WINTER GARDEN If you have lived in West Orange County for some time and have not heard of Matthew's Hope, perhaps you live under a rock.
But you definitely have not lived on a rock or in a forest, like some people the ministry has cared for – to the point homelessness is almost unrecognizable in this area, said Matthew's Hope staff member Barry Altland.
“I've lived in Winter Garden now for 12 years, and something's dawned on me,” he said. “I was a volunteer four-and-a-half years ago and now on staff. I used to notice homeless people in this area, and now I don't ... and the only way I know they're homeless is their connection to Matthew's Hope. But the reality is they blend into our community because they get clean clothes, a haircut, showers and health care available to them. Their self-esteem is different because they know someone cares about them, and they look like another person riding a bicycle down the street. The idea of ending homelessness is not a reality, but there's an impact we're seeing now. It's the difference six-and-a-half years has made.”
But now that impact is in jeopardy: this ministry to the homeless is homeless.
Altland and Matthew's Hope founder Scott Billue said they have no concern about credit – or even the brand – but solely ensuring basic needs continue being met for those working hard to achieve self-sufficiency.
“We're optimistic; we expect that Matthew's Hope will continue,” Billue said. “It's also fair to say that if we don't find the proper location, Matthew's Hope will have to cease serving, at least in this community.”
Apart from transitional housing, all Matthew's Hope services had been based at West Orange Church of Christ in Winter Garden, Altland said. Now staff is looking elsewhere to centralize its services: medicine, dentistry, optometry, mental health, legal matters, identifications, Social Security, Veterans' Affairs benefits, food stamps, cell phones, mail, showers, a hair salon, laundry, a pantry, a preschool, a playground, Harvest of Hope Garden, a greenhouse, classroom space and a cafeteria, Billue said.
“Proximity is key: If we can keep things in close proximity, the easier it is for them to become self-sufficient,” he said. “By the time they graduate, many have a car and money in the bank, but you got to get them from A to B. In many jobs today, it's just not possible without that … to get them to the point where they do become self-sufficient.”
Otherwise, people in a rough patch would have to ride buses, bicycles or even their feet a long way to ensure their needs are met, Billue said. This would make it harder for Matthew's Hope to help them train for and then find new work with community partners, such as Skyline Janitorial, Florida Metal Craft and Lowe's, he said.
“It'd still be (in one place) in the future,” Altland said. “There are exciting opportunities out there. People are (asking), 'How can we help?' It's a discerning process but has to be a rapid one. We feel like we need to have a transition plan by mid-June.”
Although opportunities have arisen for Matthew's Hope, Altland and Billue encourage anyone with ideas to speak up, because an entire community within the community depends on it.
“People in the community often call us when they see the homeless in need, especially from their perspective,” Billue said. “Mother with a baby sitting outside the Publix? They'll call us. … Before Matthew's Hope, clusters of homeless were all over West Orange County. … Now they know each other.”
But always somebody will need the whole community's service, which has always supported and driven the ministry, Altland said.
“That's why we're filled with hope that people are going to continue to respond – they have been,” he said. “People in the community care. They recognize the face of homelessness is a lot different from seven to eight years ago. When was the last time you saw panhandlers in Winter Garden? You don't always see the results of this in your face. It's really what you don't see that's the true result … Success stories are hard to find, because they're not here – they're elsewhere; they get jobs and move on with their lives.”
For more information, visit matthewshopeministries.org or call (407) 905-9500.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected]