fields.

Today, Lopez manages that soup kitchen, empathizing with the citizens who stand in line, fighting back hunger, waiting in the hot sun or the cold for the meal that will sustain them for the day.

“Undoubtedly, some people don’t have much, and many don't have a home,'' Durrenberger said. “But it’s a special place. I have seen that over time.’’

When you have a tin shack or a flimsy mobile home, it’s difficult to draw a distinction between rebuilding and existing. Sometimes, you just fabricate whatever is possible, staying on the same patch of land where your parents or grandparents called home.

For those with nowhere to go, there’s the Immokalee Friendship House, which partners with Methodist churches to provide food services. The shelter provides three meals a day, including a bag lunch to take to work. The program is geared toward helping residents find independence and affordable housing.

"That hurricane was pretty severe, and the rate of homelessness in Immokalee seemed like it was off the charts,'' said Richard Wedge, a North Naples UMC volunteer. "No doubt, they got hit really, really bad.

“What I observed was a lot of people trying to stay positive. There’s a lot of work to be done. Sometimes, there’s a language barrier. It can seem overwhelming. And I can’t imagine what you’re feeling when you no longer have a roof over your head.

“With what happened in Immokalee, with all the work that has been done to make it better, to me it shows you that there’s always some form of hope.’’

Grace Church Fort Myers

The Rev. Ed Horne, the pastor at Grace Church Fort Myers Central Campus, likes to say his church is "strategically located.''

“We’re near the downtown Fort Myers area, and this church was planted in 1922,’’ Horne said. “Back then, it was a little suburb, a neighborhood. But time changed things.’’

Now it’s a transient area, bordered by the Salvation Army and a bus station, filled with a large homeless population.

In 1990, the church's sanctuary burned down. There was considerable debate on relocation to another part of town. Ultimately, the congregation voted to remain. Horne now regards that as God's work.

“God has placed people in our path to minister to … and we’re going to do that,’’ Horne said. “This is the way God works. We were put here for a reason. God is not finished with us yet.

Homeless ministry event at Grace Church, the Fort Myers central campus.

“We see God working in this area, the way He had designed. We have homeless. There are many (addiction) recovery houses in this area. We have dope houses, crack houses, and we know because our people tell us they are there. There are shootings a few blocks away. There's a lot of crime. It's a neighborhood that needs Jesus, for sure.''

Horne’s church once began a Wednesday night pot luck/Bible study event. Many homeless people attended, and there wasn’t enough food to cover the crowd. So, it got ramped up, and donations began accumulating.

It led to free breakfasts on Sundays. Then it spilled over into classes to help the addicted— “Choose Recovery.’’ The church now serves food to approximately 300 homeless people per week.

“God has shown us transformation,’’ Horne said. “People are getting off the streets. They’re getting housing, getting jobs, getting married, all kinds of things.

“Last Sunday, we had seven new people join our church. Two of them began in our homeless ministry. Now they have chosen to become partners with us at the church. Every day, we are seeing something beautiful.’’

Sarasota Crossroads UMC

Like many churches and organizations, Sarasota’s Crossroads United Methodist Church offers free food to the homeless. There’s a clothing drive. If there are needs, the church tries to fill them. No one is turned away.

Still, Crossroads Pastor Bob Suter said he never felt that approach was enough.

So, now the church has a ministry entitled “Graduation.’’ It’s one-on-one and brutally honest, a method to identify someone’s core problems and find practical solutions.

Crossroads United Methodist Church's evening expressions event.

“We were giving out hundreds of boxes of food, going door-to-door, and I think maybe we got two people to come to church,’’ Suter said. “We got to know the neighborhood better. But we weren’t transforming lives. Let’s face it, that’s why we’re here.

“In the Sarasota-Bradenton area, you can get a hot meal six times a day, anywhere you want. But that, in my view, has become an enabling ministry. A lot of churches give away food and clothing, but lives are never transformed. Our church is smack dab in a high-crime, high-prostitution, high-child abuse area with lots of homelessness. We have taken a different tact as we try to build the love and hope of Christ.’’

It’s Graduation—going from Point A (homelessness) to Point B (productivity). It’s more of a hand-up than a handout.

“It’s very personal,’’ Suter said. “It’s ‘What do we need to fix? What do we need to do? How can we get you a job? How can we restore your family?’

“Now it’s risky. Because a lot of people would prefer to just go to the place for free food and not have anyone work on their problems. But we take on people who are willing to get better. We try to get them to make choices and make sacrifices. It’s different. And it’s not easy.’’

Suter said there a pair of equally critical guiding principles.

“You have to be intentional,’’ Suter said. “Whatever you’re going to do, you have to understand why you’re doing it and what outcome you’re seeking.

“You have to get your hands dirty. You have to remove the stones in order for something to grow. It’s the transformation of lives, the same process as making disciples, but it’s not done in a house of enablement. We’re working with people one-on-one. We stand by them. We love them. We give them the tools. But they do the work.’’

Homelessness doesn’t have to equate to hopelessness.

“Things can change for people,’’ Suter said. “We have literally seen it happen every day.’’

—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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