The ministry’s staff held a Town Hall meeting to address the issue of homelessness in West Orange County.
Donations of food items keep the pantry stocked at Matthew’s Hope, but lately the homeless ministry has had trouble keeping those pantry shelves full.
Founder Scott Billue says the number of homeless individuals and families is on the rise and it’s difficult to keep up with the demand.
“We average three new people a week normally, and we’ve been averaging 10 new people for seven straight weeks in a row,” Billue said. “It’s mind-boggling. … Imagine your family growing by seven people overnight. When you add 70 new people that quick, it just clears the shelves, clears the bank account rather quickly.”
Local communities need to be prepared for “the incoming tsunami of homeless people,” Billue said.
“We’re shoving more and more people out into the streets and into the city with all the development,” he said. “I’ve been saying this more often — our streets are going to look like downtown Orlando if we don’t come together and do something about it.”
Billue held a Town Hall meeting Saturday, May 4, at the Winter Garden Elks Lodge to inform the public about Matthew’s Hope and provide some dos and don’ts when dealing with homeless people. About 50 residents attended the meeting to ask questions and to learn.
“There were a lot of concerns about the local municipalities working with us instead of just taking people to jail,” Billue said. “We expressed that we’ve had better relationships at times. With the growth in Winter Garden, we don’t have the contact and the interaction that we used to have with them.”
Interaction with the city of Ocoee is almost nonexistent, he said.
“If I was working for the city, I would want to know a whole lot more about us,” he said. “I’d want to know what’s available and how we can be a resource. Nobody from the city has been here since we opened our new location.”
Attendees were warned to not give homeless persons money.
“There’s no reason with all the resources there are in Orange County to help the homeless that anybody should be giving them money,” Billue said. “There are a lot of people who are not aware of the extent of our services.”
Many at the Town Hall meeting shared their concerns about the lack of shelter, affordable housing and jobs.
“There was a lot of frustration expressed over the lack of low-income housing, and they don’t think the city is giving any consideration to it,” Billue said.
“With all the development, if you see a bear or a bobcat come out of the woods, wait a few minutes and you will see a homeless person or a homeless family come out.”
— Scott Billue, Matthew’s Hope founder
Many expressed an interest in Matthew’s Hope’s latest plan to offer extended mental-health services.
“We will keep the conversation going, and I or staff will be available to come to their church, come to their business, their club, their civic group and talk about how they can help and things to look out for,” he said. “There definitely was a desire from the people there to stay in the loop and want to know more.”
Several attendees said they and their families have lived in Winter Garden for many years and noticed a dramatic reduction in homeless people when Matthew’s Hope first was introduced to the community. They said they are beginning to see more of them on the streets again.
“It’s affordable housing, it’s jobs, it’s education, it’s mental health,” Billue said. “There’s nothing new here, the numbers are just getting bigger. … We don’t have big employers, we have a lot of small businesses that are hiring a few people at minimum wage.”
A HAND UP, NOT A HAND OUT
Matthew’s Hope owns seven duplexes and seven houses available for homeless folks who are willing to commit to the program.
Money continues to be an issue for the organization, and this influx of homeless individuals has created an even bigger issue.
From January to April of this year, Matthew’s Hope raised $200,000 in cash. In that same period, more than $300,000 was spent.
“Most of our money comes in at the end of the year, so we started out the year ahead, but now we’re falling behind,” Billue said.
On Tuesday service days, Matthew’s Hope’s medical staff can adequately care for about 35 people, handling everything from wound care to medications to counseling.
Funding remains a key ingredient in working with the homeless population in hopes of rehabilitating them and getting them back on their feet.
“The problem is, they’re going to be here; what are you going to do with them?” Billue said. “To pretend they’re not going to be here is lying to yourself. … We can only do so much. … I’m looking at what has happened in the last month and a half; there’s no way we can keep up.”
This new surge of homeless is one effect of dwindling resources elsewhere in the community.
“These 70 people were someplace, and someone was helping them,” Billue said. “They weren’t doing OK, they were treading water, and as other resources that allowed them to maintain having a home or a car went away, that’s when they fell into that final crack into homelessness.”
Billue stressed the importance of not giving money or hygiene bags to the homeless. Although these small bags — filled with items such as deodorant, socks and snacks — seem like a good idea, he said, the recipient usually will take out what he or she needs and throw the rest of it on the ground.
“The reality is a lot of it gets wasted,” he said. “We’re trying to create different ways that people can get more value for their philanthropic efforts.”
One of those ideas comes in the form of “pastor bucks.” Citizens can buy these pastor bucks from Matthew’s Hope and give them to the homeless instead of actual money.
“It encourages them to come to the pantry and get what they need,” Billue said. “If they bunch it up and throw it on the ground, Matthew’s Hope still has the money to help somebody. If they come in, we can help them.”
He added: “If you want to help, find a way with your time, talents and treasures. If not Matthew’s Hope, then another organization. But don’t try to fix it yourself. Don’t let your heart get ahead of your head.”